As Old Yeller is the classic story of a boy and his dog, Lassie Come Home is the classic story of a dog and her boy.
Adapted faithfully, often word for word, from Eric Knight’s beloved novel, and ably directed by Fred M. Wilcox (The Secret Garden, Forbidden Planet), Lassie Come Home is a dog story from the dog’s point of view, the story of a magnificent tricolor collie who will allow nothing to come between her and her self-appointed duty to meet young Joe Carraclough (14-year-old Roddy McDowall) at precisely 4:00pm as he gets out of school in his Yorkshire village.
The obstacle to this duty, of course, is that Joe’s father Sam (Donald Crisp) is eventually forced out of financial necessity to sell Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). However, Lassie twice escapes from the the duke’s disagreeable handler Hynes (J. Patrick O’Malley) in order to keep her appointment with Joe, and eventually the duke takes Lassie to an estate in Scotland, over a thousand miles from her home.
But Lassie’s sense of loyalty — not to mention direction — cannot be deterred by unimaginable distances. Abetted by the duke’s young neice Priscilla (a precious ten-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in her second movie role), Lassie embarks on a journey in which she will face hostile dogs, suspicious herdsmen, the mighty Tweed river on the Scottish-English border, and even bandits and dogcatchers, along with more sympathetic individuals who will help her complete her journey.
As comforting as Old Yeller is bittersweet, Lassie Come Home benefits from its charismatic canine star and from the source material’s sure sense of time and place, a poor Yorkshire village in which "ye," "thee" and "thou" are still common parlance and life on the dole is a matter of necessity. Despite his family’s poverty, Joe’s happy ending doesn’t hinge on a change in their fortunes. Winning the lottery couldn’t have made him feel as lucky as his Lassie come home.
Lassie is a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world, that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals.
If Snow Dogs is a fairly typical example of the conventional Hollywood idea of a live-action family film, Eight Below is a typical example of a new trend in family films that includes National Treasure, Hidalgo, Two Brothers, Fantastic Four and The Legend of Zorro. This is a good thing, but not yet good enough.
Faithfully adapted from the popular Newbery Honor novel by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is a good family film frequently verging on being an excellent one, and is quite a bit better than the dog-movie clichés suggested by the trailers.
"It’s not just a dog story," writes Annie Dingus in Texas Monthly, "it’s a rite of passage for American children." She is right. "Who saw Old Yeller?" Bill Murray asks a bunch of American soldiers in Stripes, trying to define our national spirit. "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure. I cried my eyes out!" And on NBC’s "Friends," ditsy Phoebe had a sudden unpleasant revelation as she realized that all her life her parents had always turned off the film before the climax, sparing her the film’s heartbreak — but also its life-affirming wisdom.
Benji Off the Leash is undoubtedly the first dog movie ever made that thinks that a happy ending for a boy and his dog is not for the boy to get to keep the dog, but for the dog to go off to Hollywood to make a motion picture.
Annaud’s skill and subtlety elevate what is essentially a simple, fable-like throwback to the sort of live-action feature Disney used to make in the 1950s.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.