Hank Ketcham's problem child, who tracked mud and broke windows in millions of homes through the long-running daily comic and a late-60s sit-com, returns in this Warner Bros. live-action cartoon. Sadly, little of what made the comic strip so charming (and much of what made the sitcom so
irritating) is in evidence here.
The eponymous antihero Dennis (Mason Gamble) unintentionally heaps a flood of physical abuse on weary old Mr. Wilson (irascible Walter Matthau) and his property: he drops, spills, breaks, and tears things; he opens doors that knock over tables; he shoots Wilson with aspirins, golf balls, and
blobs of paint; he puts mouthwash in Wilson's nasal spray and toilet cleaner in the mouthwash bottle. Wilson endures it all, through clenched teeth and irritable asides, mostly in deference to the generous Mrs. Wilson (Joan Plowright). When the Mitchells are unable to find a babysitter to stay
with Dennis for an entire weekend, they nervously approach the Wilsons. To their surprise and Wilson's chagrin, Mrs. Wilson agrees enthusiastically to take in the rapscallion.
Into the neighborhood comes Switchblade Sam (Christopher Lloyd), a sinister vagrant thief. After wandering around town, watching kids at the schoolyard and stealing apples from babies, he snags Wilson's carelessly stored coin collection. When Dennis finds the empty safe, he runs to tell Mr.
Wilson, interrupting the only blossoming his prized "Night Blooming Mock Orchid" will ever have. (This is no real surprise since, about five minutes into the film, we learn that Wilson has been planning for this moment for 40 years.) This is the last straw for Wilson, who banishes Dennis from his
life. Heartbroken by Wilson's rebuke, which is particularly chilling in its calmly deliberate delivery, Dennis runs away from home and straight into the arms of the evil Sam.
Dennis is too naive to realize that he should be terrified: "You can be my hostage," says Sam. "Oh, cool!" Dennis replies. But Dennis soon has the villain hog-tied, burned and beaten so badly he's almost glad to get arrested (by Paul Winfield as the Chief of Police). Dennis returns to Mr.
Wilson's relieved welcome, and the two achieve a rapprochement that will last at least until the closing credits.
Before it falls apart, there are many genuinely amusing moments in this film, some of which even bear the stamp of Ketcham's wry, gentle humor. Gamble plays the role with aggressive cuteness, but is much more in line with Ketcham's vision than the shrill Jay North of the TV series. There's not
nearly enough of Matthau's patented sour grumbling and deadpan sarcasm. Plowright lifts the film by several degrees on those rare occasions when she gets some dialog. There are other talented children in the cast, notably Kellen Hathaway as the clueless Joey and Amy Sakasitz as the bossy Margaret,
but they disappear after about 20 minutes. And veteran nerd Arnold Stang pops up as a news photographer.
Gamble's resemblance to McCaulay Culkin is not the only element of this film that will remind viewers of Hughes' monster HOME ALONE series; the assaults on Wilson and Sam are in the same over-the-top, groin-grabbing, forehead-smashing, nose-poking style, but without the manic energy and gleeful
impishness that make Culkin's films watchable. Director Nick Castle, best known for the offbeat LAST STARFIGHTER, is a competent but uninspired technician, and he breathes little animation into the stock "gotcha" gags. In fact, the film moves very slowly. The vignettes of Wilson's trauma lack the
punch lines to be black-out sketches, but neither do they build toward anything other than more of the same. An hour into the film, we are still waiting for the plot to show up. When it does, we're sorry. There are many lapses in taste in this film, but they reach their nadir in the "kidnapping"
sequence, and not merely because of a bean-eating bit reminiscent of BLAZING SADDLES. Not only is Sam an unhealthy image of homeless people for young children (and even adults), but the violence is so intense--and Sam's viciousness so blatant--that it can be hard to take as comedy.
The film never finds a consistent tone, wobbling back and forth between warm, fuzzy sentimentality and a hard-edged nastiness. Dennis lives in a timeless twilight-zone suburb, wearing overalls, tugging a little red wagon, and carrying a slingshot the likes of which haven't been seen in the U.S.
since the Roosevelt Administration. Kids in this alternate reality don't watch TV or play Nintendo, they play hide-and-seek and build tree houses. And yet they discuss life and reproduction in ways that only adults in the 1990's could invent. There's a lot of "cute" dialog about gender roles, and
many adult-oriented gags about sex. The most notable change from the world of Ketcham's strip, however, is that Mrs. Mitchell (a miscast Lea Thompson) is now a working mom, which appears to be a plot device to get Dennis into the Wilson house and an excuse to insert some gratuitous cheap shots at
working women, especially those without kids.
If the film had spent more time developing the relationship between Dennis and Wilson--with less crudity and more whimsy--it might have been terrific family entertainment. As it is, this film doesn't know who its target audience is. Adults will find it plodding and predictable. Parents of small
children should think twice about letting them see this film: the violence is cartoonish, but still brutal, and much of the dialog will be over their heads. Perhaps teenagers will enjoy it (perhaps they'll get some really neat ideas from it, too). John Hughes' vision of Dennis is much more
menacing than Ketcham's fans and parents of small children might reasonably expect. (Violence.)
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