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IN SHORT: A bleak tale for the kidlets. [Rated [PG] for one scene of mild violence, mild language and thematic elements, 100 minutes]
Let's talk image for a second. You see a dog. You see a boy. You think happy thoughts, just as everybody else would, and pack up the kidlets to see A Dog of Flanders. Before the title credits, a young mother dies from exposure to a brutal snowstorm, leaving her young son in the care of her widowed father. Within ten minutes, a dog is brutally beaten by its master and left for dead on the side of the road, where it is found and restored to health by the boy. It's a good thing that this thing has a happy ending, 'cuz without it, the smallest of kidlets would be confused and the nine year olds would be upset.
Parents exist, so I'm told, to protect their kidlets from thoughts like "Life sucks and then you die." So what do you do when that very sentiment parades across screen as a kidlet story, and then tacks on a "unless you choose not to (die)" Hollywood happy ending?
Well, that's not fair. The happy ending may have been in the original story. We don't know. We've never seen 'em. We're guessing that they were inspiring reads. What makes it to the screen isn't.
The boy is called Nello, played as a single digit kidlet by Jesse James and pre-teen by Jeremy James Kissner. Grandfather Jehan Daas (Jack Warden) is a tenant farmer beholden to evil landlord Stefan (Andrew Bicknell) and makes his money selling milk to the people in the town. The dog, Patrasche, whose entrance into the story is mentioned above, pulls the milk cart. Nello, who has shown a distinct talent as an artist, is on the verge of that wonderful childlike love with the blonde girl next door, Aloise (Farren Monet and Madyline Sweeten) when they are banned from seeing each other.
With a fatherless orphan as the center of the story, we get to look at the males onscreen, as if to figure out which is the real dad. There's the local blacksmith, William (Bruce McGill). There's a local artist, Michel La Grande (Jon Voight) who stumbles across Nello at the foot of a statue of the famous artist Peter Paul Rubens, and takes an interest in the boy. Of course, there is Aloise's father, Carl (Steven Hartley). Has he banned Nello from seeing Aloise because of the differences in economic class, or is there some deep dark secret yet to be uncovered? Aloise's mother (Cheryl Ladd) knows some of Nello's secrets, but she's not telling. Nello himself hopes to win an art contest, whose rich prize money and art school scholarship will lift him out of the poverty he has known all his life.
Without going into detail, let us say that A Dog Of Flanders plays more like a 19th Century Book of Job than a Horatio Alger story. This poor kidlet, never advantaged in anyway except for a strong moral character, lives a miserable life. At the end, a community is brought together to face what it has done and what would be an inspiring conclusion falls apart under the weight of a script that tips its hand way too soon and fails to build up enough solutions to the mystery of Nello's father.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to A Dog of Flanders, he would have paid...
With most kidflicks hitting the $3.00 rental level, I place this one just below the average. A Dog oF Flanders is not this film that will inspire the kidlets. Only with good parents explaining how you can never give up, how Nello overcomes the obstacles he faces, does it fulfill the purpose it sets out to.
So I'd guess. . .
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