Alfred Hitchcock once said that a thriller is only as good as its villain, so shouldn’t a “Dennis the Menace” be only as good as its menace?
Well, yes and no. As the infamous Dennis Mitchell in the new film version, little Mason Gamble isn’t very menacing, but his bemused peskiness is a welcome relief after the hyperenergized Macaulay Culkin of the “Dennis"-style “Home Alone” films. He’s almost recognizably human. This John Hughes production (citywide) based on the Hank Ketcham comic strip is pretty tepid tomfoolery but at least it’s not assaultive in the way that most kids’ films are nowadays. It’s trying for giggles instead of guffaws.
The “Dennis” comic strip, early ‘60s TV show and currently syndicated animated series all opt for an Everytown U.S.A. blandness--pipsqueak rebellion in a ‘50s time warp. The movie, directed by Nick Castle from Hughes’ script, is still caught up in that warp (with a few concessions, like the fact that both of Dennis’ parents now work). This means that Dennis doesn’t get into any high-tech shenanigans. No computers, no video games, no laser guns. The film pretty much sticks to the old-fashioned basics: Dennis spills a jar of paint, Dennis wrecks the dentures of his grumpy nemesis and neighbor, Mr. Wilson (Walter Matthau), Dennis accidentally clonks a scurvy thief (Christopher Lloyd). Since this Dennis is only 5 years old, perhaps the decision was made to keep things slapstick-simple. Or could it be that the filmmakers regard Dennis as a “classic"--like, say, Huck Finn or Penrod?
This sort of misplaced reverence probably won’t do much for young audiences accustomed to a little more zap and bounce in their heroes. Parents might be grateful, though. The shenanigans in “Dennis the Menace” (rated PG for comedic mischief) are mostly so mildly conceived and executed that kids aren’t likely to try them out on their families when they get home from the theater. Mom and Dad won’t have to lock up the frying pans.
Walter Matthau is perfect casting as Mr. Wilson and he seems to know it. He enjoys being a crotchety grouch. Of course, he always has, even when he was too young to be playing old coots. Matthau doesn’t turn Wilson into a darling; he’s a sourpuss who snorts in his sleep and hasn’t a kind word for anyone except his infinitely patient wife (Joan Plowright). Matthau’s performance seems to be out of Charles Dickens and not Hank Ketcham or John Hughes, and he makes a lot of Dennis’ scenes possible. Also, his vocal whine has never sounded closer to W.C. Fields’, and this must be some sort of tribute. Fields, that great lover of child actors, would have elevated the role of Mr. Wilson to heights of ecstatic nastiness.
If Hughes was expecting this film to create another pipsqueak franchise for him, he may have miscalculated. “Dennis the Menace” seems more like a rest period in between Culkin-ized tantrums. It’s not much--just one goofy little foul-up after another--but its lack of crassness is rather sweet.
‘Dennis the Menace’
Walter Matthau: Mr. Wilson
Mason Gamble: Dennis Mitchell
Joan Plowright: Martha Wilson
Lea Thompson: Alice Mitchell
A Warner Bros. release of a John Hughes production. Director Nick Castle. Producer Hughes. Executive producer Ernest Chambers. Screenplay Hughes, based on characters created by Hank Ketcham. Cinematographer Thomas Ackerman. Editor Alan Heim. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design James Bissell. Art director Michael Baugh. Set designer Karen Fletcher. Set decorator Eve Cauley. Sound Jim Alexander. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.