Cinerama: Dennis the Menace

Posted: September 12, 2009 in Cinerama

Dennis the Menace

By Mike Derderian

A week ago I was writing an article at work. I only had two hours left before my deadline snapped. Now, whenever one of my deadlines snapped before I finished a piece, people at the office in turn snapped. Behind schedule and exhausted, instead of sporting despair I was chuckling. Why?

I was chewing gum and I also remembered how Dennis the Menace fixed a pair of Chicklets gum on Mr. Wilson’s dentures after breaking off two of its front teeth. What was so funny about it? Mr. Wilson had a photo-shoot for a prominent geriatric society’s botany magazine.

Just imagine Walter Matthau as Mr. Wilson smiling to the camera to reveal two big bunny teeth. It happened in Nick Castle’s 1993 nastily hilarious Dennis the Menace that was based on Hank Ketcham’s famous comic strip.

Ketcham’s menace of a kid debuted on March 12, 1951, becoming a household favorite because it struck on a very sensitive nerve for adults and kids. I mean who wouldn’t laugh at a kid causing havoc and mayhem in adult-county. I remember watching the cartoon version on television back in the 80s. It first aired in English and was soon followed by an Arabic version both of which were funny.

Watching Dennis the Menace reminded me of my childhood back in the days when people used to call me “The Brown Menace.” I once demolished an entire bar; nearly burned our house after setting my tricycle on fire; blew a dysfunctional table-lamp after nearly being electrocuted; injured a friend’s head after a rock I hurled ricocheted off a target; wounded both my thighs trying to discharge a bullet with a rock; threw burning tissues out of my grandfather’s apartment window—a game the neighbors didn’t appreciate at all; took up a drowning mouse as my pet and the list goes on and on and on.

But the funniest thing that ever happened to me was when I broke our bathroom sink after leaning on it. Guess it wasn’t as sturdy as it looked. In fear that my father would give me the cold austere look with a sprinkle of harsh and spiced up words, I, the sly little fox, placed the sink back into position and adjusted the broken sink pipe so it would appear normal. Clever plan huh. Wrong! It backfired or to be precise back-flooded, when my father wanted to wash his hands; he ended up washing his feet. “Mikeeeeeeee,” a vengeful voice echoed across the house. A gray haired patriarchal creature that most of us tend to call “Dad” was very angry. A few years later I ended up doing it again.

Enough about me and let us now talk about Dennis Mitchell, who quoting a mesh-mash of lyrics from an Elvis Presley song, “looks like an angel, talks like an angel and walks like an angel but is the devil in disguise.”

Living in a quaint and quiet suburb Dennis (Mason Gamble) leads what appears to be a normal life surrounded by his loving parents, his two best friends Margaret and Joey and his unfortunate neighbors, the likes of poor old Mr. Wilson (Walter Matthau).

This 94-minute slapstick comedy also stars Lea Thompson, Robert Stanton, Joan Plowright, Amy Sakasitz, Kellen Hathaway and Christopher Lloyd as the ill-fated Switchblade Sam, a robber who unfortunately ends up holding Dennis as a hostage.

Gamble and Matthau’s brilliant portrayal was behind the dynamics of this entertaining movie. Matthau’s trademark sulk was one of the elements that made the screen version Mr. Wilson so credible and at the same time fun-to-watch. He pouts, yells, gnashes his teeth and wishes that the little kid would simply disappear from his life.

Thompson and Stanton’s performance as Dennis’s caring and frantic parents was good. Sakasitz and Hathaway as Dennis’s friends Margaret and Joey was also endearing, especially on part of Sakasitz, who managed to breathe sassiness in the character of the pesky bad-tempered Margaret.

Now, the paradox between Gamble’s innocent cute looks and childlike commentary and Matthau’s grumpy mood, seriousness and bulldog face is what makes Denise the Menace so realistic. An adult and a little kid are stuck in the ultimate battle of survival. Some how Dennis seems to have the upper hand all through out the movie. Joan Plowright’s character Mrs. Wilson was similar to the cartoon character. All she did was reproach Wilson.

One could not but notice how much Chris Columbus’s 1990 Home Alone Christmas family movie had influenced some of the scenes in Dennis the Menace, especially the slapstick scenes that were fashioned after the child vs burglar model.

One thing leads to another and Dennis ends up being the hostage of a vicious looking burglar known as Switchblade Sam, who is on robbing spree. Switchblade Sam was skillfully portrayed by Christopher Lloyd, who is renowned for portraying quirky characters like Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future (1985) and Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). All that I will add about their brief encounter is poor Switchblade Sam never knew what hit him.

Dennis the Menace is an original comedic analysis of the constant struggle between adults and kids presented in a lighthearted formula. It will appeal more to people who simply enjoy a slapstick comedy backed with a simple-to-follow universal plot: Thou shall love thy neighbor even if he was Dennis the Menace.

Must-see-scenes: any scene involving Dennis; the hysterical scene when Mr. Wilson suffers tremendously from Dennis’s unintentional antics (for a man at his age he performs a painful split after slipping on soap, gargles toilet cleanser instead of mouth wash and sprays mouth wash instead of nasal spray in his nose—can it get any worse); the Dennis vs Switchblade Sam showdown; and the manner by which Dennis analyzes the verbal terminology of the adult world.

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