Director: Ron Oliver
Writer: Kathleen Laccinole
Cast: Maxwell Perry Cotton, Robert Wagner, Louise Fletcher, George Newburn, Kim Schraner, Isaac Durnford, Jake Beale, China Anne McClain, Heidi Hayes, Godfrey, Richard Notkin, Jack Noseworthy, Michael Lerner, Walter Massey, Elliott Larson
Notes: Dennis the Menace is one of those properties Hollywood periodically takes down from the shelf, dusts off, and tries again. This is technically a sequel to the 1993 Dennis the Menace film starring Walter Matthau as Mr. Wilson, although none of the original cast is in it as they’re all either dead or way too old to play the parts again. In this version, an encounter with Dennis (Maxwell Perry Cotton) has crushed any Christmas Spirit Mr. Wilson (Robert Wagner) has left. The Christmas Carol stuff doesn’t come in at all until the third act of the movie, where rather than multiple ghosts we get Bob the Angel (Godfrey), who handles the chores for everybody. In fact, for much of the film Bob’s presence makes it feels a little more like an It’s a Wondeful Life pastiche than a take on Dickens.
Thoughts: In case you’ve never read the comic strip or seen the previous movies, here’s Dennis the Menace in a nutshell: he’s a little boy who’s basically good-hearted, but has a propensity towards mischief and disaster. This causes no end of torment for his next door neighbor, retired mailman Mr. Wilson, who Dennis regards as his best friend. This is not a mutual feeling on Mr. Wilson’s part.
This time out the movie begins with the school’s Thanksgiving pageant, where Dennis’s parents Henry and Alice Mitchell (George Newburn and Kim Schraner) are a bit nervous he may wreck the whole thing. George Wilson and his wife Martha (Louise Fletcher) are also in attendance, and Mr. Wilson is even more terrified than the Mitchells that things are going to go haywire. Backstage, pushy stage parent David Bratcher (Jack Noseworthy) instructs his son Jack (Jake Beale) to do whatever it takes to get front and center for the show. Mr. Wilson’s concerns turn out to be correct and disaster strikes. As it turns out, David is an old rival of Henry’s and also the school’s insurance provider, and he points out the “Dennis Clause” in their policy, absolving his company from paying for any destruction caused by Dennis Mitchell. Geez, and Mr. Wilson is the Scrooge in this story? This guy really needs a comeuppance.
As Christmas approaches, Jack harasses Dennis and his friends outside a toy store. Dennis challenges Jack to a bicycle race to get him off his back, but he’ll need a new bike from Santa Claus to pull it off. Back at the Wilson’s house, Mr. Wilson refuses his wife’s pleas to decorate for Christmas. She – along with everyone in town – wishes for a little snow for Christmas, which we’re reminded multiple times hasn’t happened in 30 years, virtually guaranteeing a blizzard by the end of the movie.
Alice gets a part-time job wrapping presents at a department store, and Mrs. Wilson agrees to watch Dennis. When Mr. Wilson falls asleep, though, Dennis gets his hands on a stamp collection worth $10,000, which causes some real trouble for the Mitchells thanks to the aforementioned “Dennis Clause.” I have to admit, I put the blame on Wilson here – if you’ve got a trouble-prone 6-year-old and something worth $10,000 in the same house, you don’t take a nap.
Things get worse and worse, with one disaster after another happening until, on Christmas Eve, Mr. Wilson tells Dennis to go away and never come back and – just to twist the knife a little – says there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. This is the last straw, and he’s visited by Bob the Angel, who has actually been wandering around for most of the movie getting involved in Dennis’s various capers for no apparent reason.
Finally, 59 minutes into the 87-minute movie, Bob starts the Christmas Spiriting. He takes Mr. Wilson back to his childhood, where he’s reminded of his neighbor, Mr. Newman (Walter Massey). Little George (Elliott Larson) turns out to be as dangerous to Mr. Newman’s collection of model ships as Dennis was to Mr. Wilson’s stamps. In the present, he’s shown Henry and Alice tallying up how much money they owe Mr. Wilson for his assorted escapades and they realize they can’t afford to give Dennis much of a Christmas. In fact, they may have to move to a smaller house. Upstairs, Dennis rejects Christmas as “stupid.” When Mr. Wilson hears him saying “the s-word,” he breaks. He’s then tossed to a future where a boy shows up at the Mitchell house, trying to impart some Christmas spirit, but he’s rejected. Dennis – now an old man played by Richard Notkin — spent his whole life trying to get back the house he cost his parents, but never had time for any family or friends. He lives there, pathetic and alone. You can argue, pretty convincingly, that his is a fate worse than Tiny Tim.
When Dennis and the Mitchells wake up in the morning, there’s a new bike there courtesy of “Santa Claus,” and Mr. Wilson shows up to forgive the Mitchells’ debt to him and make up with Dennis. Mrs. Wilson wakes up to a fully-decorated house, because it was the one sin of Mr. Wilson’s that hadn’t been addressed yet. As for the bike race – Dennis actually loses. As it turns out, though, he throws the race – hearing Jack’s father shouting about losers, Dennis realizes Jack needs the win more than he does. The boys make friends, and predictably, the snow starts to fall.
The movie takes an interminably long time to get around to the Scrooge-ish stuff, and it goes through the whole thing (past, present, and future) in less than 15 minutes. It makes sense, I suppose. This isn’t a case like Disney or the Muppets, where the characters are going concerns that are simply being dropped into the classic story. This time around, the focus is more on trying to jumpstart a franchise, with a little Dickens thrown into the mix. Judged purely as a Dennis the Menace movie, therefore, it’s not too bad. The characters are simple enough, and Robert Wagner’s grumpy turn as Mr. Wilson balances things nicely to keep it from getting too saccharine. They take things a bit too far into the cartoony though, with Wagner’s face literally turning red and whistling as smoke hisses from some unseen edifice after Dennis ruins his stamps.
It’s also the kind of story that has virtually no suspense. The conflicts are all laid out in a cookie-cutter fashion and the film marches on directly towards the most obvious solution. You know it’s going to snow simply because it’s been 30 years since it happened. You know Mr. Wilson will forgive Dennis because he does that in every movie. You know Dennis is going to get his bike, and you know there’s a 99 percent chance Mr. Wilson is the one who’ll buy it for him. I know they’re not trying to make groundbreaking cinema here, but does that mean the movie has to feel so cut-and-paste? The only thing that comes as a surprise is when Dennis loses the race, and then there’s an added segment of heartwarming just to make up for it.
I give the film a little credit for self-awareness. At one point, Mr. Wilson turns on Bob saying, “I get it. I’m Scrooge, I need to learn my lesson.” That actually shows the power of Dickens, really. Even when a character is fully aware that he’s getting the Christmas Carol treatment, it still works.
The weird thing is, I probably wouldn’t have cared for this movie too much if I’d watched it by itself. As part 18 of a Scrooge-a-thon, though, it’s actually kind of a refreshing change of pace. So I guess what I’m saying is, if you really want to enjoy A Dennis the Menace Christmas, the best way to do that is to watch 17 other versions of A Christmas Carol first.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!