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‘Dennis the Menace’

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 25, 1993


Nick Castle
Walter Matthau;
Christopher Lloyd;
Joan Plowright;
Lea Thompson;
Mason Gamble;
Robert Stanton
Parental guidance suggested

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Loaded with just-this-side-of-sadistic slapstick sight gags perpetrated by a precocious blond tyke, the preview trailer for "Dennis the Menace" leads us to expect "Home Alone 3" -- after all, it's produced and written by "Home Alone" instigator John Hughes. But the fresh and frisky "Dennis" is a much better movie than either "Home Alone."

Boy wonder MacCauley Culkin is getting perilously close to puberty, so Hughes had to find a new antic All-American to fuel his little-monster movies. And he has discovered a worthy successor to Big Mac in 6-year-old natural Mason Gamble, a cowlicked, towheaded tornado who spends the movie scampering through doggie doors and other Sunday funnies business, wreaking havoc while winning hearts with his utterly guileless grin.

Our first glimpse of Dennis is one of those "Jaws" terror shots, with the camera strapped beneath Dennis's barreling bike (with training wheels), cards clattering in the spokes, strings of tin cans clanking behind, slingshot in the back pocket of his overalls, trailing a little red wagon jammed with his collection of stuff (snakes and bugs in bottles) and shaggy dog Ruff bringing up the rear. The whole careening wagon train is thundering toward a quiet suburban house when Dennis slams on the breaks and utters his war cry: "Heeeey Mister Wilson!" -- the bane of his eternally put-upon retired next-door neighbor. The simple situations -- Dennis's mom gets a job, Dennis reluctantly has to stay at his friend Margaret's house, Dennis has to stay over at the Wilsons' house on the night of the big garden party -- provide ample room for Dennis to make some memorable messes.

Director Nick Castle has assembled a cast with a remarkable resemblance to Hank Ketcham's 42-year old comic characters, which have already been brought to life in a TV sitcom, stage musical and animated cartoon. Walter Matthau, at his basset-hound best as Mr. Wilson, grumps and harrumphs to kids' delight. Joan Plowright plays kindly Mrs. Wilson, who finds her maternal instincts stirred by the inadvertently destructive dynamo. And Lea Thompson and Robert Stanton positively leak family values as Dennis's exasperated but loving parents.

Beyond the booby traps and plentiful pranks, "Dennis the Menace" is truly a treat for all ages, tickling kids and reminding grown-ups that their own "inner child" is still very much alive. And lots more mischievous than they remembered.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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