The bitch is back.
The Lassie in Lassie is not your father's Lassie. Actually, it's not really Lassie at all. Unlike other endeavors in the franchise, this film makes no attempt to connect the dog in the movie with the original dog. It's given that name by young Jennifer, a fan of the TV show. This brings up the obvious questions: Do all Collies have the power of telepathy, and accelerated intuition, or is it activated when they are dubbed Lassie? I would almost have preferred a ridiculous explanation, like they recovered the original Lassie's DNA and made a clone. A bionic clone. No such luck, and it needlessly made me wonder what exactly the hook to Lassie is if it can be any Collie. Perhaps going all the way and having a German Shepherd play Lassie would have put a new spin on the concept, but having an unrelated dog that assumes Lassie's persona because of its exterior reminds me too much of A.I. The decision is unnecessary, but ultimately harmless. The same could be said about the film as a whole, which was a welcomed cleansing after Rats: Night of Terror, but not something I would watch on purpose.
Facts of the Case
Matt Turner is a city boy. So when his father and stepmother inform him they're moving to the country for a simpler life, no one is less excited than Matt. He slowly begins to warm to his new surroundings, with the aid of his dog Lassie. Complicating things are his shady neighbors, the Garlands, who are successful sheep farmers using the Turner's land. When the Turner's decide to start their own sheep business, they become targets for the Garlands, and they would surely perish but for the aid of America's favorite pooch.
I had the pleasure of viewing this updated take on Lassie as a double feature with Rats: Night of Terror. What effect this had on my psyche will take years to sort out, but my initial reaction was that Lassie was a pretty well made movie, compared to the aforementioned vermin thriller. It's got a refreshingly low-key rural setting, and simple, classic set design. The soundtrack actually goes farther than most for quality, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, White Zombie, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and…The Beatles? "In My Life," no less. Perhaps these hip additions had something to do with producer Lorne Michaels (who probably paid the surviving Beatles $3,000, but reminded them that they could give Ringo less). The tunes bolster the authenticity of the film, but a three-minute Chris Farley cameo would have been better and cheaper (assuming the crew was willing to sacrifice their craft service rations).
Matt is played by Tom Guiry, who may be the '90's answer to Sean Astin. He starred in The Sandlot, which, though pale by the sterling standard of The Goonies, was the closest thing to a classic rag-tag-bunch-of-foul-mouthed-kids-on-an-adventure movie that the '90s saw. Perhaps this is a strained comparison, but he has the same kind of innocently morose quality, without being mopey, that Astin had. Think of this as his White Water Summer (though sadly, no Kevin Bacon). Matt is a clear rebel, evident in his "bad ass" skate session to "Man in the Box," busting vert on his backyard half pipe, all the while clad in scuff-free helmet and pads. (If there's still any doubt, he also has a clamp-on earring, Rambo-style bandana, and 1993-issue sleeveless flannel.)
The family's new town has a population of 148. When they pull up to the lot, they are surprised to find the farmhouse is less than luxurious, draped in darkness and rain, without electricity. (Why does everyone who buys a farm in movies do so sight unseen? Don't they watch The People's Court?) However, when the sun comes the next morning, they see that their backyard is a lush, expansive stretch of farmland. Matt is unimpressed, until Lassie snatches his headphones (robbing him of his bitchin' tunes!) and leads Matt to a watering hole, where he finds a rope swing, takes a dunk, and begins taking to his new surroundings.
Making it harder on him are his neighbors, the Garland boys. I kept wondering why these two, as well as their father, were so sinister and, seemingly, inbred. The kids smoke, call Matt a "faggot," and kick his ass until Lassie saves the day. The boys then catch and kidnap Lassie, locking her in a farm house. I wasn't sure if the filmmakers knew that people this unhappy who live out in the country are called crazy, and watching them plot against Matt and his family and his dog, I kept waiting for "Dueling Banjos" to kick in.
Playing the love interest April is Dawson's Creek's Michelle Williams. As far as preteen movie babes go, April is a good one, demure and sweet but not lacking any of the physical qualities that, like it or not, boys like Matt notice at that age. She's sort of a sexed up Haley Mills (which incidentally would be a great name for a band). I like that the movie throws Matt an old-fashioned hot farm girl, instead of some forced Girl Power confection that boys like Matt would never actually pay any attention to. April has some grit though, evidenced after Matt is made fun of for his earring. She coyly asks if she can wear it, and I realized that if I were Matt, this might be the coolest thing that could happen to me if I lived out in the sticks, and was socially retarded enough to wear a clamp-on earring.
The plot itself is threadbare and predictable, with an ending so obvious that I thought for sure it was some kind of a false lead to the real ending (damn you, M. Night Shyamalan). The performers are the only thing on display here outside of the dog, and it's a solid, if underwhelming, cast. Helen Slater as the stepmother is a nice film presence, but I realized why she never had breakout success: Every time she comes into frame, I expect her to rip off her work shirt to reveal a yellow and red "S" and take flight to avenge farmland injustice (the kickass band names just keep coming). She unfortunately has no chemistry with Jon Tenney, but you don't want to feel heat between the parents in this kind of movie. The fun of the film is in Matt's local adventures, including a fairly intense river sequence in which Lassie saves Matt from a waterfall. In a time where movies are on bigger scales than ever, it's rare to see one show how fun your own backyard can be (though mine didn't have rapids).
The sound and picture are, of course, nothing special. It's pleasantly photographed, but still essentially a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. It's presented cleanly in widescreen enhanced for 16x9, and features nearly indistinguishable 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby tracks. The music sounds clear, which is enjoyable for the good songs, less so for White Zombie.
There are no extras, which I need to start making a bigger deal out of. Not that anyone with any clout finds their way back to my Lassie review (no offense), but seriously, this no extras business needs to stop. The only person who would buy Lassie is a Lassie enthusiast, and any Lassie enthusiast would wish for at least a trailer, or something about casting the dog, and any newcomer would want some kind of background on Lassie. If someone were to come into this concept cold, they would be utterly confused by this "wonder dog." It is the least the studios can do to put on whatever they have to put on to fill out the set, even those crappy trivia games. Just don't make me feel like one of those morons who bought VCDs thinking it was the next wave. I want extras, just to have them. If you agree, post in the Jury Room about giving negative integers for no extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Kujo was scheduled to testify as a character witness, but was held up in divorce proceedings.
If you have a jones to get your kid into a dog named after a dog that you used to like 100 years ago, then this is the film for you. Otherwise, it's a pretty uneventful affair. Recommended only for the Lassie faithful.
Guilty of animal cruelty for placing a beloved canine in bland's way.
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