A Dog Of Flanders

on August 27, 1999 by Francesca Dinglasan
Based on Marie Louise de la Ramée's children's novel of the same title, "A Dog of Flanders" is the moralistic tale of Nello (Jesse James/Jeremy James Kissner), an orphaned boy who strives to overcome the anguish of his poverty with the aid of Patrasche, his loving canine and a fellow victim of lifelong hardship.
Set in a small village in the Belgian region of Flanders, Nello is raised by his grandfather Jehen (Jack Warden) after the death of his artist mother. As he grows older, Nello discovers that he has inherited his mother's talent; and while perfecting his skills, he comes to idolize Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. Prompted by the support of his childhood friend and sketch model Aloise (Madylin Sweeten) as well as village art instructor and patron Michel La Grande (Jon Voight), Nello enters the local scholarship competition for aspiring artists. With a sizeable cash award and the opportunity to receive a formal education on the line, the contest quickly becomes Nello's ticket out of destitution. The urgency of Nello's need to win is amplified by the death of his grandfather, whose funeral expenses leave the young boy even further impoverished.
Despite its billing as a family feature, it's not quite clear which member "A Dog of Flanders" would appeal to. Children of all ages are likely to be bored by the pic's slow pace and disappointed by the lack of screen-time given to the title character (Patrasche's close bond with the boy is more of a passing footnote in the film rather than its thematic focus). Parents can expect to be similarly restless, although their pains could be attributed to the emotionless deliveries of stale lines, including Michel's grandiose words of wisdom to his prodigy, "Reach for the stars!"
While excellent use is made of locations throughout Flanders to depict the grit and austerity of 19th-century working- and lower-class life (especially in contrast to the grandeur of Flemish cathedrals and the work of Rubens), the implication of society's treatment of the poor simply get buried until the all-too-Hollywood happy ending. Moreover, stronger performances all around could have gone a long way in salvaging this classic tale about love, loyalty and faith in the face of extreme indigence. Starring Jack Warden, Jeremy James Kissner, Jesse James, Jon Voight. Cheryl Ladd, Steven Hartley and Bruce McGill. Directed by Kevin Brodie. Written by Kevin Brodie and Robert Singer. Produced by Frank Yablans. A Warner Bros. release. Family. Rated PG for mild violence and mild thematic elements. Running time: 96 min.
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