There is a theory among students of television that the fatal flaw in the "Dennis the Menace" TV series was that the Dennis character was old enough to know better. That is not the case with the new feature-length film "Dennis the Menace," in which the little monster and the actor who plays him (Mason Gamble of Oak Park) are both about 7. Dennis' tender years allow him the luxury of innocence, and even Mr. Wilson, his long-suffering next-door neighbor, seems to understand that Dennis is not malevolent, just very, very bad at decision-making.
Cartoon movies do not often look like the cartoons that inspire them, but "Dennis the Menace" does an uncanny job of recreating the little world that Hank Ketchum drew for years in the famous comic panel. I almost felt I could recognize the terrain of many of Dennis' adventures: His yard, Mr. Wilson's yard, the driveway separating them, and various trees, garages, lawn tools and other props. And as Mr. Wilson, Walter Matthau captures the incredulity, the martyrdom and what can only be called the masochism of the original. Wilson's tendency to lose his patience tends to obscure another of his traits, which is patience itself (who else could live next to Dennis day after day and week after week?).
The best parts of the movie are those in which Dennis' games and plans go astray, often in the direction of Mr. Wilson. The worst parts involve an unnecessary and ambiguous subplot involving an ominous drifter named Switchblade Sam (Christopher Lloyd), who menaces the little boy.
Thirty or 40 years ago, in the innocence of a Capra movie, I might have been able to accept this character, who is a thief and threatens Dennis with a knife. These days, characters like that make me feel extremely uneasy when they are around small children - and I would imagine a lot of smaller children may be disturbed by the movie.