The 90s on Netflix: Beethoven (1992)
Mark Harrison | On 28, Jan 2023
Director: Brian Levant
Cast: Charles Grodin, Bonnie Hunt, Dean Jones, Oliver Platt, Stanley Tucci, Chris the St Bernard
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
So often with this column, there’s a balance between weighing nostalgia against longevity, while also rediscovering insane plot points you didn’t remember existed. In the case of 1992’s Beethoven, is it any good or is it just a passing fancy you remember loving when you were a kid? And do those movie villains really want to see what happens when you shoot an experimental ammunition round into a big dog’s head?
After dog-nappers Vernon (Stanley Tucci) and Harvey (Oliver Platt) inadvertently liberate a St Bernard puppy from a pet shop, he ambles through the Newton family’s house and into their affections. Much to the delight of mum Alice (Bonnie Hunt) and kids (Nicholle Tom, Christopher Castile and Sarah Rose Kerr) and the chagrin of dad George (Charles Grodin), the family adopt him and call him Beethoven.
Before long, Beethoven is a 200-pound adult dog (played by canine actor Chris) and he’s everything the family needs. Aside from companionship, he saves the kids’ social lives and even rescues the youngest one from drowning in a negligent babysitter’s pool. And with his apparent understanding of English, he goes so far as to stop venture capitalists David Duchovny and Patricia Heaton from raiding George’s business in a dodgy deal.
And as mentioned, this isn’t the oddest sub-plot in the film. Sinister veterinarian Dr Herman Varnick (Dean Jones) is circling the big lug – and yes, he’s got a gun. You’d think he’d have more empathy for a dog considering he used to be one in Disney’s The Shaggy DA, but, together with Beethoven’s autonomy, Jones’ heel turn marks this as a modernisation of those wacky comedies. There’s little in the way of magic, but the typical cynicism about corporate America proves surreal enough this time.
The film brings together two major players in 1990s studio family movies – director Brian Levant, whose credits on The Flintstones and Jingle all the Way put him somewhere on this column’s warped Mount Rushmore, and screenwriter Edmond Dantès – actually a pseudonym for John Hughes at the start of his latter career as pen-for-hire on this type of movie.
Hughes had written his biggest commercial hit with Home Alone in 1990, but the following year he had a string of scripts that turned into flops, capped by his final directorial effort, Curly Sue. This year brought not only Beethoven (which he co-wrote with Amy Holden-Jones) but also a Home Alone sequel, marking a shift in Hughes’ output that continued for the rest of the decade and his career.
As we remarked when we covered 1993’s Dennis the Menace, the grace notes here are the details that wouldn’t trouble a worse film. There’s the weird weapons testing stuff, yes, but the big difference between, say, Home Alone and Problem Child is the care about the characters – the late, great Grodin seems over-qualified for being grumpy about massive puppy mischief, until things calm down a bit and we learn why he didn’t want a family dog in the first place. The film wouldn’t be as good as it is without him having such a miserable time.
Aside from those early roles for Duchovny and Heaton, you might also wonder if casting “Stan” Tucci and “Ollie” Platt as a bumbling double-act was an intentional bowler-hat-tip to another comedy pairing, but their role – and the climax, in general – skews more towards the more contemporary Home Alone ending. Hughes once remarked that the last 40 pages of that film took all of an afternoon to write, and the third-act repetition across his two 1992 credits speak to how instantly formulaic it became.
The result is altogether daft, but endearingly so – it’s exceedingly cute, yes, but then so is the enormous dog in the centre of it. Beethoven was a St Bernard-sized hit too, grossing more than $147 million worldwide off an $18m budget, and Universal put a sequel, Beethoven’s 2nd, (also currently streaming on Netflix) in cinemas by Christmas 1993.
Hughes was not involved in this or any of the direct-to-video Beethoven sequels, bar a creator credit for “Dantès”. Under his own name, he went on to kickstart the Disney live-action remake trend a decade or two early by writing and producing another dog-centric movie, 1996’s 101 Dalmatians.
Beethoven may be a by-word for the start of John Hughes’ dog days, but this is a far more enjoyable film than that one. It goes quickly enough and, like Grodin as George, you can grump all you want about it, but you’ll probably have come around to it by the end.
Next Time on The 90s On Netflix…
“Charlie, I’m so sick of it. Your niceness and your decency.”