“A Dog of Flanders” unleashes classic themes: Goodness guides tale of orphan

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
August 27, 1999

2.5 stars

Nello (Jeremy James Kissner)
Young Nello (Jesse James)
Michel (Jon Voight)
Directed by Kevin Brodie. Written by Brodie and Robert Singer.
Running time: 102 minutes. Rated PG (for mild violence). Opening today at local theaters.

 

For those unfamiliar with the 19th century children’s book of the same name, “A Dog of Flanders” is a cryptic sounding title for a movie.

Is the movie about a dog? And who’s this Flanders that he belongs to?

The film is less about a dog than it is a tale of goodness and honesty that – as many of these tales do – revolves around a sweet, orphaned boy determined to  better himself. Living in Flanders, the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium, young Nello (Jeremy James Kissner) befriends an abused dog, which he names Patrasche – his mother’s middle name.

“Never underestimate the power of love,” viewers are told.  The same might be said for familiarity.

Part “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol,” the movie leaves few surprises.  We learn early on that Nello’s mother was a promising artist. Later, Nello meets Michel (Jon Voight), a master artist whose likeness was once drawn by a promising student.

Hello, Nello. The adult viewer will be able to figure out the true relationship between Nello and Michel faster than you can say, “Great Expectations.” But for youngsters, the revelation at the end of the film will be satisfying.

As Nello, Kissner’s blond Dutch boy looks belie a sweet sense of somber melancholy, especially in the scenes when he is sketching his best friend Aloise. The adult actors have little more to do than to fill cliched roles (protective father, nurturing mother, loving grandfather, benevolent stranger, evil landlord) and look silly in their bad wigs.

But the real star of this family film is the lush scenery, which was shot on location in Flanders. The historical sites are textbook perfect. And the way the surrounding countryside is shot gives viewers a sense of being there.        It almost makes your forgive the “snow,” which resembles little packing peanuts more than anything else.

Jae-Ha Kim previews film and entertainment highlights Fridays on Channel 32’s noon newscast.

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