Frankie Muniz, Diane Lane, Kevin Bacon, Luke Wilson
Directed by Jay Russell
Writing credits: Willie Morris (book), Gail Gilchriest
Warner Bros. * 95 minutes
OK, I admit it: I'm a sucker for anything with a cute dog. I'll drop everything to watch that Advantage flea control commercial. Every time that girl calls "Come here, Casey" in the IAMS commercial, and Casey ages in 30 seconds from a puppy to an old dog, I just collapse into tears, every single time I see it. I even sat through a saccharine little number called NAPOLEON merely because it featured a Golden Retriever puppy in a balloon basket trimmed with a ribbon.
So of course there was no way I was going to miss MY DOG SKIP.
MY DOG SKIP is the kind of movie they don't make anymore. It's completely devoid of irony, it's utterly predictable, it's loaded with cliches, it's manipulative, it's got one of those swelling musical scores that had the adults in the kid-dominated audience at the showing I attended dabbing their eyes at the opening credit sequence, and I loved every minute of it. Every gasping, sobbing minute of it. Any adult who can sit through this film dry-eyed is in serious need of a heart transplant.
Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz) is a geeky eight-year-old in Yazoo, Mississippi. The year is 1942 and the world is at war. An only child in a generation of large families, the son of a remote Spanish Civil War veteran father (Kevin Bacon) and a well-meaning mother (Diane Lane), Willie lives an isolated life, taunted by those who would otherwise be his friends. Only his neighbor, former high school star athlete and soon-to-be soldier Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson), treats him as anything other than a loser.
Willie's mother knows that what Willie needs most is is a friend, and for his ninth birthday, bucking her husband's disapproval, she presents him with a Jack Russell terrier puppy, the eponymous Skip of the title.
It's no secret that dogs open doors to the world. Disabled people with working dogs have far more natural interaction with other people, and even for an otherwise whole but lonely boy like Willie, Skip helps break the ice, opening doors to friendship and even the beginnings of romance.
The plot is as much a loving, if sentimentalized painting of small-town life in the 1940's as it is a boy-and-his-dog story. Yazoo is a town in which the sun always shines and indeed is bathed in a golden glow. The sets, costumes and even the toys are impeccably vintage. The racial climate of the time is touched upon lightly, but Yazoo is presented as a town with segregation, not tension. Indeed, the depiction is so affectionate that I often found myself wanting some Jean Shepherd voice-over, just to add enough irony to make the plot elements seem more real. Yet the storyline effectively and touchingly captures not only the special relationship between a child and a beloved pet, but also the innocent optimism of a nation united against a common enemy.
Only a subplot involving moonshiners, designed solely for the purpose of having some Bad Guys, seems gratuitous, as if no other way could be found to create the obligatory Moment of Epiphany required in all dog/buddy movies.
The performances are delightfully understated. The last time I saw Kevin Bacon in a film, he was doing a full monty emergence from a shower in the 1998 trash classic WILD THINGS. Seeing him here, in what in a Jean Shepherd story would be the role of "The Old Man", made me feel even older. His Jack Morris is stern and embattled, yet with a fierce and genuine love for his son; a desire to protect him from life's bitter fruit. Diane Lane, the former sexpot of THE COTTON CLUB, has at the relatively tender age of 35, already begun to take on the kind of "Mom" roles usually reserved for actresses over forty. As Ellen Morris, she has little to do but look worried about her son, but the moment in which she stands up to her husband in order that her son might have the puppy he wants, is priceless.
This seems to be a wonderfully rich time for child acting talent. In the post-MacCauley Culkin era, today's crop of child actors are an extraordinarily natural bunch. From Haley Joel Osment's eerily poised 10-year-old in THE SIXTH SENSE, to the adorable urchins in THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, to Willie's tormentors in MY DOG SKIP, this current kid army shows none of the mannered style or preciousness so common among young talent. And if the kid villains only have names like Spit McGee (Cody Linley in a funny/scary performance) instead of the much more colorful Scut Farkas and Grover Dill of Jean Shepherd's tales, these millennial kids fit seamlessly into the 1940's milieu. Caitlin Wachs is a cutely feminine, yet tomboyish little girl who portrays a character with the unlikely name of Rivers Applewhite (a name that for some reason made me think of Reese Witherspoon). Rivers falls hard for the adorable Skip, only to find out that Skip's owner is as bookish as she is.
Yet first and foremost, MY DOG SKIP belongs to flavor-of-the month Frankie Muniz (a local boy, who grew up not fifteen miles from where I reside). I've never seen MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, where Muniz makes his TV home, but although he looks a little like a fifty-year-old guy in a kid suit, with his scrunchy facial features, he also has a freckled, Norman Rockwell look that is rarely seen these days but fits in perfectly with 1940's Yazoo. Muniz may be the hot-kid-of-the-moment, but he has the talent to back it up. It's not easy to play opposite an extraordinarily cute dog (or in this case, six of them, all playing Skip), but Muniz handles it beautifully.
The actors are all so natural that I must say, the only truly, shamelessly, cynically manipulative part of this film is its sweeping, saccharine, crescendo-laden William Ross score. And yet, I succumbed to it, becoming weepy as early as the opening credits sequence, which shows the vintage toys of childhood, as if frozen in time.
What makes MY DOG SKIP so extraordinary is that it it is that rare phenomenon: a family film, without merchandising tie-ins, that kids can enjoy on one level, and adults can relate to on another, completely different level, for a dare I say it profoundly emotional filmgoing experience. At the end of the family-dominated showing I attended, the children were all babbling about the dog drinking out of the toilet, and the adults (Your Humble Critic included), were all choking back sobs in a kind of collective yahrzeit for childhood pets.
In 1979, my own childhood dog, Wooleyburger (and I married my husband because he knew the obscure 1960's New York metro area reference for that name), was hit by a car and killed at the age of thirteen, after wandering out of the yard. Twenty-one years later, not a week goes by that I don't still shed a tear for that crazy little black poodle. She was MY dog Skip.
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