Lassie has the answer to everything, so lack of tension foils film

July 22, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Amazing, the dog suit they got Mother Teresa to wear for this new "Lassie."

Oh, all right. It's not Mother Teresa on all fours arfing and scampering behind a polyester collie mask for the camera -- but it could be. It certainly feels like it.

This Lassie -- a purebred, eighth-generation descendant of the original -- does it all: She not only herds sheep, she heals families. She's also a business adviser, a coyote killer, a tour guide to the glories of the Shenandoah, a private detective and an Olympic swimmer. She could do marriage counseling and sex therapy on the side.

The Lassie conceit -- dog as mother of us all, vessel of our virtue, spiritual leader and sublime intellect -- has been around on screen since 1943, when the first version of Eric Knight's novel crept to the screen, making a star out of Elizabeth Taylor. Much diluted, it made for a tepid, cloying but reassuring TV series that ran from 1954 to 1971; now the same cliche has been shoehorned into a tepid, cloying but reassuring movie for the subteen set.

The surprise is that the producer of the bit of lost-American arcana is no less a hot shot than the ultra-hip Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" and "Wayne's World" fame. What's he in this for, exculpation for "The Coneheads"?

Anyway, the movie opens with a beautiful shot of downtown . . . Baltimore. You think: Lassie in Baltimore! Hmmm, now there's some potential. Giving interviews to Olesker. Throwing out the first ball at the Yards. Doing milk commercials with Cal. Arguing Whitewater with Ron Smith. Learning how to bark "Hon." Lunching with Taylor Branch.

But no such delicious luck.

The Turner family has given up on our mean old big city, with its smog and incipient violence, for a new, cleaner life on a farm in hardscrabble Virginia, where dad (Jon Tenney) has a job supervising a construction project. Halfway there, they pick up a hitchhiker -- Lassie. Left to her own devices after the accidental death of her master in a truck wreck, she stands by the side of the road in the rain, does a brief but spectacularly prescient psycho-profile of the possible new owners and chooses the marginally dysfunctional Turners.

Why dysfunctional? It's actually that modern phenomenon, the reconfigured family: Original mom has died, so dad has remarried Helen Slater, who has yet to define her relationship to the children. Moreover, they're moving back to the house in which the original mom grew up. Why would wife No. 2 agree to such a thing? I know she was Supergirl, but this seems a bit much. But never fear! Lassie is here.

Things get quickly worse. The job for Dad that lured the family to the sticks gets vaporized by hard times. Dad has to settle for work fixing fences at a fivespot an hour. Young Matt (Thomas Guiry), a former skateboard and heavy metal stud, feels intensely sorry for himself.

Then, Lassie, who has a master's from Harvard Business, gets a brainstorm. Astutely, she leads Matt to his original mother's diary, where mom had seen the future (it goes "baaaaaa") and somehow miraculously implants the idea in Matt's head of turning the farm into a sheep ranch.

Meanwhile, an oppressively rich neighbor (Frederic Forrest), who's made his money grazing his sheep on land he didn't own, works to subvert their enterprise. But of course . . . he's up against Lassie.

The fundamental difficulty with Lassie as a concept and with "Lassie" the movie is that the dog is anti-dramatic. Once she (actually a he) starts performing miracles, all tension in the film evaporates, and it takes on a certain ritual monotony: Tiny crises will be conjured, the humans will snivel and whine, and then, with the calm majesty of the sublimely superior being that she is, Lassie will make all the boo-boos go away.

For the young children the film is aimed at, this sense of nurture is perhaps the movie's most powerful value, but the film does nothing to explore the issues of the relationship between man and animal or the powerful emotional attachment between human and canine. In a strange way, it's almost a religious movie -- its true subject is sainthood.

"Lassie"

Starring Thomas Guiry and Jon Tenney

Directed by Daniel Petrie

Released by Paramount

Rated PG

** 1/2

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