Sunday, January 21, 2007

Dog and Pony Shows

Ok, another movie post. Despite my praise for Curse of the Golden Flower--a film that I think was just this side of stunning--it wasn't the best movie I've seen of late. That honor has to go to Lassie. No, I'm not kidding. We rented the most recent version, the 2005 production by Charles Sturridge, a found it a total delight.

I have no idea how many variations there are on the original beloved-Collie-makes-an-incredible-journey-to-find-her-way-back-home story, but Sturridge's approach is simply flawless. It's pathos is rarely unearned; the performances--ranging from a couple of tremendous and completely unknown child actors on one hand to Peter O'Toole giving us, in my opinion, his single best canny-old-eccentric-British-noble shtick ever on the other, and with a host of superb British, Irish, and American character actors along the way--make the heart-string tugging both natural and even mostly pretty subtle. Sturridge wisely makes Lassie's beautifully photographed journey all the way from northern Scotland back home to Yorkshire a kind of travelogue of 1939 Britain, with tragedy, slapstick, dry wit, and even some romance (for those affected by Lassie, not the dog herself) along the way. While these sorts of movies are inevitably sentimental and bourgeois, the doesn't prevent some sharp class observations from making their way into the script, especially as enlivened by the performers Sturridge puts in front of the camera (watch the way the parents of little Joe Carraclough, played by Samantha Morton and John Lynch, react to the arrogance of Steve Pemberton's Hynes, a local man who thinks his employ as the duke's dog keeper allows him to dismiss his fellow Yorkshiremen). And rest assured, the dog (played mostly by a single Collie named Mason) is incredible; our girls loved watching Lassie go from one adventure to the next. This is whole-family entertainment of the best sort.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for animal movies of this sort. Part of it is the result of having grown up around animals--dogs, cats, horses, cows, chickens, etc.--but a lot of it has to do with the simple fact that interacting with animals can bring to the screen some pure, humble emotions that a lot of performers never seem to be able to manage otherwise, whether we're talking about devotion or despair or pure joy. Besides, the children love them--not all of them, and not equally: there are a lot of ways that animal movies can fail to make that emotional connection. And there are even a few that try to make a different, more adult connection with the audience. The best ones can do both.

There are a couple of directors that have pretty much mastered the dog and pony routine. Jean-Jacques Annaud has made a couple of really good ones: Two Brothers and The Bear, the latter being one of the more ambitious attempts I've ever seen to imagine the interior life of a non-animated animal. (The dream sequence is weird, but otherwise Annaud managed to impue his bear cub with an astonishing range of emotions.) Then there's Carroll Ballard, who has made several such films: Never Cry Wolf and Fly Away Home are really more human dramas than animal movies, but he gets extra points for working such extremely difficult animal subjects (wolves and geese), and managing to tell such good stories along the way. Duma is superb, though he almost treats the animal side of his story--which, among other things, involves a young South African boy teaching his pet cheetah how to hunt and kill its prey--with almost too much realism for some children. But The Black Stallion is his masterpiece; not only is it one of the finest bits of cinematography I've ever seen, but it puts the animal character in a starring role (thanks to the fierce limits Ballard placed on his performers) better than any other horse movie you can think of. Compare it to Seabiscuit, a nice enough movie, which earnestly gives us everything we could possibly want to know and feel about the people who owned Seabiscuit, the people who trained Seabiscuit, the people who rode Seabiscuit, the people who were inspired by Seabiscuit, but not very much about the horse himself. The final race in The Black Stallion, builds to such power, with the music coming in imperceptibly and slowly moving to a crescendo as we go into the horse's memory of his and boy's time alone on the island (or are we seeing the boy's memory? or both?), it gets me every time.

Other animal movies, anyone? There are a ton of old Disney films like Old Yeller, of course, most of which I haven't seen in years and can't judge. If anybody has any recommendations, lay them on me; as long as the girls are young, and probably afterward as well, our family will probably continue to eat these kind of movies up.


Anonymous said...

My wife and I either own or are planning to buy for our daughter; Babe, Milo & Otis, Homeward Bound, The Adventures of Natty Gan (spell?), Call of the Wild, Doctor Doolittle (old & new) and Napoleon Dynamite (there's a llama in there).

Anonymous said...

I really like the most recent Black Beauty. Unlike most American animal stories, Black Beauty is about a fairly ordinary animal going through life with fairly ordinary people (though many different people). It also has David Thewlis who is a great actor.

The two Babe films are two of my overall favorites.

Sounder, which is a fine story (written by a Hampden-Sydney grad too) was made into a Disney TV movie in 2003. I saw that one but not the acclaimed 1972 film version yet.

Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

Charlie The Lonesome Cougar, from the Disney stable.

Anonymous said...

The first Babe movie is what I love the most. One of the best movies and most hilarious movies Ive ever seen.

Anonymous said...

I love old Disney films. One of the best movies. At any age.