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Monday, April 7, 2008


With a cute little puppy dog gazing at me from the DVD cover and a title like MIST: THE TALE OF A SHEEPDOG PUPPY, I approached this 2006 British telefilm with a queasy feeling, fully expecting to hurl robustly at some point during its 75-minute running time. But I needn't have worried, because it's really a rather enjoyable little production that not only entertains, but actually manages to be quite moving in spots. Don't tell the guys I said that, though, or I'll be in for the razzing of my life.

Shot on video for what must've been a pocket-change budget, MIST takes place at the rustic Borough Farm which overlooks the ocean. Gail the sheepdog has just given birth to three puppies named Storm, Drift, and Mist. Her father, the grizzled old veteran Sir Gregory, puts the puppies through sheepdog boot camp, teaching them the rules and tricks of the game.

Mist proves the most adept and stays on to finish training at the farm while Storm and Drift are given away to other families. The other sheepdogs include Jake, the genial comedy-relief whose main attributes are his long legs and his knowledge of sticks; Swift and her son Ernie; and Fern, a jealous conniver whose vanity is threatened by the up-and-coming Mist. Fern supplies most of the drama as she constantly plots against our heroine and gets her into all kinds of trouble.

Technically, this is as far removed from the CGI-enhanced realism of BABE as you can get. It took a while to get used to entire conversations consisting of dog closeups with the dialogue dubbed in, but before long I caught myself going along with it. Most of it is scripted, while some of the best parts are the ones in which the dialogue is tailored to fit various serendipitous bits of footage (such as two dogs joining paws as though sealing a pact). As the story progressed, I became familiar with the characters and their individual traits and found the whole thing pretty engaging.

These Border Collies are actual working sheepdogs and when we see them expertly going about their jobs it's pretty fascinating. The rest of the time, what must have been copious amounts of raw footage are mined for their most usable shots and pieced together to form the narrative. You have to hand it to the editors for managing to construct sequences such as Swift and Ernie cornering a protective mother sheep so that her lamb can be tagged with an ID number.

Some segments have considerable charm, as when Mist fails her first test as a sheepdog and sits sulking beside a nearby pond. A flock of ducks named Josie, Jessica, Joyce, Janet, and Steve obligingly offer to help her practice by pretending to be sheep and letting her herd them. She herds them right into the farmhouse where the ladies help themselves to a cake sitting on the Boss' kitchen table. "What is it with you lot and cake?" asks Steve.

While not always matching up with stunning precision to the images, the voice work is first-rate. The cast includes Brian Blessed, best known as FLASH GORDON's Prince Vultan, as Sir Gregory, and Derek Jacobi of GLADIATOR and THE RIDDLE serving as narrator. The dialogue is fun--after her initial failure at sheepherding, Mist tells the ducks, "I'm a rubbish sheepdog." Fern's spiteful remarks early on prompt one of the puppies to exclaim, "She called me Parrot Face!" And Mist calls after a naked sheep who's just been sheared: "Hey, ewe! You forgot your coat!" Okay, maybe you had to be there.

The story reaches its high point when one of the rams gets stranded halfway down the face of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Despite Sir Gregory's two main rules of sheepherding--stay away from the rams, and never go head-to-head with a sheep--Mist is forced to attempt a daring rescue when Fern's fear of heights immobilizes her. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK it ain't, but I found myself getting into it.

Whether or not your kids will like it depends on their attention span, I guess, since this is a leisurely-paced story that depends more on character and the appeal of the leads (no, I'm not kidding) than any kind of razzle-dazzle. If your young 'uns would fidget during an episode of "Lassie", this most likely isn't for them. Me, I enjoyed it and most probably would've gotten into it back in those halcyon days when I was but a wee lad. I even shed a tear--almost--during one particularly moving scene, but if you tell anybody that, I'll deny it.


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