Monday, February 1, 2010
Kid's movies have a unique way of defining villains. They eliminate that pesky gray area between right and wrong and give us a starkly black and white portrait of morality. They also wrap up everything into a neatly PG-rated package and tie it with an age-appropriate bow. While real life bad guys are out there engaging in acts of sociopathic lunacy, our ever-reliable children's movie villains are trying to kidnap suburban housepets for scientific experimentation purposes. You've got to hand it to these writers; they have an uncanny way of shifting the bad guy from a reprehensible scum of the earth to one deserving of a time-out and dessert withholding.
Such in the phenomenon in Beethoven, where the worst offense a character could commit is to be a naughty veterinarian hell-bent on neighborhood puppy domination. The movie conveniently scales everything down a bit, putting the plot at child eye-level. It's a scary enough world out there without filmmakers planting night terror-inducing concepts in the minds of impressionable children. Instead, it's best to keep things simple. An adult might not buy it, but a child will be able to sleep better at night if their worst imaginable nemesis is a puppy kicker rather than a mass murdering psychopath.
Beethoven captures the simplicity of an ideal children's movie. Sure, it's got it's fair share of adult characters and parental story lines, but it mainly focuses on the exploits of a mischievous but ultimately heroic dog. Rather than trying to woo us with flashy graphics and special effects, it gives our heatstrings a deliberate tug through the cunning use of adorable oversized animals. All in all, some pretty effective methodology.
The film opens on a St. Bernard's daring escape from the clutches of the aforementioned unrelentingly evil veterinarian. The puppy finds shelter in a quiet suburban neighborhood, much to delight of the household's children. The Newton parents aren't quite on board with it, but it's tough to resist those little puppy dog eyes. He responds positively to one of the kids playing Beethoven's Fifth on the piano and earns the moniker Beethoven. Let the games begin.
Beethoven quickly launches in a montage of memorable and iconic St. Bernard moments. So memorable, in fact, that recently when I mentioned a St. Bernard to my mother she said, "Oh, I don't like that kind of dog. They always get all wet and shake the water off all over the bed." To which I responded, "Are you sure you're not just thinking of that scene in Beethoven? I'm pretty sure that's what you're talking about." She conceded, though she didn't eliminate the possibility that this was simply par for the course with St. Bernard behavior. If you happen to own one, let me know if this in-bed dry off is a standard St. Bernardism. Either way, the movie obviously had quite the impact on our impression of large dogs.
While Beethoven can be destructive, he's got his charms as well. He assists the oldest daughter in conversation with the guy she likes and comes to rescue of the other siblings in respective dangerous situations. It looks like he's a keeper, despite his ever-expanding proportions.
Unfortunately, his unsuspecting owners aren't privy to the evil veterinarian's plan to dognap their newest and largest family member. Because in the world of movies, there's apparently only one veterinarian in the whole town, our trusting family just happens to take Beethoven to the evil guy for a check up. That's right, the same evil guy Beethoven escaped from at the beginning of the movie. The vet tells the Newtons that St. Bernards are prone to attack, thus planting the seed for further animal cruelty-related trickery later in the movie.
There's a whole story going on with some business people who are trying to rip off the Newtons through a shady deal, but Beethoven yet again proves he's worth the Costco-proportioned amounts of food they feed him daily. He drags the couple around on the ground, they're all pretty angry, the deal is off. Nice work, pup.
Our evil vet Varnick returns to the Newton's house, because apparently this guy lives and breathes the capture of a single St. Bernard in a town populated with thousands of other dogs. I guess these experiments require a uniquely Beethoven quality, because Varnick is relentless in his pursuit. He pretends he's just checking in, only to stage a bogus dog attack. The kids are suspicious, but the adults acquiesce to Varnick's demand that Beethoven be euthanized.
Mr. Newton has a heart after all, and decides the family should go after Beethoven and put a stop to his imminent death. Varnick tries to play them, saying that the dog has been put to sleep, but our heroic family doesn't fall for it. The Newtons surreptitiously follow Varnick to the sketchy facility where he performs his illicit pet experiments. They save Beethoven, the cops arrest Varnick, and the family takes in a pack of other dogs freed from Varnick's clutches. Cheesy, yes, but heartwarming too.
If you've somehow managed to repress this movie or just never got around to seeing it, here's your chance. Behold, Beethoven in 5 seconds via The Guy with the Glasses
The ORIGINAL Beethoven In 5 Seconds - Funny videos are here
Of course, the story doesn't end here. If you head to video store (I'm not sure they still even exist, but just come with me on this one) you'll see rows and rows of Beethoven movies, including innumerable sequels and an animated series. Here's the direct follow up that still features most of the original cast, before they start with the subpar direct-to-video crap.
The movie's simplicity and kid appeal was more than enough to both win us over and make us yearn for a similarly valiant pet. I can't imagine the sheer number of children who left this movie begging their parents to please, please, please let them have a dog. Most of us were probably banking on the off chance that our future fluffy friend would aid in uncovering a ring of experiment-based animal abuse, so we may have been setting our expectations a bit too high. Still, though, there's something innately reassuring about a world where the worst crime a person could commit is to steal a dog or two. It may not have been the most realistic worldview, but it allowed us a slightly extended age of cinematic innocence. Thanks, Ivan Reitman. This almost makes me want to forgive you for scaring the bejeezus out of my childhood self with Ghostbusters.