REMEMBER the meaty, two-handkerchief films of the '50s and '60s, like "All Mine to Give," "Old Yeller," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and, from the early '70s, "Sounder"? "A Dog of Flanders" is a touching throwback to that tradition, telling a beautiful, sad, spiritual story with joy and delicacy, visual chops and emotional depth.
Director (and co-screenwriter) Kevin Brodie conjures rich performances and a delicate, painterly look for his version of the beloved 1872 novella by Englishwoman Marie-Louise de la Ramee (pen name, Ouida). Set in the Belgian low country near Antwerp, it's about a poor Flemish boy with a genius for drawing, his fond grandfather and their loyal dog, and how they're ill-used by the bourgeois world.
Other than one or two tacky ballads on the soundtrack, the rest of this modestly budgeted film feels right. Such emotional, cultural and spiritual resonance is rare nowadays; there's as much talk of God and faith as there is of Rubens, but it's character-specific, not cloying.
"A Dog of Flanders" opens in a blizzard, as a woman dies, leaving her baby boy with his grandfather (Jack Warden), a cheerful, pious man. Nello (played as a young boy by Jesse James) and his near-lame granddad live in congenial poverty, delivering milk for local dairy farmers. They discover a Bouvier des Flandres working dog on the road, left to die after a brutal beating. They nurse him to health and name him Patrasche. Soon the shaggy dog is happily pulling their milk cart.
Nello has a love and talent for art inherited from his mother, but because he's poor, the priests in Antwerp cathedral won't let him glimpse the great painting ("The Taking Down of Christ," 1611) by his idol and countryman, Peter Paul Rubens, that hangs above the altar. A local artist (Jon Voight in a warm, low-key performance) befriends the boy and encourages his talent.
Years later, a teenage Nello (now Jeremy James Kissner), still determined to be a great painter, is forbidden to see his only friend, pretty Aloise (Madyline Sweeten as a child, Farren Monet as a teen) by her stern father (Steven Hartley). He suspects Nello of arson, and though her mother (Cheryl Ladd) defends the boy, her dad spreads the rumor. As they pile up, the vicissitudes of Nello and Patrasche become positively operatic.
Director Brodie and co-writer Robert Singer cleave largely to the book's plot and its quaint dialogue. They've fleshed out the narrative and added moments of lightness the book lacks. They've also tweaked its bleak ending into a sunnier one, doing no violence to the heart-rending events that come before.
A DOG OF FLANDERS (PG, 102 minutes) -- Contains themes of loss, animal abuse, subtle sexual innuendo, rare mild profanity. Area theaters.