A boy and his dog: What's not to like?

Review: "My Dog Skip" is a nostalgic weeper about a little kid's adventures growing up.

March 03, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Be prepared to go home and hug your dog.

Based on the memoirs of author Willie Morris (who died last August), "My Dog Skip" is an unapologetic weeper about a runt of a boy and the Jack Russell terrier who loves him. Filled with heart-tugging moments both timely (what it was like growing up in the 1940s) and timeless (ruminations on hero worship and how man's best friend earned the title), it's a charming family picture that would seem destined for classic status, if not for some unnecessary narration that only serves to make obvious sentiments the film has already made plain.

The year is 1942, the place is Yazoo, Miss., and 8-year-old Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz, of TV's "Malcolm In the Middle") is one of those kids seemingly born to be picked on. His only friend, town jock Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson), is about to be shipped off to war -- meaning Willie's only remaining companions will be his own family, a poor substitute for kids his own age.

Willie's big-hearted mom, Ellen (Diane Lane), knows the four-footed answer to Willie's problems, but first she has to convince his dad. It won't be easy; Jack Morris (Kevin Bacon), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War whose battle souvenir is a wooden leg, is ultra-protective of his son. That means protecting him from hurt, which means protecting him from loss, which means not letting him have a dog that will someday either run away or die.

Of course, mom wins the day. Enter Skip, the ever-faithful dog who not only bonds with Willie, but also becomes something of a dog-about-town. He becomes a local celebrity, easing the way for Willie to start making friends -- including the most beautiful girl in his class, the poetically named Rivers Applewhite (Caitlin Wachs).

What follows is a series of adventures involving Skip and Willie: an encounter with the black folks who live on the other side of town; a spooky night in the town cemetery; a fight with some particularly nasty bootleggers; and the return of Dink, emerging from the war a burned-out shell of a man.

Through it all, Willie and Skip are inseparable, as are all kids and their dogs. Until the day, that is, an uncharacteristically ill-tempered Willie does something he instantly regrets. Which is the cue, of course, for a lesson in what real friendship is all about.

"My Dog Skip" is unwaveringly good-hearted, and its sentimentality is made palatable by its uniformly strong cast. That's especially true of Bacon, who makes Jack Morris a man with both a good soul and a broken spirit, a man determined to do right even if he can no longer see the reason for it. Rarely has Bacon been asked to play a character so conflicted, and he makes the most of the opportunity.

It's also romantically nostalgic, a love letter to growing up in simpler times. Even when it tackles what could be some prickly subjects, such as segregation, it does so through rose-colored filters that dismiss problems with a wave of the hand or turn of a phrase. Audiences looking for deeper meaning need to look elsewhere; "My Dog Skip" is the simple story of a boy and his dog.

If only the filmmakers were wise enough to let the film speak with its own voice. But every few minutes, a voice-over narration (spoken by Harry Connick Jr.) intrudes to point out the obvious, intoning somberly about transitions from boyhood to manhood and wondering why humans can't be as smart as dogs, who can't tell from skin color when it comes to picking friends.

The narrator rarely disappears for long; in fact, he's there constantly for the film's final five minutes or so. "My Dog Skip" is a far better film when its pleasures are unforced.

`My Dog Skip'

Starring Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane and Frankie Muniz

Directed by Jay Russell

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG (some scary moments)

Running time 95 minutes

Sun score * * *

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