Hey, kids! How would you like to see a holiday movie featuring your favorite li’l scamp, Dennis the Menace? Sounds great, right? No, not tennis, Dennis. Dennis the Menace. You know, from the comic strip! No, the comic strip. In the newspaper. The newspa— oh, forget it. Listen, there’s a little bastard named Dennis, and he causes a lot of trouble, and it’s supposed to make you laugh, so just shut up and watch it.
Pardon us for starting the column with a quote from movie’s press release, but we thought it would set the tone. “A Dennis the Menace Christmas” is exactly what the title suggests: a cloying and desperate attempt to wring additional money out of a 60-year-old character by plopping him into a holiday story. It’s also an opportunity to give Mr. Wilson a Scrooge-like makeover, a plot you may recognize from the Christmas episode of every TV show that ever had a curmudgeon character.
Mr. Wilson (played by real actor Robert Wagner) is obsessed with 6-year-old Dennis Mitchell (played by some obnoxious kid), perhaps unreasonably so. The film’s opening sequence cuts back and forth between Dennis and Mr. Wilson’s bedrooms as each wakes up, stumbles to his closet, gets dressed, grooms himself in a mirror, and goes outside. Then Dennis runs into Mr. Wilson with his bike. Cut to Mr. Wilson waking up in bed — it was only a nightmare. But I think we’re missing the larger point here: Mr. Wilson had a dream that included the details of Dennis’ morning routine. That’s not normal.
Anyway, Dennis may have been termed a “menace” by the liberal media, but he’s not malicious. He means well; he’s just accident-prone and really stupid (though the film doesn’t acknowledge the latter trait). He’s a happy-go-lucky kid who inadvertently leaves a trail of destruction and mayhem everywhere he goes, an innocent-minded tyke who merely sows terror in the minds of those around him.
But Dennis has his own problems too! For example, there is a bully named Jack who makes fun of his crappy bike, which is literally falling apart as Dennis rides it. (See? The real menace is entropy.) Dennis hopes Santa will bring him a zippy new bicycle for Christmas so he can beat Jack in a race and, I don’t know, prove his manhood or whatever.
Dennis’ other problem is figuring out what to get Mr. Wilson for Christmas. The Wilsons do not celebrate Christmas, not for any logical reason like “being Jewish,” but because George Wilson is a cantankerous grinch who despises joy in all its forms. He thinks lights and decorations are a waste of electricity, and decries the holiday as “shameless capitalism” (because if there’s one thing we know about Mr. Wilson from the comics, it’s that he’s a hippie).
He assumes his kind wife, Martha (played by Louise Fletcher, aka Nurse Ratched from “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), feels the same way he does, though in 40 years of marriage they have never actually discussed it. There is a hilariously maudlin scene where Martha is alone and she takes out a single Christmas tree ornament she keeps in a box in a drawer, gazes at it wistfully for a moment, then sadly puts it away again.
Dennis’ parents, Henry and Alice, have problems, too, like not being able to afford Christmas because of the property damage incurred by their careless, under-medicated spawn. Fortunately, Alice says, “they’re hiring down at the mall,” so she waltzes in and takes a job as a gift-wrapper. (How depressing is it that the idea of readily available jobs makes the movie seem to take place in a fantasy world?)
She takes Dennis to work with her, on account of she’s an idiot, and of course he destroys everything. He only wants to help, but he always helps in the stupidest, most complicated, most unlikely to succeed way possible. Honestly, we think he may have brain damage. An ordinary kid doesn’t think the best way to put a gruff neighbor in the Christmas spirit is to steal another neighbor’s tree and smash it through the gruff neighbor’s window. Even by the logic of dumb kids, that’s dumb. But that’s what Dennis does to Mr. Wilson. Then Mr. Wilson is arrested — actually put in handcuffs and taken to jail — for stealing the tree, on the grounds that it was in his living room so he must have been the one to take it, and then somehow the movie continues to exist even though it is too stupid to exist.
Something else that is a problem is that this town hasn’t had snow on Christmas in 30 years. You’d think the locals would be used to it, but no, they talk about it ALL THE TIME. Just in passing, somebody will say, “Golly, it sure would be nice to have snow on Christmas,” and somebody else will say, “It sure would — but you know we haven’t had snow on Christmas in 30 years!” It’s mentioned at least six times. The movie really wants to make sure we remember that it hasn’t snowed here in 30 years. There is NO WAY it’s going to snow! It would be SUCH A MIRACLE if it did! And then at the end of the movie, of course, it snows. And the movie’s like, “Ta-da!” It’s so proud of itself, bless its stupid heart.
There is also magic in this movie, because why not? Dennis makes a wish that causes a black man in a dapper white suit to fall from the sky and become a mall Santa. He is subsequently revealed to be an angel on assignment to give someone the Christmas spirit, which leads to the Charles Dickens portion of our program. Dapper ghost Santa shows Mr. Wilson his past, wherein he was a Dennis-like lad who pestered an elderly neighbor; his present, with Martha stealing forlorn looks at her beloved secret ornament when he’s not around; and his future, where Dennis, inspired by his example, is a bitter old Christmas-hating man himself.
George Wilson has the requisite change of heart, buys Dennis the bicycle, forgives the debt the Mitchells owe him for property damage, and decorates the house for his wife. He is a new man. Does this end his longstanding fear of Dennis’ mighty destructive powers? It does not. For at the very end of the film he is run over by Dennis on his bike — just as his creepy, little-boy-getting-dressed dream foretold. The battle between Mr. Wilson and Dennis will continue to rage for as long as there are indiscriminate older actors and precocious kids to play them in straight-to-video movies.