Rated PG - Running Time: 1:40 - Released 8/27/99

Clearly not a high-budget, high-profile film, Kevin Brodie's A Dog Of Flanders is nonetheless a nice story, and is mostly well-acted. Based on the book by 19th century Dutch author Ouida and adapted by Brodie and Robert Singer, the film centers around a poor milk boy in 19th-c. Holland who dreams of becoming a great artist.

When we first meet Nello Daas (Jesse James, As Good As It Gets), he is living with his grandfather (Jack Warden) after the death of his single mother from illness. On their milk run one day, they discover a dying dog. The boy nurses the animal back to health and in so doing establishes an everlasting friendship. Nello also has a burgeoning relationship with a young neighbor girl named Aloise (Madylin Sweeten), who returns his affection. Aloise's father (Steven Hartley) thinks Nello is a nice boy, but too much of a dreamer for his own good. And indeed, while not delivering milk, Nello spends his time doing charcoal drawings — mostly of Aloise.

One day Nello meets Michel La Grande (Jon Voigt), a teacher of art and disciple of the town's most famous artist, Peter Paul Rubens, whose statue stands in the town square. Michel, about to leave for Rome, is impressed by Nello's artworks and resolves to teach him when he returns in a few years. He also encourages him to enter the town's art competition, the winner of which receives 1,000 silver Francs and an art scholarship.

Next thing we know, Nello and Aloise are teenagers (now played by Jeremy James Kissner, who portrayed a similar character last year in Great Expectations, and Farren Monet), and their love has bloomed. An accident leads her father to banish him from their lives, however, and he is soon on the street with only his dog for comfort. But he still has his eye on the prize.

While many films these days attempt to cover for poor acting and plot with amazing special effects, A Dog Of Flanders seems to do the opposite. The few effects are hokey and poorly funded (I've never seen snow look more like plastic flakes), but the talents of Voigt, Warden, and Hartley help keep the cinematic value afloat. The acting of the children leaves a lot to be desired, and since Nello is the main character, this is unfortunate. Kissner, saddled with the most demanding part, is lacking in the skill needed for such a role; his delivery is flat and light on emotion. Doing better is Monet as Aloise; although she doesn't boast nearly the screen time of Kissner, she is spirited and energetic with what she has.

It is the text, however, that deserves most of the credit for any success the film might enjoy.Ouida's story, originally produced in 1914 as a black-and-white, silent short, is a touching treatise on the value of art as well as hard work and integrity. Probably written about 100 years ago (and occasionally looking like it was produced about 50 years ago), A Dog Of Flanders is simple, modest, and flawed, but refreshingly unpretentious. ***½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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