Like its titular collie, Charles Sturridge's "Lassie" is sure-footed and undeterred in its ultimate goal. This thoroughly genuine bit of wholesome, yet never saccharine entertainment balances just the right amount of action, humor and pathos to create a near-perfect family film.
"Lassie" throws off decades of American bastardization to revisit its British roots, specifically its source material, Eric Knight's 1940 novel "Lassie Come Home." In this wartime adventure, Yorkshire lad Joe Carraclough (Jonathan Mason) is heartbroken when his impoverished parents (Samantha Morton, John Lynch) sell their dog Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Peter O'Toole) as a present for his granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers).
The problem is, Lassie is used to meeting Joe after school every day, so even when she's kenneled with the duke, she effects an escape like clockwork each afternoon. Time and time again she's returned to the duke until he moves himself and his family 500 miles away to northern Scotland to check on his property there. With a little help from the sympathetic Cilla, Lassie gets loose one last time and meets several interesting people on her long journey home.
The opening is the most over-the-top moment, one that Sturridge admits he added to Knight's story to create a more dynamic introduction to his characters. Having the duke nonchalantly lead a fox hunt through the narrow streets of the Carraclough's small town is pure aristocratic foolery, which is a contrast to his change of heart at the end of the story.
Nevertheless, writer-director Sturridge does many things right in this adaptation, and first and foremost is not messing with the rest of the book's already successful formula. Restraint is the name of the game, and this especially applies to the kids and animals. Newcomers Mason and Odgers are wonderfully real, lacking that too-polished child actor look to them, and never have to resort to cutesy lines or behavior. Similarly, Lassie and the other animals avoid that wacky anthropomorphism that Hollywood insists on imposing on our furry friends.
As a journey tale, there's the expected episodic quality to Lassie's encounters, but Knight's story makes the most of them, poking fun at human nature -- such as a dry moment with two Loch Ness monster seekers. The dog's meeting with traveling puppeteer Rowlie (Peter Dinklage) is probably the most memorable and affecting event, mainly because of Dinklage's nuanced take on a man whose best friend in the world truly is his dog Toots (which incidentally was the name of Knight's childhood pooch).
Sturridge sneaks in a few political and sociological jabs here and there, bringing a stronger moral tone to the story. This is especially apparent in the opening when the local mine closes, forcing many of the men to go into the army to support their families instead.
Morton and Lynch give sensitive performances as the troubled yet loving parents, while O'Toole is a steely-eyed hoot to watch. The only really cliched character is kennelman Hynes (Steve Pemberton), the blustery villain who roars with impotent fury when thwarted. And though he's a stereotype, he's rather important to the story in order to depict the everyday animal cruelty that is neither exaggerated nor exploited in the film.
Overall, "Lassie" feels like a throwback to the animal tales that didn't resort to silly costumes, tricks or CG effects to enhance a creature's inherent expressiveness and complexity. With today's jaded outlook, it's nice to know that not only can this kind of film be made, but that there are still people willing to do so.
Sit. Stay. Watch this lovely family film. Good girl.