DOG-AND-PONY SHOWS

The plot is puerile, but the film, directed by Daniel Petrie, is surprisingly handsome to look at--the opening shot, an aerial view of Lassie driving a herd of sheep over a hill, with sheep forming striking patterns around her, is splendid. And Thomas Guiry, who plays Lassie's companion, is a glum little crud with a set jaw whose performance keeps the story from cloying too badly.

Guiry and family are city folk, trying to make a go of sheep farming in rural Virginia. Although she, too, is a collie who could probably qualify for Mensa membership, the title character is not supposed to be the old Lassie of TV; cleverly, she's a stray that the family picks up at the roadside, and names after the TV wonderdog. She proceeds to cure Guiry of his withdrawal into rock music, lead him to his deceased mother's diary and reconcile him to his well-meaning stepmother (Helen Slater). At the same time, Lassie's obvious expertise in the latest animal-husbandry techniques proves invaluable to the novice farmers. For the sake of enjoying the prettiness of the film, it's possible to overlook the absurdities of Lassie's prescience, and even the clumsily conceived villainies of a rival sheep farmer (Frederic Forrest). What is irksome is the insistence with which Petrie and the screenwriters keep slipping in pious little plugs for a return to wholesome family entertainment of the old school. At the beginning of the film, for instance, Guiry changes channels from an old Lassie rerun his sister is watching to MTV; later on, Lassie, who, of course, knows best, pulls the headphones off the kid's belt and runs off with them. I'm no fan of MTV, and no doubt the old Lassie show was harmless enough. But it was also square and maudlin, and representative of a kind of children's entertainment that was lacking in human pungency. I watched the show for years myself, as a kid, and I can't say it made me a finer person in any way of which I'm aware. It's the disreputable shows, like cartoons, which have stayed close to my heart. If, today, a Lassie rerun came on while I was watching TV, I'd probably turn the channel--to MTV, in fact, if Beavis and Butt-head were on.

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