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A Dog of Flanders

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 27 August 1999

A Dog of Flanders

Directed by Kevin Brodie.

 Starring Jack Warden, 
Jeremy James Kissner, Jesse James, 
Jon Voight, Cheryl Ladd, 
Steven Hartley, Farren Monet, 
Madyline Sweeten, and Bruce McGill.

Written by Kevin Brodie and Robert Singer, 
based on the novel by

Step into the darkened theater and the familiar smell may not hit you immediately. Watch your step, though, because A Dog of Flanders is nothing but cinematic doggy poo. Wafting through more than an hour and a half of this maudlin piece are too many moments of wooden acting creaking under the weight of fake snow drifts and imitation drama. The uninspired attempts to make the plight of a lowly orphan endearing will have so bored the audience by film’s end that exit polls will indicate they would have rather spent the time picking navel lint. Heck, if you were smart enough to leave early you’re one up on everyone else who manages to stick this dog out. Agonizingly one-dimensional and sickly saccharine, this family feature from Warner Bros. deserves a quick fade to the video dust bin faster than you can say “Belgian waffle.”

Based on the popular children’s book by Ouida, published over 125 years ago, this latest adaptation (following 1914, 1924, 1935, and 1959 films, in addition to a German television version in 1976), is a dreary effort about a cute lad and his aging, gout-ridden grand-papa, the oeuvre of the late, great artist Peter Paul Rubens (who makes a cheerless, ghostly appearance late in the film) and its influence on the boy, and Patrasche, a mangy Bouvier des Flanders as the small family’s best friend.

A Dog of FlandersEven the lovely Belgian landscapes, where the film was shot on location evoking early 19th-century life among the windmills and farms, aren’t all that impressive. Actually they’re pretty drab in their depressing brown and pinkish hues. Amid these humble settings arrives Nello (played by Jeremy James Kissner and, slightly older, by Jesse James) and Jehan Daas, his grandfather (Jack Warden), their artistically-inclined mother/daughter dead in the opening scene and the men left to fend for themselves a harsh peddler’s life at the cursed hands of a deceptive, lascivious landlord (Andrew Bicknell, daubing a bland, stereotypical tint on his “You must pay the rent!” character)

There’s little to recommend here as the boy’s creative talent is nurtured by the inane homilies (“Reach for the Stars”, “If you know yourself, you know her.”) of Michel La Grande, a local artist that the audience immediately recognizes as someone more closely related to the child than just an ardent admirer. Jon Voight, many years removed from his best performances (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home) looks ridiculous in his aristocratic period garb, muttonchops, and fright wig. Former Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd strains for notice as a maternal influence and family cornerstone, but her role is just as poorly scripted as the rest. Character actor Bruce McGill comes off the best as the village blacksmith with a heart of gold.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on the thespians. The true fault lies in Kevin Brodie’s misguided, preachy direction. A former child star turned director of the lackluster 1984 comedy Delta Pi (Mugsy’s Girls)  before segueing ten years later with the forgotten and forgettable Treacherous, a title that now best describes Brodie’s career plans after his latest Waterloo.

A Dog of FlandersBasically witless and with limited comedic relief and a laughable puppy-love subplot, the film devolves into a Job-like descent for the older Nello, who stumbles through false accusations, poverty, and loneliness before collapsing in the town church at the foot of the Rubens masterpiece The Taking Down of Christ in search of warmth and redemption (which he finds in a Christmassy out-of-body experience). Equally lacking is a coherent grasp on continuity. Nello is shown painting but barely has a speck on his hands or face. In the climactic scene before the Dutch master work showered in heavenly sunlight, Nello’s face, eyebrows, and hair are sprinkled with ice crystals from the night before (actually it looks more like frosted sugar), a coating that has no reason to be there.

Of course by this time, you realize, too late, you also have no reason to still be there watching this film. A Dog of Flanders is no Dutch treat. Pull your finger from the dike and let the waters of the Zuyder Zee flush this one out to sea.

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