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At the Movies: ‘Dennis the Menace’

June 24, 1993 GMT

Undated (AP) _ It probably comes as no surprise that the film ″Dennis the Menace,″ based on Hank Ketcham’s infamous blond bad boy, is filled with a litany of silly jokes about regions of the body below the belt and on a smelly bodily function.

And while adults will roll their eyes throughout this low-brow redux of the cartoon and televison show, kids - groan - will squeal their little heads off.

Adults also might find themselves looking at their watches and wandering into the lobby to make a few phone calls or maybe reorganize their wallets. This is a movie with a plot that’s as predictable as a well-tuned washing machine.

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Dennis makes life miserable for his neighbor Mr. Wilson. SPIN CYCLE 3/8 Dennis doesn’t mean any harm, really. SPIN CYLCE 3/8 A mysterious bogeyman brings the pair together. SPIN CYCLE 3/8 Mr. Wilson really loved Dennis all along.

What saves this movie from insipidness is an endearing performance by Walter Matthau as the cantankerous Mr. Wilson. Matthau’s bulbous face and slight hunched back make him a perfect foil for Dennis’ devious deeds. And his ″I’m-not-the-bad-guy,-I’m-the-victim″ spirit embodies every crotchety old folk who has ever shook a fist at a noisy, happy little kid.

Joan Plowright also is sweet as Martha Wilson, a woman with most of her life behind her and the sad realization that much of it was spent in frustration at not being able to share her heart with her mate.

Lea Thompson and Robert Stanton play Dennis’ long-suffering parents but with a certain blandness that mars much of the film.

There are some nice smaller touches, however, that add a homey charm. Mr. Wilson, a retired postal worker who once served in the Navy, has a doorbell that plays the first few notes of ″Anchors Away.″ Mrs. Wilson always has a little tissue stuffed under her watchband. Mr. Wilson keeps his precious gold coins stashed in a blue Chivas Regal drawstring bag.

Overall, however, ″Dennis the Menace″ has an oddly stylized - sanitized, even - feel. Clean and shiney, it seems to have hopped whole off the comic pages where images are neat and colors don’t go out the lines. And the cast’s wardrobe and makeup also seem timeless, imbued with a retro-modern ambiguity. Is Alice Mitchell really a career woman in 1993 or is she a housewife in 1950s forced to take a job? There’s not much heart here but it looks neat.

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This is the first film of Warner Bros.′ new Family Entertainment division, a Disney-style attempt to tap the children’s market. It was written by John Hughes, whose credits include ″Mr. Mom,″ ″Ferris Bueller’s Day Off″ and the hugely successful ″Home Alone.″ Hughes co-produced it with Richard Vane. It was directed by Nick Castle and rated G.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.