From the moment they're born, American children are surrounded by images of anthropomorphized animals—looming above their cribs, chattering away in cartoons, grinning at them from the very patterns on their sheets. Yet the thing about real animals that children love is their difference from us, the fact that these furry creatures who walk among us don't wear clothes, don't obey rules, and don't speak, at least not in a language we can understand. Many classics of children's literature, including Eric Knight's 1940 novel Lassie Come-Home, emphasize this difference between animal and human experience by attempting to explore the remote regions of the animal mind, where actions spring not from logic but from instinct. As a dogcatcher in the novel observes after being bested by the titular collie: "They ain't—well—they ain't human, dogs ain't. They just ain't human!"
Charles Sturridge's plummy new film Lassie (Genius Products Inc.) returns to the source material with an almost solemn fidelity, tracing one collie's epic journey from the Scottish Highlands to her home in a mining town in Yorkshire (and in case you don't know how far that is, the film provides a helpful map.) Like Knight's novel, the film moves at a gentle rhythm that's miles from the frantic pace of most current films aimed at children. Sturridge, who directed the TV miniseries based on Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, knows his way around the adaptation of novels to film. He captures both Knight's tone of nostalgic lyricism and his wry class analysis.
Class analysis in a dog movie? Yes, Lassie is such a fine specimen of colliehood that the Duke of Rudling (Peter O'Toole), a dog fancier, has bought her as a gift for his self-contained granddaughter, Cilla (Hester Odgers). Lassie's previous owners, an out-of-work miner named Sam Carraclough (John Lynch) and his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), reluctantly part with Lassie in order to put bread on their table. But the Carracloughs' son, 9-year-old Joe (Jonathan Mason), is inconsolable. Lassie not only slept in his bed at night but met him outside the school gate every afternoon. Joe takes to his bed in silence and refuses to eat.
Taken to the duke's kennels in Yorkshire, the collie stubbornly refuses to miss her after-school appointment, finding new ways to escape every day until the duke finally spirits her up to his estate in Scotland. There, she's minded by the villainous dog trainer Hynes (Steve Pemberton). But when Cilla, observing the animal's mistreatment at Hynes' hands, leaves the gate open accidentally on purpose, Lassie is off in a flash, following her instinct southward toward home.
All this setup takes place in the first 20 minutes or so; the rest of the movie consists of Lassie (played, for the most part, by an expressive male dog named Mason) in the arduous process of coming home. This involves a good deal of bounding over hill and dale, fjording the lochs of Scotland (where we catch a brief glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster), and trotting over the English heaths. The middle section of the film amounts to a kind of sentimental travelogue of the United Kingdom (splendidly photographed by Howard Atherton), with portraits of various human types, rural and urban, along the way. The only thing that's missing from this section is any evidence of how Lassie gets her food in the wild; perhaps the book's scenes of the domesticated dog learning to kill and eat rabbits were deemed too disturbing, though the film is rated PG for mild violence.
Peter O'Toole is magisterial, blustering and sublime: His half-deaf duke still has a touch of Lawrence of Arabia's showstopping power (though the duke's conciliatory gesture in the film's last minutes may smack to some viewers of noblesse oblige). Samantha Morton is also fine as the flinty Mrs. Carraclough, but it's Jonathan Mason as the fiercely loyal Joe who breaks the viewer's heart. Peter Dinklage plays a traveling puppeteer whose caravan Lassie hooks up with for a brief stretch of her travels. As always, Dinklage's dark, furrowed brow suggests a character deep enough to deserve a movie of his own.
It's such a relief to settle into a film that lets dogs be dogs, children be children, and old-fashioned movies be old-fashioned movies. Lassie never panders to its audience, but even the youngest viewer should be able to get a handle on its simple and moving story: Which of us (like Joe) hasn't lost something they loved, and which of us (like Lassie) hasn't longed above all else to go home?