Written by Hank Ketcham and John Hughes
Directed by Nick Castle
John Hughes will long be regarded as a great filmmaker, mostly for his teen angst films of the 1980s. Dennis the Menace has been a cute cartoon for years and a decent television show, despite the later revelations by the show’s star. Why did that combination make such an awful film? I can’t say for sure. As a parent, I look at everything in this film that was supposed to be cute and see nothing but what horrified me about other parents. Perhaps John Hughes (who also wrote the film) was that sort of a parent. You know the kind – no matter how obnoxious, bratty, or undisciplined the child is, they act like we all should delight in everything their child does as “cute”.
Dennis (portrayed by Mason Gamble) is a five-year-old boy who lives next to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson (portrayed by Walter Matthau and Joan Plowright). The film opens with Dennis barging into the Wilson home while Mr. Wilson pretending to be asleep. When Dennis makes up his mind that Mr. Wilson is sick, he takes a bottle of aspirin off of a medicine-laden nightstand and shoots it into his mouth with his slingshot.
I suppose it’s funny. To some people. Not to me.
Dennis seems to be undisciplined. His parents (portrayed by Robert Stanton and Lea Thompson) seem sweet but hapless and unable to do anything with their son except talk to him, which he subsequently ignores. Why isn’t he grounded? Why isn’t he monitored and not allowed to have the run of the neighborhood?
Mom is about to go back to work. She states that for the summer Dennis will be playing at Margaret’s house. Dennis hates Margaret. He begs Mom to let him go back to school instead. These moments to me capture what was good about the comic strip. Dennis could be funny without putting other people’s lives in danger. When Dennis is just a curious little boy who asks a lot of questions and tries to help but screws it up unintentionally, the film has potential. Unfortunately, those moments seem few and far between. Most of the time it seems that Dennis does something he shouldn’t be doing in the first place, then tries to cover it up by doing something even worse. All the while, the audience is supposed to laugh and think this is cute.
Want more examples? Dennis is helping himself to paint in the garage when he spills it. He gets the shop-vac and proceeds to try and vacuum it up. Right behind where he’s vacuuming is a can clearly labeled Gasoline. That’s not the joke, though. The joke is he switches the vacuum from intake to out and shoots a blob of paint onto the Wilson’s barbecue. The paint blends in with the chicken and Mr. Wilson doesn’t realize there’s anything wrong until he takes a bite.
Okay, where’s the accountability? Shouldn’t Dennis have asked for help after the first spill? I know that’s what I try to teach my kids and I think adults laughing at behavior we wouldn’t stand for in real life sends a very mixed message.
Want more? Dennis brings a note of apology to Mr. Wilson and goes to leave it by his razor. However, he starts playing with his false teeth and breaks them, sending some of the teeth down the sink.
He goes to stay with the Wilsons when both of his parents have to go on business trips. He empties a bottle of prescription nose drops then refills it with a combination of mouthwash and cleaning fluid – and we’re supposed to think this is cute? Between that and the pain incident, Mr. Wilson should have been in the hospital having his stomach and lungs pumped, yet there is never any real consequence to any of Dennis’ actions.
The one bright spot is the acting. I did like Mason Gamble a lot and think in a better film he would have been better appreciated. He and Walter Matthau play off each other quite well. The audience gets that the two of them really like each other, even before the forced ending where Mr. Wilson finally snaps and says something he regrets, which is supposed to excuse everything Dennis has done up until that point. The rest of the cast is secondary to the two of them and they do manage to entertain. I just wish they had a better script to work with.
To top it off, I didn’t like the message the film sent about mothers and working. This plays on the guilt the mother, Alice, feels for being away, but the father is never shown experiencing any guilt at having to be away. Alice was expected to change her schedule when they both had business trips, but not the father. She is shown crying in the hotel room while being away from Dennis, but no remorse or regret is ever shown by the father. I could understand it if the setting were shown to be the same as the television series back in the 1950s, but it was supposed to be the 1990s.
To its credit, the DVD has a lot of extras. Hearing John Hughes talk about Mason Gamble in the same context as other artists he discovered such as Molly Ringwald and Macaulay Culkin is nice. There are some good featurettes in this as well as film commentary with Hughes. If you are one of those people who do like the film, the DVD is worth purchasing. However, for those like me who don’t get what’s funny about kids like this and abhor parents like Dennis’ who write everything he does off as “he’s just a boy” and expect the rest of the world to suffer for their lack of parenting skills, there’s not a lot to laugh about.
• A Menace Named Dennis
• Memories of a Menace with Mason Gamble
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
• A Conversation with Walter Matthau
• A Conversation with John Hughes
• Dennis’ Tin Can Challenge
• Theatrical Trailer
• Dennis the Menace Strikes Again Trailer
Categories: Movie Reviews