A Dog of Flanders (PG)
Creating great children's entertainment is a precarious art. To become a classic, a work must be comprehensible to children while appealing to adults. After all, it is the parents who have to sit through Madeline, or Sesame Street, or The Red Balloon again and again and again. A simple story well told, a little humor (even if it goes over the wee ones' heads), a lack of didacticism -- all of these are necessary elements of a long-lasting work.
Unfortunately, A Dog of Flanders fails this test. You can take your kids to see it, you might even be able to stand it, but, if you're like me, you might get so annoyed at its sentimentality that you'll leave the film feeling like the Grinch.
The story, based on the Victorian tale by Ouida (the pen name of Maria Louise Ram), certainly has potential. Nello (Jeremy James Kissner) is a poor orphan raised by his grandfather (Jack Warden) in the woods of Belgium. Nello has inherited a great artistic talent from his mother, and he vows to win the annual Peter Paul Rubens Jr. contest. The prize money will keep his landlord at bay, get a doctor for his beloved grandfather and allow him to woo his childhood sweetheart. Despite the boy's magnificent painting, however, the prize goes to a much wealthier and less talented boy, and Nello is crushed.
Good moral lessons are embedded in this film, such as the importance of loyalty, honesty and persistence in the face of hardship. However, the tale is told with such a crushing lack of good humor that you wonder if director Kevin Brodie was ever a kid himself. He surely can't be a parent if he expects the rest of us to enjoy this high-minded Victorian moralizing.
To add insult to injury, the film suffers from clumsy didactic dialogue ("Why do some people have to be born rich and other people be born poor?"); stereotypical images of women (we have the gorgeous Cheryl Ladd as hard-done-to wife, Deborah Pollitt as Nello's martyred mother, Farren Monet as Nello's faithful girlfriend); awkward cinematography and editing (conversations filmed in such close-ups with editing better suited to a back-and-forth tennis match); and a weird hybrid ending that is a weak 20th century compromise to the original 19th century ending.
I'm pretty sure that most kids won't notice all these flaws and will thoroughly enjoy this film. For that matter, maybe most adults won't notice either. Go ahead and see A Dog of Flanders. This mediocre film version of Ouida's tale isn't destined to become a classic in its own right, but it probably won't ruin your Saturday afternoon.