Americana Movie Month: "My Dog Skip" Review

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A shy boy is unable to make friends in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1942, until his parents give him a terrier puppy for his ninth birthday. The dog, which he names Skip, becomes well known and loved throughout the community and enriches the life of the boy, Willie, as he grows into manhood. Based on the best-selling Mississippi memoir by the late Willie Morris.
3.5

Americana Movie Month: "My Dog Skip" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: March 3, 2000
Directed by: Jay Russell
Genre: Drama/Family/Sport

"My Dog Skip" is a film made to delight animal lovers, children, and grandparents. While it is sentimental, it's also warm and memorable without becoming maudlin or mawkish. The movie is also a tearjerker in the vein of "Old Yeller," so audiences should be prepared with a box of tissue.

Beginning in the summer of 1942, "My Dog Skip" tells the story of Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz), who grew up in Yazoo, Mississippi. When the film starts, Willie is a lonely child who isn't good at playing sports or making friends with other children. He spends time with his next-door neighbor Dink (Luke Wilson), who was a sports star in high school. When Dink leaves to fight in World War II, Willie is alone until his mother (Diane Lane) buys him a Jack Russell puppy for his ninth birthday. Skip becomes Willie's best friend, following him on several adventures and eventually helping him win the attention of the prettiest girl in the neighborhood. Other people in Willie's life change, too. Willie's father (Kevin Bacon) finally recovers from the emotional losses he suffered during the Spanish War. And although Dink returns from World War II in a disillusioned state, he too recovers some of his spirit in time.

Adults watching this film will know that "My Dog Skip" isn't solely about a boy and his dog. It's also about the nostalgia of the World War II era. Although the film does mention the segregation of 1942 south, it doesn't address the very real prejudices and problems that African Americans faced during this time. They'll also recognize that Dink is less of a character and more of a representative of the lost innocence of the soldiers who returned from World War II. Even Willie's father, who was greatly affected while fighting in the Spanish War, miraculously transforms due to the healing powers of a little dog.

Director Jay Russell knows just how to keep "My Dog Skip" from veering into mawkish territory. Although he isn't above showing multiple heartwarming scenes, he also recognizes the difficulties of bullying, war, and loss. While none of these themes are actively explored, they are also not overlooked. Russell's film is thoroughly sentimental, but it is never manipulative. Russell makes the forties Mississippi look wholesome and shows the racial segregation of that area.

Russell and his team assembled a superb cast for the film. Believable child actors are seemingly difficult to find, but Frankie Muniz of "Malcom in the Middle" fame is just right as the innocent, bookish Willie. Diane Lane and Kevin Bacon as Willie's parents are also excellent. Neither of their characters are particularly complex, but they deliver better acting than what is found in many family films. Luke Wilson, who plays the former high school sports star, also delivers an easy charm. Unfortunately, his character seems to exist as a mere prop to demonstrate the difficulties of wartime.

The screenplay, which was written by Gail Gilchriest, is based on a memoir of the same title by the former Harper's magazine editor. Several of the best anecdotes from the book didn't make it into the screenplay, which may give audiences an unfair impression of the depth and storytelling in the memoir. Also, although the film was based on a memoir, not everything that occurs in the movie happened to the real Willie Morris. However, criticizing the screenplay seems a bit unfair. The plot is predictable, but the audience's enjoyment of the film comes from watching each scene play out.

The weakest part of the film is a moonshine subplot that seems to belong in another movie. There's no real logical reason that the moonshiners had to hide their product in an abandoned crypt, except that they're required to become the mustache-twirling villains of the story. However, the events that this subplot sets in motion for Skip and Willie yield worthwhile dividends. In particular, Willie's search for Skip after he runs away will touch any person who's spent time roaming the neighborhood calling for a beloved lost pet.

Parents of young children may like to know that this old-fashioned film should be suitable for most elementary-age children. There are a few mild obscenities, and one character has a drinking problem. Themes of bullying, racism, and loss are present, but they're handled in sensitive ways. Children may also be interested in historical elements, such as ration books, segregation, and scrap drives.

Audiences should know that "My Dog Skip" doesn't break any new ground, but it's a respectable entry into the genre of family pet movies. Children will delight in the simple story, while adults will appreciate the moral tone and poignant sensibility of this coming-of-age tale. This is a film that's made for a family movie night.

Rating 3.5 out of 5