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At The Movies: Homecoming:

It took too many years for someone to get the bright idea to make Lassie into the formidable story it was intended to be.  Writer/director Charles Sturridge has taken back the moving dog story and transformed it for today’s generation.  Lassie is an authentic story of love and devotion between a loyal collie and her best pal.  But a warning: get out your handkerchiefs, it’s going to be a tear-soaked day at the movies.

This Lassie doesn’t intend to be a McEveryKid version, which must be why you’ll be hard-pressed to find the film showing in every theater.  It isn’t exactly Monster House but your children will get more out of this film than most of the films aimed at kids released so far this year.

Adorably scrappy nine-year-old Joe (Jonathan Mason) has but one shining spot in his otherwise bleak existence: his collie, Lassie.  Lassie meets him every day at the same time.  She sleeps on his bed.  His worries are her worries.  But Joe’s family is dirt poor.  A coal-mining father can’t make ends meet, especially when they close the mine. 

A wealthy duke (Peter O’Toole) sees the dog and decides he wants to buy it.  His granddaughter (whose parents can’t really be bothered with her) takes a shine to Lassie and she (Hester Odgers) is overjoyed when the duke makes Joe’s family an offer they can’t refuse. 

But of course, this isn’t going to be pretty.  Joe can’t bear to part with his beloved dog.  Nonetheless, they take Lassie away and lock her up in a posh kennel.  But Lassie doesn’t roll over and play dead.  She digs her way out, wriggles herself free and in all ways, outsmarts the mean kennel keeper (Steve Pemberton).

Every time, Joe helps bring the dog back when she runs away.  But with a war about to make it nasty for the well-to-do, the duke decides it’s time to take his family, and his many dogs, away to the countryside in Scotland.  This makes escaping and getting back to Joe almost impossible for Lassie.  But totally impossible?  Come on, this is Lassie.  And if Lassie knows anything, it’s how to get home.

One notable element is the juxtaposition between the duke’s home and Joe’s.  The duke has plenty of dogs, some that look just like Lassie.  They have all the money in the world and food is plentiful.  The little girl, though, is just as unhappy as Joe because, after all, money can buy most things, even Lassie, but it can’t buy the dog’s love. 

Sturridge has made a fine, fine film here. By making an already well-known story seem fresh and original he’s accomplished something nearly unimaginable.  The question is, will people be motivated to go see it if they think they’ve seen it before?  They’d be fools not to.

With actors like Samantha Morton, Kelly MacDonald and, my god, Peter O’Toole, it would be hard to go wrong.  But the biggest standout is Peter Dinklage who plays a traveling puppeteer.  Of all Lassie encounters, he is the most gentle and deserving of Lassie’s brief attention.

Dinklage’s moments onscreen are the most entertaining and most tearjerking – makes you want a whole movie about his character.  Dinklage has been turning in great work for years now, but in this film he has a chance finally to be appreciated.

Sturridge’s Lassie isn’t over-the-top. It is never melodramatic or condescending.  It simply takes you into this world, shows it as realistically as possible, even when it must verge into the surreal.   

With so much of our culture in the stranglehold of consumerism, it’s refreshing to find a film that celebrates the things money can’t buy.  They are precious and few.  They make our lives worth living.

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