A boy, a pooch and a packet of saccharine

'A Dog of flanders' is a perfectly nice family story that nearly drowns itself and its viewers in sweetness.

August 27, 1999|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

About the only misleading thing about "A Dog of Flanders" is the title, since the dog is only nominally important to the plot. Everything else about this movie is as subtle as a cinder block crashing on your head.

The protagonists, a boy, his grandfather and their beautiful dog, a Bouvier des Flanders, aren't just poor, they're impoverished. And their struggles aren't just formidable, they're as big as those windmills that dot the Belgian countryside.

Of course, the villain is an utter cad who evicts the poor (on Christmas, no less) and burns down farm houses. And the good people and, well, the dog, too, aren't just noble, but darn near beatific.

That's a lot of stuff to weigh down a movie, and yet, for its decided lack of nuance, "A Dog of Flanders" is a '90s rarity: a solid family historical drama that isn't animated or doesn't have product tie-ins.

A collection of strong performances lift "A Dog of Flanders," based on a children's tale set in the early 1800s, from cliche to effectiveness. Heading up a fine ensemble cast are Jeremy James Kissner and Jesse James, who share the role of Nello, a boy with a superb gift for art, handed down from his late mother and an unknown father.

Both James, who portrays Nello at about 6, and Kissner, who takes over the part when the boy reaches the pre-teen stage, display the requisite whimsy and wonder without becoming overly cutesy. And the usually crusty Jack Warden takes the proverbial kindly grandfather part and makes him loving and kind, without being sappy. Even Patrasche the dog is beguiling.

Baby boomers will get a smile at the casting of Cheryl Ladd as the mother of Aloise, the beautiful little girl who befriends Nello and admires his talent. Naturally, it falls to Ladd to convince her rich husband (Steven Hartley) that there's something special about the hardscrabble boy who so admires his daughter, and the former "Charlie's Angel" takes well to the role.

Jon Voight, in one of his best performances in recent years, is likewise quite good as a noted local artist who takes Nello on as a pupil. Voight is the centerpiece of a rather significant plot twist that won't be revealed here, but one that any observant moviegoer of practically any discerning age can see coming an hour away.

Director Kevin Brodie gets kudos for lovely photography and for a loving homage to the great artist Peter Paul Rubens, Nello's inspiration. But, in the future, Brodie would do well to keep the sledgehammer off the heads of his audience. We get it, Kevin. We really get it.

`A Dog of Flanders'

Starring Jeremy James Kissner, Jesse James, Jack Warden, Cheryl Ladd, Jon Voight

Directed by Kevin Brodie

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG (a couple of mild epithets and a death scene)

Running time: 100 minutes

Sun score: **1/2

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