The 90s on Netflix: Dennis The Menace (1993)
Mark Harrison | On 15, Apr 2022
Director: Nick Castle
Cast: Mason Gamble, Walter Matthau, Joan Plowright, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. Every month, 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.
1993’s Dennis The Menace sits right in the centre of two 1990s trends we often cover in this column – nostalgic baby-boomer revivals of old comics and cartoons and the post-Home Alone wave of sentimental slapstick family comedies. Heck, it’s written and produced by John Hughes, who spent most of the decade doing one or the other and here does both.
There’s a common misconception for UK audiences that this is some Americanised adaptation of the character from The Beano. Instead, it takes its lead from the Hank Mitchell comic strip of the same name – which incredibly made its debut on the exact same day as the British Dennis did in 1951 – and also from the CBS TV adaptation of the 1960s, which similarly followed a mischievous tyke and his long-suffering neighbour, Mr Wilson.
In this version, Mason Gamble plays the 5-year-old Dennis, whose well-meaning attempts to hang out with Walter Matthau’s George Wilson frustrate him to no end. When Dennis’ parents (Lea Thompson and Robert Stanton) go away for work at the same time, George and his wife Martha (Joan Plowright) wind up babysitting him for the weekend and, naturally, chaos reigns.
A few months after this one hit cinemas, The Simpsons had a joke where Bart calls himself “this century’s Dennis the Menace” – whether a deliberate jab at the movie or not, it speaks to how quaint this looked in the 90s.
Hughes is on the same turf as his two Home Alone scripts here in making Dennis essentially good, but the less elaborate set-ups of the premise set this apart. There’s a soft-serve approach to Dennis’ comic-strip logic and comedic mischief, which takes some of the bite out of the “bad kid” stuff. For most of the film, the only Gnashers on display are Mr Wilson’s destroyed – and hastily repaired – dentures.
The film is directed by Nick Castle, the original Michael Myers from 1978’s Halloween and latterly the filmmaker behind family fare such as The Last Starfighter. Castle directs the slapstick well, getting the maximum impact out of simple sight gags and physical comedy bits – the consequences of Dennis’ actions are more slappy than sticky, with Matthau totally escaping the type of near-fatal blows inflicted on Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci in those other PG-certificate movies.
But an undervalued part of the film is the humanity that’s bedded in between the comic set pieces. We can see the beginnings of the grumpy old man archetype that Matthau played throughout the decade, but he cleverly plays him as a great big, slightly over-serious kid, less annoyed by a game of hide and seek on his lawn than the idea that the other boys might be cheating.
Within these comic performances, there are beats of startling pathos too, whether it’s Lea Thompson staring at the ceiling alone in her motel room, Joan Plowright hesitantly voicing her regret at never having a child of her own, or even Matthau finally reaching the end of his tether and coldly demolishing a 5-year-old with a monologue. Unlike other revivals around the same time, it feels as though everyone is acting the heck out of this.
Inevitably, the film lurches into more typical territory with the third act and the centring of Christopher Lloyd as an escaped burglar. Counter to the other adult characters, Lloyd’s Switchblade Sam is played and styled and even named like a child who’s grown up wrong. Sam’s hardly up there with Judge Doom from Roger Rabbit, but Lloyd has since spoken about how his bloodshot eyes and rotten teeth alarmed his young co-stars – his character is here purely as an irritable, beatable, and flammable figure to satisfy audience expectations of more violent slapstick and it slows the film right down.
Sure enough, many contemporary reviews of Dennis The Menace slated it for its likeness to Home Alone. Nevertheless, the film was a box-office success, spawning a couple of more perfunctory direct-to-video sequels with different casts in 1998 and 2007. But looking at the 1993 film with today’s eyes, the more entertaining throwback on either side of the burglar-bashing bits have a far longer range.
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