Since Hollywood finds itself continually going to the TV well for bigscreen source material, it was probably inevitable that a tube and film evergreen like “Lassie” would get a ’90s update. New telling is a well-wrought, affecting adventure, thanks to the steady hand of vet helmsman Daniel Petrie and a sensitive, insightful screenplay that focuses on the human drama while providing a long leash to the famed collie’s canine charisma, cunning and athletic prowess. This “Lassie” is classy, and B.O. should be the same.
Those in search of surprises in a “Lassie” update are barking up the wrong tree, but the virtues of this outing should satisfy both small fry and accompanying grown-ups. Strongest appeal lies in the sharply observed and emotionally rich portrayal of a family confronting challenges together.
When contractor Steve Turner (Jon Tenney) moves his family from Baltimore to the ancestral country home of his late wife, least thrilled is teen son Matthew (Thomas Guiry). Little sister Jennifer (Brittany Boyd) is more enthusiastic, and stepmom Laura (Helen Slater) is supportive.
On the way to their old Virginia home, Lassie leaps into their car and their lives, and helps them face the challenges of living on the land.
It doesn’t hurt that their best shot at a livelihood involves sheep ranching, and Lassie just happens to be a pro sheep wrangler. Matthew’s icy resolve quickly melts, and the entire family begins to acclimate to country life.
There are a few thorns in the garden, however, including rival sheep rancher Sam Garland (Frederic Forrest) and his sons Jim (Charlie Hofheimer) and Josh (Clayton Barclay Jones).
One of the strongest elements of this “Lassie” is the authenticity of the Garland clan and their modern farming ethos. The two sons are particularly well-cast, and the script by Matthew Jacobs, Gary Ross and Elizabeth Anderson skillfully weaves details and psychological nuances of these other key characters into a sturdy, well-conceived blend.
Less satisfying is Tenney’s role, which seems uncertainly drawn, and he settles into playing a by-the-numbers almost-perfect Dad. Slater gets more out of her character, and particularly affecting are her moments of growing appreciation and love from the children.
Guiry is a pleasant juvenile lead, and Michelle Williams gives a winning perf as his love interest.
But what makes “Lassie” work is the craftsmanship and thoughtfulness that director Petrie and his creative team bring to the task. Particularly strong is Kenneth MacMillan’s economical lensing, which is understated, yet capable of delivering a touch of grandeur when required.
While some may scoff at the validity of yet another “Lassie,” the filmmakers clearly took the assignment seriously, and looked past its rather mixed recent TV history toward its classic elements. This “Lassie” may be short on new tricks , but for an old dog it still has plenty of smarts.