Lassie is a collie who lives on a vineyard estate owned by Clovis Mitchell (James Stewart), with his two grandchildren Chris (Michael Sharrett) and Kelly (Stephanie Zimbalist). They all love the dog, but perhaps young Chris is most attached to it, which makes what occurs next all the more traumatic for the boy. Lassie spots him first, the wealthy businessman Jamison (Pernell Roberts) who is surveying the land with a view to taking it over to grow his own grapes on it. He makes Clovis an offer, but the old man will hear nothing of it, yet Jamison does not take rejection lightly and sets his sights on owning Lassie instead...
The movie dog of the seventies wasn't Lassie at all, he was Benji, the cute mutt who could do all the tricks his predecessor could but was in possession of a certain rebellious attraction that the former world-beating star couldn't hope to live up to. So when it was decided to bring her back - her being played as usual by a he, apparently because male collies' coats photograph better - the producers settled on a non-Benji angle. No, this time the famed pooch was not any ordinary dog, but a doggie deity as the religious angle was shamelessly played up to what was generally recognised at the time as pretty daft.
The magic of the title does not mean Lassie is sawn in half and put back together or escapes from a straitjacket while in a tank of water - although you wouldn't put it past her - no, this is a more spiritual magic that we're dealing with here, with Clovis informng us that she is a gift from God when Jamison produces the papers to claim her. As a representative of the Almighty on Earth, our hairy heroine has been placed here to inspire us into thoughtless devotion to her wondrousness, so when the baddie spirits her away to his gated mansion she can only think of one thing: escape. You cannot lock up Lassie is what we learn here and the soundtrack tells us in song that she is going to be free no matter what.
Yes, this is actually a kind of musical, with tunes written by The Sherman Brothers which explains why when James Stewart is rasping the opening ditty it sounds as if he's about to inform us that it's a jolly holiday with Mary. For some reason the emphasis is on stars older than the story of Lassie herself, so we have Stewart losing his dignity in comically overplayed tearjerking scenes, and in a road movie style the likes of Mickey Rooney as a wrestling agent and Mike Mazurki as his client, the world's oldest wrestler (who bizarrely dons a Harpo Marx wig) show up along Lassie's journey. As if that were not enough, little Chris goes on the run as well, hoping to find the errant hound.
This in spite of the fact that if he'd seen any Lassie movie he'd know that all he need do is wait at home and she would show up there eventually. On Chris's excursion he meets Alice Faye, playing a singing waitress although too many cigarettes have lent her vocals the similar croaking tones of Stewart's. To underline the spiritual connection, the kid has a psychic link to Lassie so there are a surplus of shots of the dog dashing across the countryside overlaid with his tearstained features; to say this is laying it on a bit thick would be an understatement. Meanwhile his sister Zimbalist gets nothing to do, with even her romantic subplot a minor distraction as it's the dog most will be wanting to follow, assuming you have been recruited into her canine cult. Marvel as Lassie plays the banjo (really), saves a kitten and attacks people she doesn't like in a manner that suggests a tranquiliser dart would be the best way to bring her to heel. Then understand why there wasn't another of these for almost twenty years.
British director best known for directing fantasy favourites Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C, both of which featured groundbreaking Ray Harryhausen effects. Chaffey also directed Hammer’s Viking Queen, but much of his work was in television, both in the UK (The Prisoner, Man In a Suitcase) and, later, the US (Charlie’s Angels, CHiPs, Airwolf). Also made kids’ favourites Greyfriars Bobby and Pete's Dragon for Disney.