Saving ShilohReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/12/06 14:26:19
Before the screening of “Saving Shiloh,” the third in the series of films based on the children’s books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor about a cute kid, his cuter dog and his not-cute-at-all neighbor, I got into a conversation with one of my colleagues–modesty prevents me from mentioning him by name but he is so well-known and powerful that even Fox shows him their films in a timely manner. Anyway, I made some comment about what a third “Shiloh” film could possibly have to offer viewers this time around. The first film, 1997's “Shiloh,”you will recall, involved a kid who rescued an abused dog from his cruel neighbor and, through love and tolerance, both boy and beast taught the ogre valuable lessons about kindness and decency. The 1998 sequel “Shiloh Season,” which you may not recall quite as well as the first, featured the same kid, dog, neighbor and lessons about kindness and decency. Seeing as how each of those films ended with the grump supposedly reformed, only to revert to his earlier crankiness in time for the next one, I questioned the need to see him learn yet another valuable lesson.In response, my colleague offered up a quotation from the famous scene in “Citizen Kane” in which political opponent Boss Gettys, having discovered Kane’s affair with Susan Alexander on Election Eve, cooly informs Kane that he will use this information to ruin him–“He’s going to need more than one lesson and by God, I’m going to give them to him!” or something like that. (Sadly, I can’t lay my hands on my copy of “The Citizen Kane Book” at the moment to double-check.) Actually, he didn’t just offer up the quote, he virtually re-enacted the entire scene. In response, I offered up a couple of quotes from the equally classic “Jaws.” He volleyed with a bit from Elaine May’s “A New Leaf” and I parried with the immortal line from “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai”–“No matter where you go, there you are.” Just then, the lights began to dim and I was unable to cite the equally profound “You know, if there’s a God, I’d sure like to meet the dude” from “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.”
Now you may argue (and rightfully so) that this anecdote has absolutely nothing to do with “Saving Shiloh” or much of anything else for that matter. This is true but I am compelled to mention it for two reasons. For starters, it means that this may be the only time in the history of film criticism in which “Saving Shiloh,” “Citizen Kane” and “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” are all mentioned in the same paragraph. More importantly, though, I mention it because there was absolutely nothing in the subsequent 90 minutes of film that was able to knock it out of my mind. As it turns out, “Saving Shiloh” basically tells the exact same story for a third time and this time doesn’t even have the grace to give us plenty of adorable dog footage to make up for the fact that there is nothing new to see here–strangely, the filmmakers seem convinced that the audience for a film like this are going to be more interested in discussions of the right to a fair trial and a murder investigation than they would be in the antics of a boy and his dog.
Yeah, murder–even the bucolic Southern town where these films are set–a land where everyone knows everyone else’s name, the local general store thrives and there is nary an X-Box or Wal-Mart in sight–gets the CSI treatment here. We’ll get to that in a minute but since this film assumes that you have not only the first two installments but that you have seen them about five minutes ago, I will do my critical duty and set the scene. In the first film, young Marty Preston rescued an abused dog from the drunken and abusive next-door neighbor Judd Travers. In the second, the conflicts continued with Judd but we learned that a good deal of his behavior was the result of his own sad and abusive upbringing–at the end, Shiloh helped rescue Judd from a car crash and, touched by the sentiment, Judd vowed to turn a new leaf and become a better person. As this story opens, Marty (Jason Dolley) still believes that Judd (played once again by Scott Wilson) is capable of change but it is a sentiment not shared by the other people in town. When an abandoned car is discovered and the driver is reported missing, people immediately begin to suspect that Judd had something to do with it. Later, when the guy turns up dead and he was last seen arguing with Judd in a bar, most of the townspeople are ready to convict him on general principles.
Not Marty, though. Despite everyone else’s feelings, he remains convinced that a person really can change–an opinion that he seems to voice every five minutes or so. However, Judd doesn’t exactly help his own case very much–he seems to revel in acting weird and mysterious whenever it is necessary for him to seem suspicious and when a rash of burglaries hits the area at the exact time that he starts showing up with new stuff, even Marty is forced to consider the fact that maybe Judd hasn’t reformed. Even when the mystery is solved, Judd puts his foot into it once again–after being bitten by one of his dogs after accidentally stepping on its paw, he reacts in such a scary manner that the town seems ready to lynch him one word begins to spread around. Of course, this all just a set-up for the not-so-shocking finale in which Judd finally manages to demonstrate his newfound decency to his neighbors once and for all.
You may notice in the above description that there is little mention of Shiloh the dog and that is one of the central problems with the film–it is a boy-and-his-dog film in which the dog’s role is utterly superfluous to the proceedings. I don’t know if the dog playing Shiloh had something in his contract limiting the days he had to work on the film (like Neve Campbell had on “Scream 3") but his absence is a definite handicap to the proceedings. Instead, the film is far more obsessed with showing us that a bad person can indeed change his personality as long as people give him a chance to do so. This is a nice sentiment and one worth imparting on kids at a time when eye-for-an-eye vengeance seems to be all the rage but it doesn’t really fit in a film that is theoretically supposed to be a cute animal film. In fact Shiloh doesn’t really take center stage until the last 20-odd minutes and that entire sequence feels tacked on, as if director Sandy Tung only discovered at the last second that he needed a bit involving the dog and tacked it on after the main storyline had been completed.
This also brings me to a quibble that I have had about all the “Shiloh” films to date–the fact that Marty and his family seem to have allowed their entire lives to be taken over by Judd and his problems. Every discussion, every family meal–hell, every waking minute of their lives depicted in these films seems to be devoted solely to conversations or activities revolving around the guy. You almost find yourself wishing that at some point, one of them would just yell out “Can we stop talking about the grumpy codger next door for one minute–what about my needs?” That said, I don’t want to complain too much about the character’s omnipresence because the performance by Scott Wilson (whom you’ll recall from both “In Cold Blood” and the recent “Junebug”) is once again really impressive work–without going too far in either direction, he is able to quietly and convincingly illustrate both the embittered man that is the result of a lifetime of loneliness and abuse and the decent man that is tentatively trying to emerge from him. Take the scene in which he lashes out at his dog that I mentioned earlier. Not only does he get the scary, hair-trigger reflex response down perfectly, he also pulls off the genuine sense of remorse that immediately follows as he finally realizes just how ugly he must have seemed to others for perhaps the first time in his life.“Saving Shiloh” does have its positive aspects–a nice message about tolerance and forgiveness and Wilson’s striking work–but I can’t help but wish that those qualities might have had more of an impact in a film that was more worthy of them. This one just doesn’t quite come off because it is just too familiar for its own good, not to mention a little too goody-goody even for a kid-oriented movie. (There is no trace here of the Marty who, after hearing of Judd’s car crash, prayed for him to recover–just not too quickly.) If you haven’t yet seen the original “Shiloh,” I would recommend that you take a trip to the video store this weekend and check it out for yourself. If you have seen it, I would recommend that you give it another look and take a pass on this lukewarm follow-up.
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