Dennis the Menace was an early example of Hollywood reshaping a known brand to make the movie more closely resemble an entirely original box office blockbuster.
Another week, another almost entirely random older Hollywood flick near the top of Netflix NFLX ’s “most-watched” charts. While the most-watched movie yesterday/today is Sabrina Carpenter’s dance dramedy Work It, yesterday’s most-watched flick on Netflix was not Jurassic Park but another IP adaptation from that same summer. Yes, I’m talking about Dennis the Menace. Admit it, you thought I was going to say The Fugitive or The Firm, didn’t you? On its face, the Nick Castle-directed and John Hughes-penned kid-friendly comedy is another “convenient babysitter” title that’s among the bigger “new from Hollywood” releases on the streaming service at the moment. It was neither a big hit nor a big flop, earning $51.2 million domestic and $117.2 million worldwide on a $35 million budget. It was and remains an interesting example of Hollywood adapted a known IP and skewing it to resemble a recent blockbuster original.
Mason Gamble plays seven-year-old Dennis, an inquisitive and often frustratingly literal youngster who makes mischief for his working parents and his elderly neighbor George Wilson (Walter Mattheu back when it was noteworthy to get an actor of that caliber for a movie like this). Based on the Hank Ketcham comic strip (1951-1994), the film was an early attempt to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton’s Batman in terms of finding anything and everything to potentially turn into a movie. The second-biggest flick was The Fugitive, a straight-forward (but obviously pared down) adaptation of the serialized 1960’s TV show about an innocent man on the run and attempting to find his wife’s murderer. That Andrew Davis classic offered a primal hook and star power (Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones) in a high-quality genre package that was inherently appealing whether you knew about the show or not.
Conversely, the core appeal, at least on its face, for Dennis the Menace was “Hey, it’s a Dennis the Menace movie!” If you didn’t want such a thing, well, there wasn’t much else to be offered. However, upon slightly closer inspection, you’ll notice that the film was reverse-engineered to appeal to both Dennis the Menace fans (be it of the comic strip of the various animated and live-action TV shows) and Home Alone. Yes, John Hughes was a producer and screenwriter on this one, and the film was yet another example of how the surprise blow-out success of that Chris Columbus-directed mega-smash permanently changed the course of Hughes’ career. Before Home Alone, Hughes was known for open-hearted and insightful teen coming of age comedies and dramedies like Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and Some Kind of Wonderful. After Home Alone, well…
Curly Sue was an attempt to make Alisan Porter into a Macaulay Culkin-sized child star. Career Opportunities tried to blend teen angst with “smart kids outwit bumbling burglars” antics that made Home Alone a $285 million-grossing domestic smash (the third-biggest grosser ever at the time behind E.T. and Star Wars). Even Hughes’ later movies, either as a producer or as a writer, that didn’t follow a Home Alone-specific formula, were frantic comic farces (Baby’s Day Out, Beethoven, Flubber, 101 Dalmatians, etc.) intended for young kids. They generally featured young children or animals as protagonists and bumbling criminals getting their Jigsaw-worthy comeuppance. Be it a case of chasing easy money or taking what was offered, Hughes spent the next nine years (he would die of a heart attack at 59, eleven years ago this past Thursday) as a writer and/or producer attempting to recapture the success of Home Alone.
There’s an irony to that considering he likely wrote and produced Home Alone as just another outside-the-sandbox flick, like Plains Trains and Automobiles, Only the Lonely and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which he partially made to avoid getting typecast as a maker of teen melodramas. Dennis the Menace is produced and written by Hughes, involves a new potential child star as a trouble-making tyke and features a knife-wielding thief played by Christopher Lloyd who adds third-act menace and gets taken down in classic Kevin McCallister fashion. This subplot wasn’t exactly well-received, but I’d argue it was at least partially about adults overestimating the extent that kids would be scared of a strictly PG-rated criminal in an otherwise G-rated movie. Nonetheless, Dennis the Menace was an IP adaptation that was almost certainly greenlit after and meant to replicate the success of the entirely original Home Alone.
Here you have a brand cash-in that only existed because Warner Bros. thought they could take the IP and retrofit it into a movie similar enough to the entirely original Home Alone and potentially have their own (relatively speaking) pint-sized hit. There are other examples of this that come to mind. Would Andrew Stanton had been able to make John Carter if James Cameron’s original Avatar hadn’t earned $2.789 billion worldwide? Maybe/maybe not. While Fox was always going to try to reboot Fantastic Four (which opened five years ago yesterday), they hired Josh Trank on the strength of the original sleeper hit Chronicle and then allowed him (at least initially) to retrofit Marvel’s first family into a loose variation on that grimdark sci-fi horror flick. And let’s not forget that Hollywood reacted to Inception by remaking Total Recall (which opened eight years ago this past Monday).
There are a number of IP cash-ins that attempted to replicate the success of an original movie which was trying to rip-off the IP in question. George Lucas couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon, so he made Star Wars whose success spawned the 1980 version of Flash Gordon. The Fast and the Furious was a loose remake of Point Break, and by the time Hollywood remade Point Break to empty theaters Furious 7 was racing past $1.517 billion worldwide. Insidious wasn’t a direct riff on Poltergeist, but it was a “rip off, don’t remake” success that spawned three sequels as the 2015 remake of Poltergeist crashed-and-burned. It’s one thing when a big-budget Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves succeeded as a “kinda like the big-budget Batman” grimdark reboot. It’s another when we get a big-budget Robin Hood trying to replicate the low-budget (and R-rated) thrills of John Wick.
I’m not going to pretend that Dennis the Menace is a good movie or even one worth revisiting for past-tense wisdom. If you want a terrific (and underseen) kid-friendly IP that’s free to stream, go to Hulu or Amazon AMZN and watch James Bobin’s Dora and the Lost City of Gold. But, with the caveat that it was a modest hit and it was a no harm/no foul disappointment, it is an interesting example of Hollywood essentially doing it backwards in terms of IP exploitation. It’s the kind of “whoops” that’s less likely to happen today due to the sheer lack of original mega-hits. It’s also an example of how the success of the Chris Columbus-directed Home Alone reshaped John Hughes’ career as a writer and producer. Once again, as I always like to say, Hollywood always makes more money from the “first Home Alone” than “the next Home Alone.”