‘Dennis’ Relates Well To Kids, Adults

WEDNESDAY, DEC. 24, 1997

People went to see 1993’s “Dennis the Menace” if, for no other reason, than to see perfectly cast Walter Matthau as Dennis Mitchell’s long-suffering but ever-forgiving neighbor, Mr. Wilson.

If you tune in NBC at 8, you’ll find that Matthau rises to the occasion, but you’ll enjoy 7-year-old Mason Gamble even more in the title role.

The movie works for all the reasons that Hank Ketchum’s comic strip has become an icon of American culture: Dennis thinks and acts like most kids, and Mr. Wilson reacts with that oh-for-heaven’s-sake-what-next incredulity that all adults recognize so well.

In short, “Dennis the Menace” strikes a distinct social chord. We love children for their innocence, we’re driven crazy sometimes by their precocious behavior, but ultimately we owe them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they’re just kids.

Joan Plowright deserves a nod for her role as ever-patient Martha Wilson, and Lea Thompson (“Caroline in the City”) does a nice job as Dennis’ mom, reminding us in many ways that “Dennis” has its roots in a less hectic one-paycheck-family era.

Some parents may have trouble with a dark subplot involving Switchblade Sam (Christopher Lloyd), a threatening character who hangs around the neighborhood and ends up threatening Dennis with a knife. This, no doubt, has been thrown into the mix to make the movie more commercial and a little less nostalgic.

It would be sad if, instead of laughing through this movie, young kids would be left with fears about the kinds of strangers that lurk outside their doors.


“Skating,” FOX at 8: The Skate International Champions competition, taped Dec. 19-21 in Munich, wraps up with the men’s and pairs finals. Todd Eldredge, Elvis Stojko, Alexei Yagudin and Ilia Kulik head the field in the men’s event.

“Spin City,” ABC at 8: Marlee Matlin guest-stars when the mayor’s sign-language interpreter accidentally offends all hearing-impaired New Yorkers. It’s Mike’s (Michael J. Fox) job to appease one of the deaf community’s leaders (Matlin). Repeat.

“Christmas at St. Olaf’s,” KSPS at 7: The choirs of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., perform. If you’ve never seen it, you’ve missed quite a spectacle: 450 voices in the combined choirs accompanied by a 100-member orchestra.

“Ellen,” ABC at 9:30: Dedee Pfeiffer (“Cybill”) guest-stars as a fitness instructor that Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres) attempts to impress on a rock-climbing outing. Repeat.

“Chicago Hope,” CBS at 10: Alan Arkin turns up in this episode as a famous but notoriously eccentric artist who shows up claiming to be Shutt’s (Adam Arkin) real father. Meanwhile, Austin (Christine Lahti) spends the night with a dying child (Lucas Black).

“Dateline NBC,” NBC at 10: On tap is a one-month checkup for the world’s only septuplets and how their parents, Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, are doing.

“Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s,” NBC at 11:35: Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass from Rome. Tape delayed.

“Christmas Eve Service,” CBS at 11:35: An Episcopal liturgy from Cathedral Center of St. Paul in Los Angeles, a multicultural church founded in 1864.

Cable Calls

“A Christmas Carol” (1951), AMC at 4:30 and 9: Some say this Alastair Sim version of the Dickens classic is the best of all. In black and white and with austere production values, it reminds you of a fine but old leather-bound edition of the timeless tale.

“A Christmas Story” (1983), TNT at 5, 7, 9 and 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.: You get the feeling that TNT likes this movie, showing it five times in one night. It’s a charming adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s story about a 9-year-old’s (Peter Billingsley) obsession with getting a BB gun for Christmas.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” TBS at 5:05: Always a treat, this Dr. Seuss fantasy is a perfect way to settle down overexcited kids who are counting the hours until Christmas morning.

Talk Time

“Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher,” ABC at 12:05 a.m.: Joey Lawrence, Deepak Chopra, Ben Stiller and commentator Susan Carpenter McMillan. Repeat.

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