Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An Amazing Cast Helps Create A Surprisingly Good Family Comedy With Beethoven!

The Good: Decent cast, Moments of plot, performance, and theme
The Bad: Some hammy overacting/family movie conceits
The Basics: Despite its over-the-top silliness at points, Beethoven holds up as a strong family comedy!

As a matter of sharing parts of herself, my wife will periodically have me get out movies I either missed that she watched and enjoyed or films from her past that I have never had the impetus to watch before. A few weekends back, I had a taste from each category when she got out Game Change (reviewed here!) and Beethoven. The irony for me was that the film I expected to appreciate more - Game Change - did not hold up nearly as well as the family flick my wife recalled from her childhood and wanted to see again.

From the opening shots of Beethoven, as I realized I was watching a young(er) Oliver Platt and Stanley Tucci and that this family film that spawned several sequels actually had an impressive cast (mostly talent before they hit it big), Beethoven actually manages to entertain and tell a family friendly story in a way that makes it reasonable that it would start a franchise. Beethoven is hampered by the conceits that make it feel like a Disney live-action film (it is not!); hammy overacting, reversals that are larger than life and a plot progression so predictable that only children will not see the end coming in the opening frames of the film. Even so, for a movie hampered by such obvious conceits and employing both child and animal actors (neither is overly recommended by most directors), Beethoven manages to tell a decent story and, to be fair to it with all of the genre problems it possesses, is not a film I felt like I’ve seen a thousand times over.

The patriarch of the Newton family, George, is a reticent business-focused man who has worked hard to provide for his wife and three children (two daughters, one son). One morning, after the witless criminals Harvey and Vernon rob a pet shop of its puppies and two of them escape, a cute St. Bernard puppy, wanders into George’s home and wakes up little Emily with dog kisses. Pressured into keeping the puppy by the family that sees him as inhuman, George suddenly starts spending an inordinate amount of time and money on providing for the dog, who is soon named Beethoven. While George struggles to win new corporate patrons for his air fresheners, the family falls in love with Beethoven.

But Harvey and Vernon were not working alone. They were employed by the nefarious veterinarian, Dr. Varnick. Varnick has taken money from a gun manufacturer who wants small animals in order to test its new bullets. When Varnick discovers Beethoven (who by that time has grown to have a skull density that a bullet manufacturer would really appreciate!), he orchestrates a kidnapping that could result in the dog’s death. George has to choose between believing the authoritative vet and his daughter, who witnessed the set-up; it is a choice between mounting a dangerous rescue or allowing Beethoven to be put to death!

Beethoven makes good use of the talent involved and it is easy to see how David Duchovny, Patricia Heaton, Oliver Platt, Stanley Tucci and even Charles Grodin (who plays George unfortunately like a boss I once had who was a complete and total ass!) were eager to take the project. Despite Heaton and Duchovny being tossed about and forced to do the screams one might expect out of a Little Rascals short, they have the chance to play villains who are stiff and eager to take advantage of Grodin’s George. The roles are different from anything else I have seen them play, so it does give them something completely different to play.

The child actors in Beethoven are surprisingly not horrible, which is a rare thing for me to find. Led by Nicholle Tom (Ryce), the Newton children seem like a viable family and they are presented in a professional and realistic way. Sarah Rose Karr brings more to Emily than a cute face – she plays determined and hurt well and when her character, neglected, falls in a pool, the viewer actually believes she is drowning. Even Christopher Castile does fine as Ted.

What was unsurprising to me was that the actor who played the title character, Beethoven, was only in this film. Chris is a big dog and what shocked me was that director Brian Levant included scenes where Chris was clearly limping! Regardless of the disclaimers at the end of the credits, it does not seem like Chris was in the best of health when Beethoven was shot.

And the main plot conceit – testing new bullets on dogs – is absurd and monstrous enough to add menace to the film. It is probably enough to scare children, but as an adult, I was more surprised that the film was audacious enough to present such a strong stance on animal cruelty and testing. Such plots are usually relegated to a b-plot in an animated film, but Beethoven puts it up front as the a-plot in the live-action film. Color me impressed.

Not to be taken overly seriously as a work of great cinema, Beethoven nevertheless impresses in that it has an impressive cast working in ways I had never seen.

For other works featuring Melora Walters, please check out my reviews of:
The Master
Cold Mountain
Matchstick Men
Boogie Nights
Hard Eight


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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