The bitch is back, and this time, she’s really coming home. No, it’s not the long awaited fifth “Alien” movie, but the latest screen outing for the loveable femme pooch protagonist, met here returning to her Blighty roots in “Lassie.” Competent journeyman writer-helmer Charles Sturridge (“Brideshead Revisited”) and his overqualified thesp ensemble steer a steady course between dogged fidelity to Eric Knight’s sentimental original novel and modern auds’ need for a little humorous bite with the barking. Result is a well-bred if docile creature that will sniff out a steady supply of B.O. kibble and make many homes happy on ancillary. Pic opened in the U.K. last Friday.
At first a short story and then a 1938 tome for tykes, Knight’s “Lassie Come Home” was initially adapted for the 1943 Roddy McDowall-Elizabeth Taylor-starrer of the same name, thus launching one of the first multi-platform franchises with further pics and a long-running TV series. Somewhere along the way, the heroic Rough Collie was transplanted to the States. This latest Anglo-Irish-French-U.S. co-production reinstates Knight’s Yorkshire-Scotland setting and 1938 time-frame.
Moreover, if it weren’t for its widescreen lensing and recognizably 2005 cast, pic’s lack of self-parody or visual effects (barring a brief and silly CGI cameo from the Loch Ness monster), stolid sincerity and steady four-footed pacing could make it pass as the one of the best family films of 1938.
Main mutt is first met in her home village saving a fox from hounds and red-coated toff hunters, the latter pack led by the Duke of Rudling (Peter O’Toole, looking a frail but still on delightfully feisty form). Rudling is determined to acquire Lassie for his granddaughter Cilla (Hester Odgers), but the pup belongs to the Carraclough family.
However, when miner Sam Carraclough (John Lynch) gets laid off, he and wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) must sell Lassie, which breaks the heart of 9-year-old Joe (Jonathan Mason).
Despite efforts of Rudling’s villainous kennelman Eddie Hynes (Steve Pemberton) to make Lassie stay with them, she repeatedly escapes and goes back to Joe. With WWII approaching, Rudling takes Lassie and Cilla up to the very north of Scotland for safety, but with Cilla’s help the collie busts out, beginning a 500-mile journey via Glasgow back to Yorkshire.
Pic’s midsection belly carries a bit too much fat with constant crosscutting between Cilla, who in mirror storyline gets sent off to boarding school; Joe, mooching around the village, and Lassie, whose has the most amusing adventures. Still, with a light touch, Sturridge’s script conveys anxieties of late-Depression, pre-war times, and trots sympathetically between the various social classes and nationalities Lassie encounters.
Pic’s line-up of supporting players is an embarrassment of riches: Edward Fox (“The Day of the Jackal”) and Peter Greenaway-regular John Standing as cricket-loving gents; Gregor Fisher (classic Blighty TV’s “Rab C. Nesbitt”) as a dog catcher; Kelly Macdonald (“Gosford Park”) as a passerby; Robert Hardy (“Harry Potter”) as a judge; Nicholas Lyndhurst (“Only Fools and Horses”) as a highwayman; and Peter Dinklange (The Station Agent”), as a traveling puppeteer.
Sturridge’s modest, efficient helming, honed on upmarket TV fare as well as “Where Angels Fear to Tread” and “A Handful of Dust,” puts the perfs front and center, and supporting and main thesps alike repay him with canine-style loyalty. Lynch and Morton make the most of their economically written parts as Joe’s put-upon parents, while underage actors Mason and Odgers are appealingly naturalistic.
Onscreen credits are vague about who plays title’s top dog, but if multiple mutts were used, casting ensures continuity, with kudos due to the animal trainers who get her, him or them — without apparent CGI assistance — to walk over the backs of sheep, leap high fences, and perform in puppet shows.
Rest of tech package is well assembled but unexceptional. Blighty’s prop stores must have been nearly emptied to kit out abundant period sets. Credit-listed locations in Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland offer suitably impressive looking landscapes, although Glaswegian viewers might complain that only scant effort has been made to create a convincing facsimile of the Victorian-built city.