Beethoven

1992, Movie, PG, 89 mins

Review

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As many a frustrated moviegoer will attest, most contemporary trailers endeavor to sell films with little regard to their actual content; creative editing makes heavy drama look like eroticism, satire seem to be slasher horror and absolutely anything appears to be an action adventure. In a refreshing departure from this maddening marketing strategy, the advance promo for BEETHOVEN promised audiences a predictable, dumb, family dog comedy--and that's exactly what this is.

The title character begins as a nameless St. Bernard pup in a pet store. A pair of comical burglars (whose resemblance to HOME ALONE's Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern will gain significance later on) raid the shop to seize dogs to sell for sadistic medical experiments. The puppy escapes from their van, however, and finds his way to the Newton household. Persnickety dad George Newton (Charles Grodin) cringes at the thought of a beast messing up his suburban castle, but his three children insist, so George promises to let the puppy stay for a brief time. That brief time runs to months, during which the St. Bernard swells to 185 pounds of enthusiastic fur, odor and drool.

Choosing his own name by howling when daughter Ryce (Nicholle Tom) pounds out the Fifth Symphony on the piano, Beethoven quickly proves his worth to the kids: its helps Ryce gain a boyfriend, backs up Ted (Christopher Castile) against school bullies, and rescues littlest daughter Emily (Sarah Rose Karr) from drowning. George still can't warm to the slobbering hound, and he's easily tricked into leaving the dog with malevolent veterinarian Dr. Varnick (Dean Jones). Varnick's the evil mastermind behind the dognappers from the start of the tale, and the huge Beethoven draws his greedy gaze because he needs a lab animal with a big, thick skull to test a new hollow-pointed bullet. Of course George has a change of heart, discovers Dr. Varnick's perfidy and liberates Beethoven (the old milquetoast "earns the respect of his loved ones through fighting" routine), adopting not only the St. Bernard but all the other captive canines.

BEETHOVEN is a safely banal concoction in the tradition of the bland live-action Disney features cranked out during the Magic Kingdom's dispirited years after Walt's death. That BEETHOVEN succeeded at the box office proved, in the year of BASIC INSTINCT, that a lucrative market still exists for family films--and not necessarily good ones.

At its heart BEETHOVEN is just a collection of Pavlovian kids-and-critters cliches that Hollywood has flogged to death since the days of D.W. Griffith: show the animal in peril, turn up the sad music; show the kid in peril, turn up the scary music; have the animal rescue the kid, then do a tension-relieving gag about the heroic animal soiling the living-room rug. One wonders what cosmic justice prevailed to make this film a smash while 1991's BINGO, which burlesqued the conventions of savior-pooch movies, bombed. Maybe St. Bernards mean big bucks, though (with the exception of Steven King's CUJO) when you've seen one trained St. Bernard you've pretty much seen them all, and Beethoven is played by a massive but uninspiring specimen named Chris.

The prizewinner among human performers here is Charles Grodin (THE HEARTBREAK KID, MIDNIGHT RUN), a sly, subdued comic actor who hits the right notes in George Newton's exasperated slow burns. The downright perverse casting of longtime Disney mainstay Dean Jones (THAT DARN CAT, THE SHAGGY D.A.) as the sadistic Varnick is fun at first, but the character's ham-handed exaggeration soon becomes grating.

Director Brian Levant made his movie debut helming the noxious PROBLEM CHILD 2. Executive producer Ivan Reitman became a comedy czar with titles like GHOSTBUSTERS and KINDERGARTEN COP. But one big name behind BEETHOVEN went unnoticed, concealed behind the literary pseudonym "Edmond Dantes" in the screenwriting credits. It was in fact John Hughes, of HOME ALONE fame (no wonder those two burglers looked familiar). Rumored to be as temperamental as he is successful, Hughes reportedly hid his authorship of BEETHOVEN partially because of a displeasure with Universal Pictures, and partially to avoid the brickbats of rabid anti-Hughes movie reviewers.

In the latter case, he was wise; critics have attacked his parade of middle-class middle-American comedies--FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF, SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, THE GREAT OUTDOORS, UNCLE BUCK, CAREER OPPORTUNITIES, CURLY SUE--as progressively cloying and repetitious, and BEETHOVEN indeed incorporates recognizable Hughes motifs like intermittent slapstick, canned familial warmth and situations stacked on the basic premise of kids--and in this case, a dog--who are a lot brighter and nicer than the uptight and/or malicious adults around them. Beethoven's not only a better parental unit than George Newton, he has more business sense; when a venal yuppie couple urge the oblivious George to sign a contract that would cost him his air-freshener factory, it's the dog that somehow figures that something's fishy and pulls a move with its leash that sends the fast-track nasties flying. Really, that's taking anthropomorphism a bit far, even for this picture. (Violence, profanity.) leave a comment

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