by debbie lynn elias
After attending a packed screening filled with my colleagues and their children, and after being relayed messages of elation, exuberance and awe from my princely nephews Eddie and Tommy, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind (or that of my nephews) as to which movie I would be reviewing for you this week.
Originally conceived as a short story for the Saturday Evening Post in 1938 and later released as the 1940 classic, Lassie Come Home, the story was set in the British town of Yorkshire, focusing on a struggling family during the depression. Faced with famine, or, er, famine, the family was forced to sell their beloved dog. Tearful and joyous all at the same time, it wasn’t long before Lassie was hit on both sides of the pond before finding its way into the hands of MGM in 1943. The Lassie franchise (a franchise before there was such a thing in movies) spawned seven films between 1943 and 1953, most of which were set in the British Isles, centering on the trials and tribulations of WWII and the time honored traditions of love, courage, devotion, faithfulness and overcoming adversity, all thanks to the magic of this wonderful dog. From 1954 through 1971 Lassie took to the small screen with an original series set in rural American before finding her way into re-runs through 1974. Be it Britain or America, as long as there was Lassie, there was hope and heart. And now, some 32 years later, thanks to veteran writer/director Charles Sturridge, not only myself, but an entirely new generation of children and adults alike can experience the love and magic of the most beloved dog in the history of books, tv and cinema - LASSIE.
Meet the Carraclough family - Sam, Sarah and 9 year old Joe. Living in rural Britain, WWII is on the horizon. The British economy is hard-pressed and coal miner Joe is having a hard time keeping food on the family table. Spending long hours away from home at the local coal mine, it’s a comfort to know his son has a friend - his collie Lassie. No matter how hard the times or how long the hours, there is always Lassie. A loyal and loving friend, companion and family member, her devotion and affection is unparalleled and can make the darkest dawn look bright as the sunniest day. Sadly, Sam soon gets word that the coal mine is closing because of the impending war. Unable to scrape together enough money to put any more food on the table, a decision has to be made.
On the other side of the tracks, young Cilla is forced to evacuate London and move in with her stately grandfather, The Duke of Rudling. Hoping to make his granddaughter happy and take her mind off being separated from her parents, The Duke offers to buy Lassie from the Carracloughs as a gift for his granddaughter. With a substantial sum of money on the table, Sam is forced to face the fact that he has no other choice. He must take the money and sell Lassie in order to save his family. Lassie, however, has other ideas and refuses to go with the Duke. She knows she’s loved. She knows she’s wanted. She’s knows this is her home. As the only way to get her to go, young Joe is forced to tearfully chastise Lassie and push her away as being a “bad dog.” Only then, does Lassie finally go off with the Duke.
But for Lassie, now living in the lap of luxury doesn’t necessarily mean living with love and kindness. Seems the Duke’s kennel master Hynes, has a nasty habit of physically abusing Lassie every chance he gets. Lassie, however, being the most intelligent dog around and ALWAYS able to outsmart any human, makes every effort to escape and return to her family. But, no matter how hard she tries, she eventually gets caught and is forced back to the Duke’s kennel and the evil hand of Hynes. Unfortunately, it’s not long though before the Duke has Lassie moved to his castle in Scotland. But despite the distance from “home”, Lassie once again escapes, intent on finding her way home and to the little boy that loves her.
Adventurous to the core, Lassie endeavors to make her way back to her family, all the while running into dog catchers, puppeteers, rich men, poor men, and even the Loch Ness Monster! Does she find her way back to Joe? Does the Duke reclaim her? Do the dog catchers get her?
Jonathan Mason is absolutely adorable as young Joe. With every grin, every smile, every tear and every hug, he is “every kid”. A boy and his dog. Peter O’Toole is, of course, exquisite as the distinguished Duke. With his patented sly brand of humor and wickedness, he is outstanding. No stranger to British films, Steve Pemberton will have chills running up and down your spine with his take on kennel master Hynes. Not a bit of decency or kindness, he truly sets the bar for defining good and evil here. Cameos abound with “Trainspotting” veteran and recent Emmy winner Kelly MacDonald as dog-loving Jeanie, “Station Agent’s” Peter Dinklage as Rowlie the traveling dwarf puppetmaster, and former Bond cast member “M”, Edward Fox who here plays Hulton.
But the real star of the film is Lassie herself. A direct descendent of the original Weatherwax trained Lassie (real name Pal), 8 year old Lassie The Ninth is every bit the star. I recently had a chance to speak with Lassie herself and let me tell you, she is thrilled about this movie. Handshaking, tail wagging but always the gracious lady, it was a thrill to meet her. Sure, the pampering and star treatment was great, but according to Lassie, there was also a lot of hard work - and blow drying. Take for instance, her swim across Loch Ness. According to Lassie’s trainer Carol Riggins (having trained Lassies 7, 8 and now 9), this was perhaps the most difficult part of the shoot because Collie’s aren’t known for being water dogs. Lacking more “webbing between their feet and more fat on their body to insulate them”, cold water makes their muscles stiff, just like with humans. But it is Lassie’s joyous nature, boundless energy, pride and gentle loving spirt that make her special. She steals not only ever scene, but everyone’s heart.
Written and directed by Charles Sturridge based on Eric Knight’s original novel, he returns Lassie to the place where it all began some 66 years ago. He spares nothing when it comes to tugging at the heart strings. From sweeping helicopter shots of Lassie high atop a mountain, to intimate family settings or the tear-jerking separation of Lassie from her family, there is not a single shot that doesn’t evoke waves of emotion. (This is a definite 5 hankie flick.) One shortcoming, however, are narratives intercuts that are at times disjointed and feel emotionally amputating.
Overall, there is an old-fashioned heartfelt elegance, tenderness and warmth to the film, whose aged patina warms you like a cup of cocoa on a winter’s day thanks to the work of cinematographer Howard Atherton. With minimal, if any CGI, Sturridge concentrates on emotional storytelling and Lassie’s life lessons that resonate long after the final credits roll.
Although timeless, this is a definite period piece. Under the watchful eye of production designer John Paul Kelly, the attention to detail and authenticity on the part of art direction, costuming and make-up all blend into a beautiful canvas of 1940's British Isles. And Adrian Johnston’s score does much with ever present yet understated beating of the drums to signal the sounds of war.
In time honored tradition, Lassie the Ninth proudly brings her legacy into the 21st Century. There is nothing better than a boy and his dog (or a girl and her dog). Lassie has finally come home - Come home to the big screen and back into our hearts where she belongs.
Lassie: Lassie the Ninth
The Duke: Peter O’Toole
Joe Carraclough: Jonathan Mason
Hynes: Steve Pemberton
Written and Directed by Charles Sturridge. Rated PG. (100 min)