Lassie's latest homecoming is no melan-collie affair

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Parents rightly pine that there aren't enough quality films to watch with their kids, and then – not unlike the way Warner Bros. thoughtlessly dumped Carroll Ballard's boy-and-his-cheetah film "Duma" into the dog days of 2005 – "Lassie" is released at the tail end of vacation time, when families are gearing up for the new school year. Once again, an intelligently conceived and immaculately produced film that talks up to kids and plays as a full-grown movie for adults is treated like so many hand-me-downs by clueless American distributors.

What will parents and their kids miss? Only the best version by far of the Lassie story, an ocean away from the sappy June Lockhart TV series. Loyal to the tradition of British literary filmmaking, writer-director Charles Sturridge ("Brideshead Revisited") has retained the spirit and most of the letter of Eric Knight's tender but solemn 1940 novel, "Lassie Come Home." This means that Lassie's master, Joe (sad-eyed Jonathan Mason), is the son of a kind mom (Samantha Morton) and a mineworker dad (John Lynch) who's the victim of a mine shutdown.

The misfortune is also Lassie's, who must be sold for the cash to the Duke of Rudling (Peter O'Toole, having a blast), a seemingly heartless gent determined to have the collie for his own. But like other aspects of "Lassie," first impressions deceive, and the saga of England and Scotland on the eve of World War II emerges. As Lassie flees from the cruel clutches of the Duke's nasty dog-handler, Eddie (Steve Pemberton), a picaresque tale takes over Sturridge's film, ushering in a wonderful roster of actors from Edward Fox and Kelly MacDonald to Peter Dinklage in yet another fascinating characterization as a traveling puppet-theater artist. When class conflict stirs the viewer's attention as much as a canine hero's homecoming, it's clear that this isn't the usual (read: mindless) family entertainment. Grade: A

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Rated PG for some mild violent content and language.

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