Anticipating Lassie, I dreaded the Moisture Moment — you know, the point in an animal love story where the boy looks at his dog with moist eyes, and then the dog looks at his boy with moist eyes, and then the audience, cued shamelessly with doggy tricks, dabs at cheaply wrung tears. I dreaded what Hollywood’s current cannibalization of boomer television would do to the sturdy heroics and clean, bracing plots of the long-running Lassie TV series (themselves adaptations of earlier movie, radio, and print Lassie franchises). Skew it too far toward a cool ’90s post-ironic interpretation, and the kids might be too sophisticated and the dogs might crack jokes; mire it in ’90s nostalgia, and the kids would act like members of Spanky’s gang and the dogs would look like they live on Walton Mountain. I dreaded what an interpretation of Lassie produced by Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels and his Wayne’s World-oriented team would look like. I thought: Doggy tricks ahead.
I dreaded unnecessarily. This freshly minted Lassie, written by Matthew Jacobs, Gary Ross, and Elizabeth Anderson and directed by confident veteran Daniel Petrie (Cocoon: The Return), is a remarkably clean, bracing production that does a difficult thing exceptionally well, depicting believably modern young people in a believably old-fashioned plot. And the key to this success is, I think, setting the story in the gorgeous, timeless Shenandoah Valley, where the Turner family — Dad (Jon Tenney); Stepmom (Helen Slater); sweet, TV-Lassie-rerun-loving 7-year-old Jennifer (Brittany Boyd); and her cynical, skateboard-loving, Walkman-wearing, 13-year-old brother, Matt (Thomas Guiry) — arrive in town from big-city Baltimore to live in the childhood home of the kids’ late mother. On the road to Virginia, the Turners encounter a stray collie who adopts them. Jennifer calls her Lassie.
From here on, the ingredients are familiar: The family suffers a setback when the job Dad expected fails to materialize; the family decides to become sheep farmers like the neighbors; Lassie thaws Matt’s heart of the anger and grief he still feels at the loss of his mother; Lassie encourages Matt to befriend the pretty girl next door; Lassie protects Matt — and, by extension, the family — when ruthless farming neighbors attempt to do mean things; Lassie is in peril; Lassie comes through.
The photography and lighting of this golden-tinted production echo the emotionally rich black-and-white palette once supplied by TV. But some of the most poignant emotions adult viewers may experience are triggered by the subtle reminders of the recent past that anchor this Lassie in the present. My favorite: the scene in which Jennifer uncovers a cache of her dead mother’s dusty 45s and examines a record like an archaeological find. ”Are these old CDs?” she asks, holding up one of those artifacts of ancient technology. The turntable is cranked up, the needle is moved. The Beatles sing their 1965 recording of ”In My Life.” The heart swells. The eyes fill in a Moisture Moment gracefully presented and gratefully received. A-