Half a century has passed since Old Yeller, but it might as well be half a millennium, because the very idea of a loveable dog suffering hardship and possible death—and not being able to sass off in a celebrity voice, either—couldn't be further from today's cuddly cinema standards. If nothing else, the new Lassie movie counts as a throwback to a time when animals could withstand a little abuse if it meant an extra-hard tug on the heartstrings. How hard? Consider this scene: A gap-toothed moppet in pre-World War II Yorkshire loses his beloved collie after his dirt-poor father loses his mining job and the family has to sell the dog for dinner money. Like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, the loyal pup keeps escaping her pen and running back home. After the third escape, the boy is forced to escort the dog back to the cage, saying "Bad girl. Don't come home again. We don't love you any more."
If that doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you're a robot with cross-wired circuitry. Children's films don't get more wrenching than the new Lassie, but it takes 90 minutes of unremitting grimness and brutality to reach that tiny sliver of redemptive joy. Peter O'Toole leads a first-rate cast as a stodgy but loveable duke who spots Lassie in a Yorkshire alleyway and decides he must add her to his stable, if only to please his granddaughter. Over their son's objections, John Lynch and Samantha Morton sell her when the mines close down, but the collie keeps coming back. When O'Toole moves 500 miles north to Scotland, it seems that Lassie is gone for good, but the old girl escapes from her belt-wielding handler and makes the long journey home.
Watching Lassie, it's hard not to recall the Simpsons episode where Bart orders a collie via credit card and she greets him by gathering a fruit basket as a welcome gift. This is one smart dog, so smart that it somehow seems entirely plausible that she could be smuggled in a van to northern Scotland and trot her way back to Yorkshire in time for Christmas Eve mass. Writer-director Charles Sturridge doesn't mess with the Lassie formula—he provides plenty of dog-porn shots of the collie bounding through scenery in slow motion—but the overqualified cast puts the film over the top. O'Toole is unsteady these days, but his presence alone dignifies a stock character, as does Morton's touching performance as the sort of tough-willed mother who spends most of her time hanging whites on a makeshift clothesline. By the time Peter Dinklage shows up as a traveling puppeteer, it's a wonder the movie has any use for the dog at all.