L aaa s eeeee . . .
It's the mantra that sends a primal shiver up and down the spines of oldsters who remember "Lassie Come Home" when it opened in 1943. It makes the boomers who grew up on the TV show, which ran from 1954 to 1971, get all warm and fuzzy.
But do we need a new Lassie movie? Apparently the studio marketeers think so. There's been a revival in animal movies--we'll see seals and stallions before the summer is through. And the New Wholesomeness in family entertainment was tailor-made for a movie about a silky, fluffy collie who teaches kids (and adults) the importance of togetherness. You take your soothsayers where you find them these days. Woof woof.
Lassie is picked up at the beginning of the film after surviving a car wreck on a rain-swept highway. She's a wanderer--kind of like Richard Kimble. The Turner family, en route to Virginia from Baltimore to start a new life on a farm in the glorious Shenandoah Valley, picks up the dog. But the bonding doesn't begin right away. Seven-year-old Jennifer (Brittany Boyd) takes an instant shine to her--after all, we've already seen her watching "Lassie" reruns on television. And her stepmother, Laura (Helen Slater), is all for keeping the dog too. But 13-year-old Matt (Thomas Guiry) and his dad, Steve (Jon Tenney), take a while to be convinced. Is this some sort of Male thing?
Would Matt, the "Power Ranger" fan, have liked Lassie better if she'd been a he--if Lassie were a pit bull or a Doberman? (Actually, this Lassie, like all the Lassies in the previous TV shows and movies, is a male and a direct descendant of Lassie No. 1.)
But this "Lassie" is, after all, a story about a boy and his dog, and it's not long before Matt is cajoled by Lassie into romping with her across the lush countryside. This Lassie is as preternatural as her forebears: Matt is constantly being rescued by Lassie from wolves and bad weather and spoiled rich kids on tractors; she even gives him a knowing look when he sets up a telephone date for the Livestock Expo with a local cutie (Michelle Williams). Lassie is all things to Matt: Savior, Tutor, Matchmaker. And, oh yes, Dog.
The Virginia landscape is postcard pretty--no, make that postcard gorgeous. And Lassie is pretty gorgeous too. The fairy-tale charm of the story works fitfully whenever the dog and the scenery come together, which is not often enough. There's something lulling--no, make that boring--about the way this film ladles out the homespun homilies. It's just not as easy making movies about childhood innocence as the filmmakers of "Lassie" want to believe it is.
Director Daniel Petrie and screenwriters Matthew Jacobs, Gary Ross and Elizabeth Anderson don't bring anything fresh to this old warhorse--or wardog. And that may be their point. "Lassie" is an attempt to apotheosize the cliches of the collie myth. When Lassie jumps into a raging waterfall to save Matt, or grapples with a wolf, the suspense isn't real suspense because we're supposed to already know how it all turns out.
One of the drawbacks of the film's syrupy approach--at least from a family-entertainment point of view--is that you keep waiting for danger and bad guys to liven things up. And, sure enough, the presence of Frederic Forrest as Sam Garland, the biggest and baddest sheep farmer in the state, turns out to be a boon. Perpetually scowling and sunglass-clad, Sam is a rude dude; he looks over his flock of sheep and sees only lamb chops on the hoof. His two young sons (Charlie Hofheimer and Clayton Barclay Jones) are like a pair of range-riding homunculi. You keep expecting the Garlands to get seriously nutty and take over the picture--maybe try to mate Lassie with a lamb, or spike the ol' swimmin' hole, or force-feed Matt's kindly granddad (Richard Farnsworth) Puppy Chow. The producer of "Lassie," after all, is Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live." But even the Garlands are ultimately redeemed by the love of a dog. Their bark is worse than their bite. (On the other hand, Lassie's bite is worse than her bark. Go figure.)
Still, children may find themselves transported by the images of Lassie rippling in the chill wind. Their adult chaperons may too. But more likely, they'll be thinking about the price of real estate in the Shenandoah Valley.
* MPAA rating: PG. Times guidelines: It includes a snarling wolf endangering a teen-age boy, a dognaping and possible drowning that may upset small children.
Thomas Guiry: Matt Turner
Helen Slater: Laura Turner
Jon Tenney: Steve Turner
Richard Farnsworth: Len Collins
A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Broadway Pictures Production. Director Daniel Petrie. Producer Lorne Michaels. Executive producer Michael Rachmil. Screenplay by Matthew Jacobs and Gary Ross and Elizabeth Anderson. Cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan. Editors Steve Mirkovich. Costumes Ingrid Price. Music Basil Poledaris. Production design Paul Peters. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.