Many may be surprised to learn that everyone's favorite collie, Lassie — a longtime staple on American television — actually derives from a 1938 story set in pre-World War II England. Lassie (Roadside/Samuel Goldwyn), the latest big-screen incarnation, is an exceedingly handsome adaptation of Eric Knight's subsequent 1940 novel, Lassie Come Home, as was the first film version made in 1943 which starred the very young Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowell.
An impoverished Yorkshire mining family — Sarah (Samantha Morton) and Sam Carraclough (John Lynch), and their young son, Joe (a very appealing Jonathan Mason) — reluctantly sells its beloved dog to a rich nobleman, the Duke of Rudling (Peter O'Toole), after the Duke's young granddaughter, Cilla (Hester Odgers), admires the dog from afar.
Lassie tries to escape several times, much to the dismay of Rudling's sadistic kennelman, Hynes (Steve Pemberton), an obvious and tiresome villain despite the film's attempts to make him a partly comic and even slightly pathetic figure.
Joe is distraught over the loss of his pet, but Sarah and Sam do their best to convince him that they can't adequately take care of the dog with money so scarce. In any case, Cilla is warmly empathetic to the dog, and does her best to protect Lassie from Hynes' cruelty.
The duke eventually takes the dog to Scotland, where the collie breaks free and begins the impossibly long trek back home, encountering various characters along the way that either help or hinder her progress. In the former category are a sympathetic young couple, Jeanie (Kelly MacDonald) and Tom (Jamie Lee), who see Lassie being rounded up by two inept dog catchers and intervene, and a diminutive puppeteer, Rowlie (Peter Dinklage with a variable English accent), who puts Lassie in his traveling show.
Writer-director Charles Sturridge has assembled a top-line English cast (except for American Dinklage), including Edward Fox, John Standing, Robert Hardy and Jemma Redgrave, though some of their roles are quite small.
The scenic vistas (mostly on the Isle of Wight) are breathtaking, and the plot is ever appealing, making this highly recommendable family viewing.
Discerning adults may be bothered by a disjointed narrative (though the story is by its nature episodic), some plot turns that defy credulity, and an occasional awkwardness in both script and direction that places it several notches below the classic MGM version which was on the whole executed with more conviction.
The film contains a brief sequence of Lassie being beaten with a belt, a nongraphic scene where the miners urinate to throw some hunting dogs off the scent of an escaping fox, some mildly crass language, some mild violence and the death of a dog. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-I — general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
(This review appears courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting.)