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‘Lassie’ makes a welcome return to movies

This dog story is sure to make even the most hard-hearted shed tears
Publicity photograph shows scene from new film Lassie
Actor Jonathan Mason and Lassie are shown in a scene from the new film 'Lassie' in this undated publicity photograph. The popular collie comes home to a new generation of U.S. children as a new film featuring Lassie and a young boy in wartime England opens in movie theaters. NO SALES NO ARCHIVES REUTERS/Samuel Goldwyn Films/Handout (UNITED STATES)Samuel Goldwyn Films / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you think it’s time to work through some emotional baggage, or maybe you’re just in need of a good, long cry, save the money you’d spend in therapy and go see “Lassie” instead.

Calling the film cathartic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Bring tissues — and not one of those dinky purse-sized packs, either. This is 200-sheet, value-box time, especially if you’re a dog person.

But you’ll feel really calm and peaceful afterward, really good. And feel-good is clearly the aim of this faithful remake of 1943’s “Lassie Come Home,” written and directed by Charles Sturridge (“Brideshead Revisited”) and based on the novel by Eric Knight.

In case it’s been awhile, here’s a refresher course: On the verge of World War II in a Yorkshire mining town, the hardscrabble Carraclough family must sell their beloved collie, Lassie, to a duke who wants the dog to join him on fox hunts. Homesick and apparently possessed of preternatural navigation and survival skills, Lassie escapes while on a trip to the northern tip of Scotland and travels 500 miles to return to her family. Just in time for Christmas.

It’s an incredibly simple tale told in a shamelessly manipulative manner. No such thing as subtlety here: Sturridge doesn’t just tug on the heartstrings, he yanks at them relentlessly. But it’s effective — and yours truly isn’t just saying that because she had a collie named Bingo as a little girl.

“Lassie” is also lushly photographed — all those rolling hills and dramatic cliffs, you know — and features an esteemed cast that includes Peter O’Toole, Samantha Morton and Peter Dinklage in a brief but moving supporting role. (Though the talented dogs, and their trainers, are equally as essential.)

And there’s just something refreshingly quaint and classic about the Lassie stories, something so pure about the idea that the relationship between a boy and his dog can provide not just satisfying family entertainment, but a transforming moviegoing experience. That’s especially true compared to the myriad, interchangeable animated films that come out each year, with their product tie-ins and all-star vocal casts.

Here it’s just 9-year-old Jonathan Mason as the tiny, precocious moppet Joe Carraclough, who looks forward to nothing more than having his dog meet him at the gate at the end of each school day to walk him home. One day, though, the Duke of Rudling (O’Toole, who’s a hoot as the cantankerous aristocrat) spots Lassie while in town with his young granddaughter, Priscilla (Hester Odgers), and approaches Joe’s parents (Morton and John Lynch) about buying her.

At first they say no. After all, as Joe so poignantly points out, “Lassie’s my dog!” But once the coal mine shuts down and dad finds himself out of work, the Carracloughs change their mind.

Once at the manor, Lassie’s so frighteningly smart — that’s got to be wisdom in those piercing brown eyes, right? — she repeatedly manages to burrow under or leap over her cage to find her way home. (Which prompts the mean old dog trainer to take off his belt and try to beat her into submission, a moment that’s sure to inspire not just tears but gasps of horror from viewers.)

With a little help from impish Priscilla, who dreams of escaping herself to avoid boarding school, Lassie runs off from a faraway fox hunt. Along the way, the brave dog encounters adversaries (all of whom she outsmarts, of course) and unexpected allies, including the diminutive Dinklage as a traveling puppeteer who feeds her and incorporates her into his act alongside his own scruffy terrier. She gets wet, dirty, cold and hungry — but miraculously, never lost.

So no, it’s not exactly realistic. But there is a sense of moral balance in Lassie’s world that’s enviable. People are cruel to the dog and bad things happen to them. Those who are good to her end up being rewarded.

Think of it as canine karma.