Literary purists likely will be appalled, but many parents may appreciate the liberties taken by the makers of “A Dog of Flanders,” the fifth big-screen version of the classic children’s tearjerker. By replacing the original’s heart-wrenching climax with a far more upbeat conclusion, director Kevin Brodie and co-screenwriter Robert Singer are off the hook for any charges of unduly traumatizing moppets drawn to what’s being promoted as family-friendly entertainment. Trouble is, even with the revised ending, this “Dog” won’t hunt. Although well crafted and handsomely mounted, pic lacks sufficient sizzle to be a significant B.O. contender. It doesn’t help much that the Warners release is hitting theaters after many youngsters have already returned to school. Slightly rosier prospects lie ahead in ancillary venues.
Like previous screen versions — including 1924’s “Boy of Flanders,” which toplined Jackie Coogan — new adaptation adds several new characters and dramatic embellishments to the slender narrative penned by Marie Louise de la Ramee (a.k.a. Ouida) in 1872. Set in a small village in early 19th century Belgium, latest version focuses on the close friendship between Nello, a plucky young orphan raised by his kindly grandfather, and Patrasche, his beloved dog, a resourceful Bouvier.
Despite their abject poverty, Nello (played in early scenes by 9-year-old Jesse James) and grandfather Jehan (Jack Warden) assume responsibility for the dog after it’s been severely beaten and left for dead by its cruel owner. As Patrasche grows stronger, and the aged Jehan grows weaker, Nello (played as an adolescent by Jeremy James Kissner) uses his dog to pull his milk cart to customers in a nearby town.
In the local square, Nello — a budding artist who has carefully studied the drawings in his late mother’s sketchbook — tries to sketch a statue of artist and local hero Peter Paul Rubens. Impressed by the lad’s efforts, renowned painter Michel La Grande (Jon Voight) provides Nello with paints and brushes, and strongly encourages the boy to enter an upcoming art competition.
Nello’s model of choice is his best friend Aloise (Madyline Sweeten as a kid, Farren Monet as a teenager), the pretty daughter of mill owner Carl Cogez (Steven Hartley). But Cogez doesn’t want his daughter so close to a poor boy with few prospects. The miller turns a deaf ear to his wife (Cheryl Ladd) when she tries to remind him that, not so long ago, he was even more destitute than Nello. Things get only worse when a lecherous landlord (Andrew Bicknell) accidentally sets fire to the mill — and convinces Cogez that Nello deliberately caused the blaze.
All the more desperate to demonstrate his potential as a world-class artist, Nello submits his masterwork to the competition. La Grande, one of the judges, instantly recognizes the painting as a work of enormous promise. Unfortunately, the other judges favor a more “suitable” candidate for recognition.
Filmed entirely on location in Flanders, the new “Dog” is photographed by Belgian lenser Walther van den Ende in appropriately Rubenseque tones. The evocative production design of Hubert Pouille and Attila F. Kovacs augments the period flavor.
It’s only when the actors open their mouths that the verisimilitude is undermined, for the accents are all over the map. While Voight, in the film’s best performance, uses subtle inflections to suggest a Flemish heritage, Warden falls back on an all-purpose Hearty Peasant speech pattern.
Bruce McGill is notably good in a robust turn as a village blacksmith. A few adult supporting players sound as though they wandered in from a BBC drama, and the child actors are unmistakably American, including Kissner and James, who are reasonably compelling as Nello.
For a mainstream release from a major distrib, pic is unusually and refreshingly nonchalant when it comes to acknowledging the religious faith of its characters. People matter-of-factly call on God for help, and confidently await reconciliation with departed loved ones in heaven. Taking their cue from the book, Brodie and Singer emphasize the spiritually uplifting beauty of a Rubens masterpiece — “The Taking Down of Christ” — that profoundly affects Nello.
Given all this, however, the upbeat ending seems even more of a cheat, particularly in the astonishingly hokey sequence when the ghost of Rubens (Dirk Lavrysen) makes a special guest appearance to accompany Nello on an out-of-body experience.