A boy and his dog: Jonathan Mason co-stars with the lovable collie in Lassie.
A boy and his dog: Jonathan Mason co-stars with the lovable collie in Lassie.

Hooray for Collie-wood

I hate dogs. It's one of several things about me that people point to as proof that I'm not a human being. But I have my reasons for recoiling at the sight (and smell!) of nearly every canine I've ever come across. Like the fact that an especially large, brutish mutt tried to chew my face off when I was a year old. And that, unlike cats or hamsters, dogs are really noisy and feel compelled to knock people over and then lick them, simply because they've walked through the door. And then there's the fact that every dog I've ever come into contact with has wiped its nose on my leg. Every one of them, without exception. I probably shouldn't take it personally that I'm habitually mistaken for a Kleenex by a lower life form, but I do.

The only thing I hate more than dogs is movie remakes. Just as I don't understand why dogs always smell bad, even after they're freshly bathed, I can't comprehend what would cause a filmmaker to retell a story that's already been told. Remakes are a Hollywood tradition, like cute kids and lack of originality, both of which the new version of Lassie — which I saw last week at a noisy, child-packed screening — has in spades. But Lassie isn't a Hollywood film; it was made in England, where it was released last year to mediocre reviews.

That might be because kids today are too sophisticated to sit still for a movie about a loyal dog who loves her boy so much, she'd walk hundreds of miles to get to him. Maybe if director Charles Sturridge had made Lassie into an intergalactic superhero who could turn herself into a spaceship, kids would be more interested. But there's no CGI here; just some moors, a couple of depressed kids, and a kennel load of really cute dogs.



Rated PG.

Lassie, of course, is the cutest of them. She's an unfailingly polite dog; she'd never bite anyone or leave a cold runner of snot on someone's thigh. In this movie, she mostly spends her time walking from Scotland back to the poor people she loves, who sold her to some rich meanies. The only time Lassie is rude is when she's forced to bark at a couple of hobos who are being impolite to the midget she befriends on her way back to England.

This is a Lassie movie, so you know there's going to be a rescue sequence; you know she's going to play matchmaker for a young spinster and a guy with crooked teeth; you know there'll be a scene where Lassie stands on a mountaintop with the wind blowing through her hair, like Julie Andrews in The Sound of the Music. This Lassie has all that and more; and while it doesn't have Elizabeth Taylor (who starred in the original 1943 version), it does feature sexy John Lynch, the poor man's Billy Baldwin, who stars as a blighted British coal miner so broke he has to sell the family dog (guess who?) to feed his wife (Kelly Macdonald, one of those actresses who looks instantly familiar but who turns out, after you've Googled her, not to have starred in anything you've ever seen) and his heartbreakingly cute son, Joe (Jonathan Mason, one of those little kids who looks simultaneously like a second grader and a 60-year-old man). There's an appearance by one of the lesser Redgraves (Jemma Redgrave, who's mostly done TV prior to this) and an astonishingly accurate impersonation of Katharine Hepburn by screen legend Peter O'Toole. There's even a cameo by the Loch Ness Monster!

Lassie is played by a bunch of different dogs, but primarily by a collie named Lassie. In the several U.S. Lassie films made since 1943, an American male dog descended from Pal, the original collie from the first film, always plays Lassie. This time she's a British-bred bitch who's no relation. Turns out that none of the U.S.-born Lassie descendants were able to get their international working visa (no, I'm not kidding), so the filmmakers cast this unrelated collie (although they tossed Lassie purists a bone by shooting one scene in the U.S. with one of Pal's descendants). Of course, Lassie fans are in revolt over this transgression, and have taken their ire to the Internet, where they've been staging relentless (dare I say it?) bitch fights on several Lassie Web sites.

The actors in this version are only slightly more emotive than the line drawings that starred in Lassie's Rescue Rangers, a cheesy 1970s Saturday morning cartoon I refused to watch when I was a kid. But no matter. The people who appear in any Lassie movie are only there because it's harder to prove the value of a gorgeous, loyal pet when there aren't badly behaved human beings on hand to provide contrast.

I'd have believed in Lassie even without the thuggish rich people she overcame. It's a tribute to Sturridge's talent that I began to wonder if the reason I dislike dogs is that I've only ever met inferior ones. If all dogs were like Lassie — kind and intelligent, with big, baleful, Humphrey Bogart eyes — maybe I'd have a higher opinion of them. Then again, probably not.

I won't lie and tell you I didn't get choked up when Lassie arrived home after walking there from another country, nearly dead from exhaustion and covered in pathos and dirty collie fur. I had to pinch myself and take a lot of short, quick breaths to keep from sniffling like the bozos all around me were doing. And I won't write here that I think the new Lassie sucks, because I don't. Sturridge did exactly what he should have with this remake: made us fall in love with a dog so invincible that, even when she's surrounded by snooty imperialists and mean-spirited paupers, we know she'll prevail. And he taught this old dog a new trick: You can like a dog if it's contained neatly on a movie screen, where one can't smell it or get bitten by it or have to contend with its mucus membranes. So count me in on the inevitable Benji remake, and, in the meantime, here's to Lassie.


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