Rather the opposite of “Jurassic Park,””Dennis the Menace” isn’t really appropriate for anyone over the age of 12. Very young children may find the numskull, by-the-numbers gags here amusing, but teens will consider this kids’ stuff and adults will be pained. B.O. for the debut release from Warner’s new Family Entertainment label will depend upon how much of the family market trails along to this automatically by virtue of its brand-name subject, but results will fall way, way short of the “Home Alone” stratosphere that might have been dreamed of at the project’s inception.
Producer-screenwriter John Hughes continues his march down the age scale from adolescence to babyhood with the antics of 5-year-old Dennis Mitchell, renowned after starring for more than 40 years in Hank Ketcham’s comic strip, for four years on an early 1960s TV series and currently in a syndicated animated series. A new Saturday morning cartoon series will debut on CBS-TV this fall.
Hughes prepared for his writing by going through the entirety of Ketcham’s comic strips and trying to distill the highlights. One would have thought this process would yield a cache of comic nuggets, but what’s on screen is a parade of meek outrages perpetrated by a little kid, who can’t help himself, upon an irascible old coot.
There’s no plot per se, just one lame gag after another. Opening scene has little blond Dennis (Mason Gamble) casually torturing next-door neighbor Mr. Wilson (Walter Matthau) in bed, a scene climaxed by the kid shooting aspirin into the man’s mouth with a slingshot.
Natch, Dennis’ parents (Lea Thompson and Robert Stanton) admonish their sprig to cool it, but soon he’s back to his tricks, vacuuming up spilled paint that ends up in Mr. Wilson’s hamburgers, fiddling with his false teeth, pouring toilet cleanser into his mouthwash and creating havoc at a garden party.
In an attempt to introduce some notion of suspense, Hughes drags in a sinister-looking stranger named Switchblade Sam (Christopher Lloyd), who stalks the idyllic town for a while before kidnapping the little tyke. But the evil Sam doesn’t know who he’s tangling with in Dennis, and the sentimentality is laid on thick when Dennis is enthroned as a town hero and good kid after all.
The one real pleasure for adults in the film comes from watching Matthau. His challenge in playing Mr. Wilson lay in inventing an infinite number of reactions to Dennis’ pranks, and Matthau has reached deep into his bag of tricks to deliver a huge assortment of slow burns, simmering grimaces, delayed howls and intolerant glances. It’s a performance worthy of a real Sunshine boy, calling as it does on a repertoire developed by the great vaudevillians and executed delectably by this highly skilled disciple of that tradition.
Gamble has the expected tousled looks and mischievous attitude in the lead, but lacks the charismatic watchability of this generation’s real Dennis, Macaulay Culkin. Lloyd’s scraggly ghoul seems like a brother to Freddy, and the rest of the cast play mild, benign characters who generate no interest.
Basically, Hughes and director Nick Castle have delivered the safest, most innocuous Dennis the Menace possible, having applied little imagination to the creation of an old-fashioned vision of America where the biggest problems are little kids with impish senses of fun. Unfortunately, little of this fun is contagious to the viewer.
Tech credits for this small-scale production are very smooth.