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DreamWorks Animation grooming Lassie for a return to the spotlight

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She's an American icon with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But it has been four decades since she had her own prime-time TV show, on which her courage, loyalty and knack for saving the day endeared her to millions of baby boomers.

Can Lassie really come home again?

A Hollywood studio is hoping so. DreamWorks Animation, creator of the "Shrek" and "Kung Fu Panda" movies, plans to put the charismatic collie back in the public eye, along with Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and other decades-old characters.

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Lassie, who will celebrate her 75th anniversary in December, is still the world's most famous dog. Introduced in a 1938 Saturday Evening Post short story, and then popularized in a bestselling novel, the fictional dog became the star of the 1943 motion picture "Lassie Come Home," opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall, after catching the eye of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. Six more films followed.

By 1954, she had her own TV series. The CBS show "Lassie," in which the canny canine managed to save Timmy each week from a burning barn, falling tree or runaway automobile, ran for nearly 20 years before going global in syndication and reruns.

"She's heroic, she's loyal, she really is man's best friend," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation's chief executive. "She's the single most recognized pet in the world."

Indeed, a survey conducted by the research firm Penn Schoen Berland this spring found that Lassie had an 83% brand awareness among those polled in the U.S. The words most associated with her: classic, smart, loyal, brave, hero and heartwarming. Another survey by Nielsen found that Lassie had a 70% brand awareness among consumers in China, the world's second-largest film market.

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Lassie is so well known in some countries there are expressions named after her. In Sweden, the expression "Jag mötte Lassie" is used to mean that a celebrity has been sighted. In Argentina, "Tan bueno como Lassie" (roughly translated to "as good natured as Lassie") is used to describe someone friendly.

But familiarity doesn't necessarily translate into ticket sales. Witness the recent flop of the big-screen reboot of Walt Disney's "The Lone Ranger" — and early failed attempts to make new movies out of old TV brands such as "Sgt. Bilko," "McHale's Navy" and "Car 54, Where Are You?"

"They may be iconic to people of a certain age, but people of the age they will be targeting have no idea who Lassie is," said analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen and Co. "These characters have been out of the public circulation for a long time. I'm just not sure how much these brands resonate anymore."

Efforts to revive Lassie's Hollywood career have had mixed results. A 1994 "Lassie" movie from Paramount Pictures made $10 million in U.S. theaters. An Anglo-Irish remake of the 1943 movie, released in 2005 and starring Peter O'Toole, was critically acclaimed but didn't do much business at the domestic box office.

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A Canadian company produced an updated Lassie TV show in the late 1990s, with Timmy and his widowed mom living in Hudson Falls, Vt. The series didn't gain much traction and sparked outrage from some Lassie fans who complained that it was tampering with an American icon.

But Lassie has one advantage over other aging properties: The character is still "alive." The 10th-generation descendant of the original Lassie — a male collie named Pal trained by the late Rudd Weatherwax in the San Fernando Valley — still lives in the L.A. area and makes occasional appearances at dog shows.

DreamWorks last year paid $155 million to acquire the Classic Media library of titles, which along with "Lassie" included such properties as "The Lone Ranger," "George of the Jungle" and "Frosty the Snowman."

The Classic Media library will help form a new crop of TV shows for Netflix and other outlets as DreamWorks, based in Glendale, moves beyond simply producing a few animated movies a year.

Charged with leading "Lassie" and the other properties to new success is former Target Corp. marketing whiz Michael Francis, who joined DreamWorks as its global brand chief in February.

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Francis says Lassie retains a strong brand appeal globally, in part because the original series continues to run in syndication in countries around the world.

"She's the original superhero and stands for the great qualities of loyalty and trust and is a uniquely American icon," Francis said. "Lassie is a property that is at the top of our list, and we're actively developing the Lassie brand to ensure that new audiences are in love with that property."

Although some analysts are skeptical that DreamWorks can teach an old dog new tricks, Katzenberg points to the success Marvel Studios has had in reviving comic book characters such as Thor, Captain America and the other "Avengers."

There is no Lassie TV series or movie in the works just yet — though DreamWorks is developing a "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" film set for release next year. Instead, the studio is developing a multimedia marketing plan to reintroduce the dog.

Lassie will make appearances at such events as dog shows, charity events, children's TV shows, as well as do promotions through social media, Francis said. Lassie already has her own Facebook page.

DreamWorks may also introduce a new line of Lassie-branded pet food, toys and accessories, which also could generate additional licensing revenue for the studio, he said.

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Although DreamWorks and Disney have built successful franchises around new characters, there's also a benefit to working with popular characters that have a proven track record, said Ira Kalb, professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business. "It's a very powerful brand,'' he said. "This dog has a reputation of rescuing people and saving the day, and when you get right down to it, most people like a happy ending."

Jon Provost, who was 7 when he joined the "Lassie" cast as Timmy in 1957, played an older version of Timmy in yet another TV series, called "The New Lassie," that ran for two seasons before it was canceled in 1992.

Provost would like to see Lassie make another comeback. He still does promotions for the original series and signed autographs Saturday at the Hollywood Show at the Westin Los Angeles Airport. He was joined by other celebrities, including June Lockhart, who played his mother in the original TV series, along with a collie.

"A lot of the younger generation has never seen Lassie, so I think it's great to reintroduce it, as long as they keep the tone of the show the way it was originally," Provost said. "Timmy always learned something. He didn't talk back to his parents. It's not like the shows today."

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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