A Dog of Flanders

Directed by Kevin Brodie
Starring: Jack Warden, Jeremy James Kissner, Jon Voight, Farren Monet, Steven Hartley, Cheryl Ladd.
MPAA Rating: PG for one scene of mild violence, mild language and thematic elements.

Review by Matt Heffernan
August 31, 1999

It is a rare Friday that has two children's movies premiering. There is never room for more than one, and they can cancel each other out. However, this film could be be no more different than Dudley Do-Right, but it isn't any better.

Director Kevin Brodie makes his first family film, based on the classic book by Ouida. This is the fourth film made from it, and the first one in forty years. Outside the city of Flanders, Belgium, a dying woman brings her baby son, Nello, to her father's house. Jehaan Daas (Jack Warden) has not seen her in years, and now he must take care of a boy he saw for the first time that day. Nello (first played by Jesse James from As Good As It Gets, then by Jeremy James Kissner) grows up working for his grandfather and drawing. One day he finds an abandoned dog, and nurses it back to health, while practicing drawing its portrait.

Nello's other chief model is his girlfriend, Aloise (Madylin Sweeten, later Farren Monet). She is from a bourgeois family, and goes to school. He meets an artist in town named Michel La Grande (Jon Voight), who convinces him to enter a painting contest in which he can win 1000 francs. Then he would be able to support his grandfather and have enough money to be acceptable to Aloise's parents.

A Dog of Flanders is not a typical boy-and-his-dog type story. In this film, the dog has little to do with the actual plot, but does serve as a sort of surrogate mother for Nello. The story is more of a class struggle, somewhat like Great Expectations meets Heidi. There is a very good cast, but the direction is slow-paced. Brodie definitely wanted to make a very good picture, but he just didn't have it in him.

It is an acceptable melodrama, with a whole lot of tear-jerking towards the end. You really want to see Nello succeed, because his entire life has been filled with hardship and tragedy. It's OK to pity a character, but it is necessary for a great story to make you feel the character. Pip was a fully realized person in Dicken's novel, and David Lean's 1946 film projected that humanity. This film was more at the level of the 1998 version of Great Expectations.

The question remains: which film should you take your kids to see? They would certainly like Dudley Do-Right a lot more. I don't think today's kids are interested in seeing a period drama. As for adults, the underlying story is too child-oriented. So, I guess it's not really for anybody. To answer the question, take your kids to The Iron Giant. It's by far the best family film out right now, and desperately needs more business. As an intelligent consumer, it is your responsibility to spend your movie-going dollars on the best product. I don't want to sound preachy, but it's a shame when crap like Inspector Gadget makes a ton of money, even though its reviews are almost entirely negative. Meanwhile, a true gem like The Iron Giant, which is universally lauded, gets lost in the shuffle.

A little trivia: Cheryl Ladd plays Aloise's mother in this film. Her older brother, David, played Nello in the 1959 version.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
A Dog of Flanders (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
A Dog of Flanders (1999) -- VHS
A Dog of Flanders, a novella by Ouida -- Paperback

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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan