While I am usually loathe to see works of literature radically changed for their Hollywood versions, in the case of A Dog of Flanders, I must say that the more or less happy, if really, really treacly, ending the film comes up with keeps the film from being a jaw dropping horror, which it no doubt would have been had the filmmakers opted for Ouida's novel's original ending. I don't want to post spoilers in either direction (good or bad ending wise), but let's just say in the original story, little boy Nello and his dog Patrasche don't exactly live happily ever after. And if you want to know the whole story, simply remove "happily ever after" from that last sentence and then re-read it to get an idea of what I'm talking about.
A Dog of Flanders has been filmed several times, in both live action and, strangely enough, anime, from as early as 1914 to as recently as 1999. And yet most fans of the original story tend to prefer this 1960 Fox release, directed by journeyman James B. Clark (a man who made most of his living from episodic television and who had only a handful of feature films to his credit, including another boy and his animal--well, mammal--story, Flipper). The film is a gentle 90 minute or so stroll through 19th century life in Flanders, that northern tip of Europe that includes parts of present day France, Belgium and the Netherlands. A young boy, Nello (David Ladd, son of Alan), and his grandfather (Donald Crisp), poor milkmen, stumble across a beaten and dying dog one day on their travels. At Nello's urging, they take the dog in and nurse him back to health. Nello, an aspiring artist, names the dog Patrasche, after Peter Paul Reubens' dog. Nello also befriends a temperamental artist (is there any other kind?), played by Theodore Bikel. There's a subplot involving a wealthy family who lives next door to Nello and his grandfather, and whose father wants his young daughter to find more suitable (read wealthy) friends to play with other than the poor Nello.
And that's basically the film in a nutshell. Yes, we have the evil former owner of Patrasche, who shows up about halfway through the film and then meets one of the most unintentionally funny endings ever captured on celluloid. And we have the slightly smarmy landlord of Nello's grandfather, who keeps trying to buy the brass bed that is the grandfather's only remaining remnant of his long marriage to his now deceased wife. And Bikel's character engages in various manic-depressive episodes, so that you never know for sure whether he's going to encourage Nello in his artistic ambitions or throw a palette at the poor kid's head. Finally, there's the sort of priest who gives Christian charity a bad name, by consistently depriving Nello of the chance to see the famous Reubens triptych housed in the cathedral in Antwerp, all because Nello doesn't have the one franc admission charge.
If this is an overtly sentimental film, with a not very commanding lead performance by David Ladd, it has some of the most gorgeous location footage ever caught by a Cinemascope lens. Belgium and Holland provide bountiful color and ambience throughout this film, and Clark does an amazingly good job of filling the huge widescreen image with far flung vistas absolutely crammed with gorgeous color. The film has several obvious Lassie tie ins--Crisp, who costarred in several Lassie features through the years, being the most notable one in front of the camera. But pay attention to the credits, and you'll see Patrasche's trainer was one of the Weatherwaxes, the family that trained the many collies who played Lassie through the years. The dog really isn't called upon to do much in the way of tricks in the film, and is, in fact, a sort of tangential character when you get right down to it. But in a world that seems filled with transitory comings and goings for those around Nello, Patrasche is at least a loyal and loving friend, constantly by Nello's side.
I was more than a little surprised to see this film released by Koch subsidiary E1 Entertainment. Did Fox lose the licensing rights to its own film (a previous VHS release was on Paramount)? I was especially worried when I viewed the extra "trailer" first, and saw that it was a cobbled together, full frame promo obviously made specifically for this DVD release. But my qualms were put to rest once the film started. This is a more or less sterling transfer (more about which below), properly preserving the film's 2.35:1 original Cinemascope aspect ratio, and preserving the film in remarkably good shape.
A Dog of Flanders is a quiet, unassuming film that nonetheless should touch the hearts of anyone who has ever turned to a beloved pet for comfort. There's little flash and next to no sturm und drang throughout the film, but the unbelievably lovely location photography and the gently heartstrings-tugging storyline should make a nice family home movie evening, especially for those with younger children.