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A DOG OF FLANDERS

by: Scott Renshaw

I note the following in the interest of fairness: a smattering of audience applause greeted the conclusion of A DOG OF FLANDERS at the screening I attended. That audience consisted almost entirely of parents and pre-teens, causing me to ponder comments I've received over the years regarding whether "family films" should be held to a different critical standard. Sure, A DOG OF FLANDERS could appeal to children without very discriminating tastes; yes, parents may be happy to find something warm 'n' fuzzy for the young'uns. I, however, watched as someone who expects little things like decent performances, a narrative with a point, and a script that doesn't feel like it was written by children instead of for children. A DOG OF FLANDERS is simple, non-threatening, harmless family filmmaking that also happens to be thoroughly uninteresting on almost any level.

Based on a 19th century children's tale by Ouida, A DOG OF FLANDERS tells the story of a young boy named Nello Daas (Jesse James) living in Belgium -- presumably the late 1800's, presumably around Antwerp. A poor farmboy living with his ailing grandfather (Jack Warden), Nello dreams of being a great painter some day like his idol Peter Paul Rubens. Despite the support of kindly local artist Michel La Grande (Jon Voight), however, Nello seems trapped by his social station. Class conflict grows more evident when the teenage Nello (Jeremy James Richter) encounters objection to his friendship with a merchant's daughter (Farren Monet), and even finds himself accused of arson. But Nello always perseveres, entering a youth art contest and maintaining a pure and honest heart.

If you notice the conspicuous lack of any dog mentioned in that plot summary, there's a very good reason. Despite the title, Nello's pet Bouvier des Flanders, Patrasche, plays only a token role in the film's events. That's not just unfortunate because it's somewhat deceptive -- it's unfortunate because the dog may turn in the film's best performance. The young performers, particularly newcomer Farren Monet, at least have inexperience as an excuse. Voight and Warden, who fuss and knit their brows and play with ever-varying accents, earn no such slack. A DOG OF FLANDERS may be a youth melodrama, but there's not a moment of real character-based emotion to make the film tolerable as a narrative. It's hard to imagine how a production like this avoided the direct-to-video dustbin.

It's also hard to imagine from this version that the story is such a classic that it has already been filmed three previous times. Without a familiarity with either the source material or the earlier film incarnations, I can only assume that a story with such appeal had to focus on the adventures of a boy and his faithful dog. This film focuses on the adventures of a boy as he discovers the pitfalls of his poverty, takes milk into town, draws pictures of his childhood sweetheart, discusses art theory with his mentor La Grande, and learns hard lessons about the politics of youth art contests. There is a colorful encounter with a traveling circus, it's true, and one moderately rousing chase and knife fight with Patrasche's cruel former owner. Otherwise, A DOG OF FLANDERS delivers the kind of timeless youth appeal one usually associates with an evening of CNN.

I suppose it's pointless to add the cartoonish villainy of Nello's landlord (who also yells at his wife and calls her "woman," so we know he's a really bad guy), or to note the retina-rattling eye-rolling that accompanied a Yoda-like apparition of Rubens himself, or to snicker at the WIZARD OF OZ denouement which includes a not-at-all startling revelation of parentage. Those who enjoy the film will probably find ways in which those elements complement the story perfectly. For me, A DOG OF FLANDERS lacked any of the elements which bring life to a family film -- emotional resonance,

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