With no CG talking animals to fall back on, “Lassie” somehow finds its way to becoming one of the best family films of the year. This is a slow-churn adventure, but audiences willing to put in the time will be rewarded with a lovely tale of a dog far from home, struggling to find her way back.
Struggling in an economically depressed pre-WWII English neighborhood, young Joe (Jonathan Mason) has one distraction: his beloved collie, Lassie. When the local coal mine is shut down, Joe’s parents (John Lynch and Samantha Morton) are forced to sell the dog to the stern Duke (Peter O’Toole), who wants Lassie as a pet for his granddaughter (Hester Odgers). Problem is, Lassie won’t go quietly, and repeatedly escapes back into the arms of Joe. When relocation to Scotland threatens to take Lassie away forever, the dog breaks free and begins a grueling journey back to her rightful home.
Lassie has been a mainstay of media for nearly 70 years; starting on the pages, moving to film, and lasting forever on television. She’s an evergreen institution that’s found a splendid fresh incarnation to please a whole new generation of children unaware of this canine’s appeal.
What pleases me the most about “Lassie” is that it relies on, watch yourself now…patience to tell its story of devotion. Director Charles Sturridge doesn’t drench the film in artifice or lowball comedy to please the crowds; he’s the atypical filmmaker that has faith that the purity of the characters and the natural magnetism of the dog’s adventures will steer the picture. “Lassie” is low-tech, humane storytelling, and it does justice to the legacy of the character, while reinventing something delightful for future installments.
Sturridge’s script allows heavy time for the humans to get involved in the journey, and that has a penchant to take the focus away from Lassie. Don’t get me wrong, the film is cast beautifully: appearances by Peter O’Toole (stridently playing a British snob) and Scottish gem Kelly Macdonald are terrific, and the lead work from kids Jonathan Mason (blessed with a mug that could single-handedly kick off a new “Our Gang” franchise) and Hester Odgers lends the narrative that all-important sensation of emotional investment.
However, as Lassie works her way through Scotland and England, she meets several people along the way that want to either help or hinder her progress. Most are passable diversions, leading to exciting canine stunt set-pieces. Others, such as a segment where Lassie meets a kindly traveling puppeteer played by Peter Dinklage, slow the film down, and put Lassie in the back seat. Perhaps this was the director’s way to help beef up the film’s content, but it’s made clear throughout the film that once Lassie is off-screen, the magic of the film goes with it.
It’s a credit to Sturridge’s direction that he’s able to get such an expressive performance out of Lassie. The dog is a wonder, and really sells the emotion of the script, even if, in reality, all she wanted was the dog treat awaiting her off-camera. A highlight of the film is watching Lassie struggle her way across the expansive and mountainous English countryside, bordering on an outtake from one of those “Lord of the Rings” walking montages; except no Aragorn this time around, just a beautiful collie.
“Lassie” is old-fashioned family entertainment, and I hope audiences aren’t afraid to take a chance on a movie that might not be paced like a race car, but offers gentle adventure and alternative heroism instead.Rating: B+