I admit I was afraid to watch this for a long time because I was sure that the dog would die in the end. This is a slight spoiler, but let’s just say there is a happy ending in the film (unlike the classic novel… yikes!).
In 19th century Belgium, poor boy Nello (David Ladd) lives with his grandfather (Donald Crisp) in a small house out in the country. They make their living by pulling a cart into the city of Antwerp and selling milk for local farmers. One day on their way home, they spot a beaten dog lying off the side of the road, left for dead. Well, pull at my heartstrings, they bring the dog home, and even split their meager soup with the mongrel in the hopes that the dog may recover. The dog is named Patrasche and he slowly begins to trust, then love the boy and his grandfather.
Meanwhile, the landlord is constantly breathing down their necks, and grandpa’s leg is getting worse. Soon it is just Nello and Patrasche going into town trying to earn rent money. But Nello is constantly distracted from his peddling. What he really wants to be is an artist, and even sketches with old charcoal from their fire whenever he can. He thinks if he can just win the local art contest for children at Christmastime, the 200 franc prize will save the day.
A Dog of Flanders is a very sweet movie with the dark undertones of a Dickens-style story of extreme poverty and class struggle. Poor Nello befriends a local artist named Piet van Gelder (Theodore Bikel) who is gruff and discouraging of the boy until he sees the kid’s raw talent and—more importantly—the boy’s raw passion for art. Van Gelder is a hoot, telling the kid (after he gives him some paint), “Someday you’ll be struggling with a painting and you’ll be saying to yourself, ‘Bet I should have given me opium than these colors…'” The kid’s wildest dream is to one day see the Rubens’ painting The Elevation of the Cross in the city cathedral, but even the money-grubbing Catholic church won’t let him see it for anything less than a franc. And when it seems that a friendship between neighbor girl Alois may turn into something more, Alois’ middle-class parents forbid poor Nello from ever seeing her again.
A Dog of Flanders is a lovely, glossy children’s movie that benefits greatly from being filmed on location in Belgium, so you know that the green fields, blue skies, and lovely windmills are indeed the real thing. Nello’s story is one of perseverance and passion, two traits that he is able to hold on to, even in the most dire circumstances. It is a timeless and well-made movie that all can enjoy.