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Forgotten Childhood: Dennis The Menace (1993)

Forgotten Childhood: Dennis The Menace (1993)


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John Hughes goes back to basics by digging from the wellspring of the Home Alone series to produce another film in a very similar vein. Dennis The Menace is based upon a long running TV series telling the adventures of a mischievous boy as he gets into all sorts of misadventures. Hughes approached Warner Bros along with director Nick Castle to adapt the show for the big screen.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 02.11.44The film, upon release, garnered a largely critical reception from Roger Ebert, among other famous figureheads of film critique. Many confided that the movie had good concepts, but was executed in a very bizarre way. As if bad reviews weren’t disheartening enough, a Razzie Award for Worst New Star was given to young Mason Gable for the role of Dennis. Poor guy.

MY FULL EXPERIENCE (1998 – 2015)

Nerds like comic books and we all have to start somewhere. As a known primary school ruffian back in my day, I had a great fondness for Dennis The Menace. It was the first instance of a weekly subscription that my family had been subjected to throughout my various phases of popular trends from the schoolyard. Alongside my shipment of gooey alien eggs that grossed out my fellow students was the ever-present comic books of the Beano and the Dandy. The Dandy appealed to me primarily because of the fact that Desperate Dan had the same name as me. I was not a hard child to please in that regard. The Beano had a much more substantial impact on me due to Dennis. He was a young dark-haired boy who would often cause a ruckus in his neighborhood with his capable canine friend, Gnasher. It was an attitude and concept that was the perfect level of troublemaker that I aspired to be. It was the cheekiness of Dennis and the tone of freedom from adult influence that resonated effectively with my tendencies to be a brat.

The movie adaptation (or what I had believed to be) had flown under my radar due to fact that I was only three years old when it came out. When I caught wind of it was during the height of my adoration for the UK version of Dennis The Menace at age eight. Little did I know, this was a different property. I had no knowledge of the credentials of comedic actor Walter Matthau, who played a begrudging neighbour that I didn’t remember from the comics. I raised a brow at the casting of a blonde actor in the role with a very different look to what I knew. I grimaced and recoiled at the image of a scruffy Christopher Lloyd portraying a creepy street thief speaking to an unaccompanied boy. All of it was strange. All of it was unfamiliar.

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The ghost of nightmares past came back to me as I sat down to watch Dennis The Menace for the first time since then. My ignorance quickly caught up with me upon my discovery that the UK comics and this American production have no connection to each other. They share only the name and the exact same base concept of their character.

John Hughes has had a sterling career as a writer of cult classics. This particular endeavour of his would never be placed in that category, but it does have interesting elements that warrant a viewing. 

This version of Dennis The Menace is based on a prior series from 1959. There is little to talk about in terms of story due to the unchanging nature of it being centered around Dennis just getting up to shenanigans. The plot of the film sees good neighbours, Mister and Missus Wilson taking the young misfit, Dennis, into their home while his parents are away on business trips. An increasing tension builds during his stay asScreen Shot 2015-08-20 at 02.12.44 wherever misfortune strikes — Dennis is not far behind. A local thief arrives in town only to befall a series of pitfalls by the largely good intentioned kid that just seems to muck up in the most slapstick of ways.

From this synopsis, It would be fair to assume that this film is a typical run of the mill family comedy. Actually, the story that it is trying to tell is more interesting than it appears. Dennis is a confused young kid who feels a sort of disconnect with his parents that is alluded to in the dialogue. They don’t give him the attention that he wishes for. The ‘mistakes’ that are made by Dennis are played off as fully intentional at the expense of his neighbour. Mister Wilson is a father figure who he admires and Dennis doesn’t quite know how to express this to him. In the film’s third act, we see Mister Wilson snapping at Dennis out of frustration because of a robbery that occurred and his assumption that the boy had something to do with it. This leads to a scenario where Dennis runs away from home. Unflinching at the notion of being yelled at, he tracks down the thief and brings his unique brand of justice to him in the style of Home Alone. In victory, the admiration of his neighbour is gained and a noticeably warmer relationship with his parents follows. 

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A misfit child seeking approval from adults is a great and unique basis to build upon in terms of comedy. Unfortunately, Dennis The Menace is let down by its pacing and delivery of its jokes. While Home Alone 2 is the crowning jewel of John Hughes’ family comedies, Dennis The Menace is the rusty diamond. Matthau is a veteran comic with great instinct for reactions, but to form a film entirely around this concept is too much in my opinion. The slapstick isn’t clever enough to warrant a lot of laughter. It’s formulaic and unoriginal as opposed to the aforementioned Home Alone series. Incidents of humour without Matthau come across largely as sadistic, strangely enough, particularly in scenes with Christopher Lloyd‘s bewilderingly creepy thief character. Certain scenes could be subbed out with horror music and it wouldn’t be out of place for a lower end movie in the style of Chucky. The real shame of this movie is that the intriguing underlying narrative of an attention-seeking kid wanting to be accepted is undercut by oddly placed jokes. 

I wouldn’t call Dennis The Menace a waste of time. I’d call it a missed opportunity. The cheekiness and rebellious tone to the unrelated 90s comics that I read would have been a good blueprint for this rather clumsy slapstick romp. This could have been a screwball comedy of a little monster going on a rampage and rebelling against the mean adults of the world. This could have been a lighthearted drama story of an unlucky boy gaining confidence in himself with a few actually refreshing slapstick ideas thrown in the mix. Instead, we get a poor collaboration of both ideas. It is never sure what it wants to be and that perhaps is the most disappointing sentiment I can express about any movie. Check out the old TV series or, better yet, read The Beano. It has no correlation to this Dennis, but it is a better executed version of the exact same premise.