Film-Forward Review: [LASSIE]

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Lassie & Joe (Jonathan Mason)
Photo: Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films

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Directed & Written by: Charles Sturridge.
Produced by: Ed Guiney, Francesca Barra & Sturridge.
Director of Photography: Howard Atherton.
Edited by: Peter Coulson & Adam Green.
Music by: Adrian Johnston.
Released by: Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Country of Origin: UK/Ireland/France/USA.
With: Peter O'Toole, Samantha Morton, John Lynch, Peter Dinklage, Jemma Redgrave, Jonathan Mason & Hester Odgers.
DVD Features: Animal Planet at the Movies: On the set of Lassie. Cast & crew interviews. Behind-the-scenes featurette. Animal auditions. Deleted scenes. Outtakes.

Writer/director Charles Sturridge uses the time and place of Eric Knight’s 1940 novel, Lassie Come-Home, for his back-to-basics adaptation, where London parents presciently worry about the upcoming war with Germany and send their children to the country for safety. One child is Cilla (played by a very serious Hester Odgers). The young girl from London opens the film asking her grandfather the Duke (the zestful Peter O’Toole) to explain what’s going on. His full explanation will prove helpful to the children in the audience as well, because it’s been a long time since a movie opened with a fox hunt.

With far more class consciousness than most American movies, the hounds and hunters from a country estate are soon incongruously and symbolically entangled in the narrow and dense dwellings of a coal mining town, where the Duke espies the beauteous Lassie. Like crossing How Green Was My Valley with Black Beauty, this is at all times a Lassie of the proletariat, as rebellious workers identify with those fleeing from their masters. In this sequence, the townspeople thwart the fox hunt. Boys in the audience will especially get a kick out of the miners peeing on the fox’s trail to confuse its scent so it can get away from the hounds. And in time, Lassie will even inspire the poor little rich girl Cilla to run away back home after the collie has ingeniously fled from her new master, the Duke.

Peter O’Toole’s aristocrat is not the usual senile buffoon or snob, but an earthy animal lover who negotiates to purchase and keep Lassie from a poor family. However, Lassie keeps creatively escaping to return to the family and especially Joe, the object of her devotion. As played by Jonathan Mason, he is the most adorable British tyke on the screen since Alex Etel in Millions. Samantha Morton plays his strong and suffering mother, much like her In America role, but with a head full of hair and a Yorkshire accent this time. On the other hand, Jemma Redgrave gets to emerge from her usual plain-Jane roles into an elegant matron.

By going back to the source, Sturridge eliminates the super-dog storylines of TV’s Lassie, instead drawing on the sweeter Homeward Bound-like inspiration of a boy and his loyal dog. For the geographically ignorant, young and old, the film helpfully includes an animated map of Lassie’s fateful 500-mile extradition by railroad from Yorkshire to the kennels of the Duke’s summer estate in the northern coast of Scotland. (Collies’ Scottish heritage are recalled when sheep provide a cover during her escapades.) But the production invests a lot into aerial footage of Lassie’s trek through the Scottish Highlands, and as beautiful as the scenery from Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man may be, anyone who has been on a long car trip with kids knows that stops at scenic overlooks are exactly when the young‘uns start asking “Are we there yet?” I anticipate restless jiggling of soda ice and popcorn at these points.

Much more entertaining are Lassie’s picaresque adventures with kind and cruel humans in cities and forests, as she gets progressively more hungry, ragged, and tired. People mean to animals are the villains, and dog lovers the human heroes. And just as Sesame Street sticks in guests to keep the adults’ attention, this Lassie sparkles with cameos by noted British actors who can create whole characters in moments, including Edward Fox, Robert Hardy and Kelly MacDonald, as well as the Loch Ness monster.

The longest and most intriguing interlude is Lassie’s sojourn with a traveling puppeteer, played by Peter Dinklage. While his physical stature is cleverly incorporated into the dialogue, his performance and their relationship is so touching, despite his shaky accent, that I wanted to see more of his entrancing puppet show and them together, glimpsed in his featuring Lassie in a marionette staging of Androcles and the Lion.

While American films usually use either racial or cultural short hand for class differences, such as the ballerina vs. the hip-hop boy, here the contrasts are voluptuously visual, through period costume, production design and the use of locales. Poor people’s dwellings are always surrounded by full laundry lines, and we see a scrawny Christmas tree with scrimped candles at Joe’s tiny house vs. a Christmas dinner feast and piles of presents in Cilla’s well-lit mansion. There is more than a frisson of socialist theory of warmongering as Joe's laid-off miner/dad has no choice but to join the army to feed his family, while Cilla’s unseen aristocratic father signs up out of geo-political noblesse oblige. And education, both private and public, is a shared torture, as Joe suffers corporal punishment for daydreaming and Cilla is assigned a number “like the army” in her new boarding school. While Lassie’s engaging adventures are central, nothing around her is bland in this lovely film that is as much about people as it is about a heroic dog.
September 1, 2006

DVD Extras: In almost one hour and half of extras, the most interesting are the interspersed interviews with two of the animal trainers: Steve Solomon, responsible for Thumper the Fox and Toots (the puppeteer’s dog); and Matilda de Cagny, in charge of Mason (Lassie). Peter Dinklage and the actors playing the two villains, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Steve Pemberton, provide technical insight about working with animals and their trainers, such as miming commands while the animal is actually responding to directions from its handler off to the side. We learn once a fox has received its full diet regimen for the day in rewards for each take, it can no longer concentrate on direction.

The animal auditions just consist of photographs with narration, though director Sturridge reveals Mason was the third choice for Lassie, but she won him over for the lead role partly because of her chemistry with young Jonathan Mason. The deleted scenes seem to be just alternate takes. In the outtakes, bloopers of flubbed lines and such, the animals seem to have missed cues far fewer times than the actors. Nora Lee Mandel
November 14, 2006



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