Peter O'Toole, Samantha Morton, Peter Dinklage, John Lynch
Charles Sturridge, Eric Knight
Roadside Attractions/Weinstein Co.
"Lassie" is the best family film of 2006.
Yes, that's right. You heard me correctly. Forget the CGI invasion, forget about "Cars," forget about cute little cuddly penguins and, for sure, forget about stop-motion human beings with creepy, bugged-out eyes.
Lassie" has come home.
In this, the latest update/remake in a long line of "Lassie" films since the first story appeared in 1938, screenwriter/director Charles Sturridge ("Brideshead Revisited" and "Gulliver's Travels") has returned to the roots of family cinema with a patient, thoughtful, heartfelt and genuinely entertaining that defies almost every custom of contemporary film-making that succeeds where so many other family films fail.
Set in Great Britain near the start of World War II, "Lassie" returns to the roots of the story, as well. "Lassie" is a beautiful dog living in the not so beautiful working class home of Joe (newcomer Jonathan Mason) and his parents (Samantha Morton and John Lynch).
When the family experiences a financial crisis after the closing of the local mine, the Duke (Peter O'Toole) is all too willing to purchase Lassie, both to add Lassie to his collection of dogs and to please his granddaughter (newcomer Hester Odgers). Lassie, of course, is far too loyal to be kept away from her beloved Joe. Thus, she escapes repeatedly and much to the dismay of the Duke's right-hand man, Edward Hynes (Steve Pemberton).
"Lassie" is, purely and simply, a family film about love, loyalty, family and kindness. It promises and delivers nothing beyond these four things, however, it delivers these four things in abundance.
To sit and describe the storyline of "Lassie" feels somehow irrelevant. While the story is here, well-written and well developed, the story of "Lassie" has always been a basic story. Lassie, even when moved over 500 miles away to Scotland, remains determined to find Joe and remains steadfast on her mission. Her only detours along the way are to reward kindness and to confront those would do her or others harm.
It is a simple message, and yet so beautifully presented here that one would have to be an impenetrable stone to not be moved by it.
Being a British production, "Lassie" feels more authentic and less "rah rah" than its typical American production. While it is reasonable to expect a happy ending, British film-makers speak down less to children and are much more willing to present sadness, challenge and even evil along the way. Sturridge, without preaching, beautifully blends the often stark realities of life with the powerful lessons that "Lassie" has always offered.
As the young Joe, newcomer Jonathan Mason brings to mind Freddie Highmore with his pouty, inward appearance and earnest, yet insecure affect. While not quite possessing Highmore's range, his appearance here is heartfelt and delightful without ever becoming pretentious or self-aware.
How Sturridge managed to cast "Lassie" with such acting powerhouses is difficult to imagine, but the cast alone instantly elevates "Lassie" beyond the realm of your ordinary family film. As Joe's parents, Samantha Morton and John Lynch are a convincing couple. Morton, in particular, brings to mind her wondrously complex performance from "In America," a film that reminded us that Morton is most certainly one of this generation's most dependable actresses. Instead of turning this role into its potential caricature, Morton is utterly devastating to watch as she attempts to comfort Joe after they've sold Lassie.
In Peter O'Toole's first minute onscreen, I began to wonder if, perhaps, O'Toole were going the way of acting legend Katharine Hepburn's last few performances. These performances, you may recall, were noted more for illustrating the physical decline of the actress than for serving as a reminder of her tremendous acting skill. O'Toole, at first glance, appears to waver a bit and even a bit weak. Yet, quite literally, within the very first minute O'Toole springs to life with remarkable energy and spirit. As Lord Rudling, O'Toole powerfully brings to life a man who neither apologizes for his wealth nor becomes a captive to it. his scenes with his young granddaughter, Cilla, are playful, touching and, well, remarkable.
Interspersed throughout these scenes and main characters are moments of cinematic delight featuring cameos by a variety of actors and actresses whose single moments are screen are filled with innocence and wonder and giddy childlike giggles.
Kelly MacDonald surfaces as a young woman who advocates for Lassie by confronting a mean-spirited dogcatcher, while Edward Fox diverts his attention from seeking out the Loch Ness Monster by watching this mysterious dog along the beaches of the Loch.
Perhaps the film's most moving, tear-jerking moments come courtesy of actor Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent" and "Elf"), as a dwarf whose traveling puppet show becomes a safe haven for the traveling Lassie. Dinklage, with amazing vulnerability, had me reduced to sobs as he comforted his beloved Toots, a mutt who had just been beaten while defending him.
Howard Atherton's cinematography is simple yet captivating, while Adrian Johnston's original music greatly enhances the story without crossing the line into intentionally manipulating one's emotions. While a couple historical inaccuracies could be noted, the vast majority of movie-going audiences will be clueless regarding these and they don't distract from the story at all.
"Lassie" is what I commonly refer to as a "talking" movie. Whereas most American family films used distraction and special effects to keep children in their seats and their attention on the screen, British films tend to more trust the intelligence and inquisitive nature of children. With its portrayal of very real danger and, at times, cruelty "Lassie" is the type of film where you may very well hear children around you saying "Mommy, why'd he hit Lassie?" or asking any number of other questions. For me, this is a considerable plus to the film viewing experience. The questions children ask, their dismay at violence and their natural curiosity is a delightful addition to the film's soundtrack. As I sat in the movie theatre listening to the children around me, it became abundantly clear that this beautiful, loyal and entertaining dog had won their hearts.
That leads, of course, to "Lassie" herself. As portrayed by two dogs, "Lassie" is utterly captivating. Her looks, her natural instincts, her gentleness in comforting young Joe and Sturridge's subtle touches with her behavior all truly add up to make Lassie the unquestionable star of this film.
Some will feel "Lassie" too basic.
Some will consider "Lassie" too slow a film for American audiences.
Some, in fact, will call "Lassie" out for manipulating their emotions.
They will all be wrong...pure and simple. "Lassie" is, without a doubt, the best kind of family film that exists. "Lassie" is a genuine, heartfelt, intelligent and dignified film that will entertain and enthrall family members of all ages. "Lassie" is a film that will make you laugh and, perhaps even more often, reduce you to tears.
Who'd have thought that a nearly 70-year-old story about a boy and his dog could end up being the saving grace of contemporary family cinema?
"Lassie" truly has come home. "Lassie" is the best family film of 2006.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic