[Screen It]

(2000) (Frankie Muniz, Diane Lane) (PG)

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Children's/Drama: A young boy learns various lessons about life and growing up in WWII era Mississippi thanks to the help of his pet dog.
It's 1942 and Willie Morris (FRANKIE MUNIZ) has just turned nine in Yazoo, Mississippi. A small kid for his age, Willie doesn't have many friends except for his next-door neighbor, Dink Jenkins (LUKE WILSON), the local star athlete who's heading off to Europe to fight Hitler.

As a result, Willie's mother, Ellen (DIANE LANE), decides he should get a dog for his birthday, but his father, Jack (KEVIN BACON), a stern disciplinarian who lost his leg in the Spanish Civil War, doesn't want his son to experience heartache and loss as he believes that dogs often meet untimely fates. Nonetheless, Ellen eventually wins out and Willie receives a Jack Russell terrier puppy that he names Skip.

An adventurous and personable pooch, Skip soon leads Willie through a series of life lessons, including how to deal with a trio of bullies -- Big Boy Wilkinson (BRADLEY CORYELL), Henjie Henick (DAYLAN HONEYCUTT) and Spit McGee (CODY LINLEY) - along with meeting his first "girlfriend," Rivers Applewhite (CAITLIN WACHS), and dealing with a duo of bootleggers -- Junior Smalls (PETER CROMBIE) and his associate, Millard (CLINT HOWARD) -- who are using the local cemetery to hide their stash.

As time passes, Willie is finally accepted by the bullies and Dink returns from the war a changed man, Skip continues to help the young boy grow up and learn about responsibility, love and friendship.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Okay, maybe it's because I grew up with cats and currently have one as a pet, but I want to know why we never get many, if any, "a boy and his cat" movies. For every "Lassie," "Air Bud" and "A Dog of Flanders" there's what? "That Darn Cat?" Is that the best that Hollywood can do? Where are the activists crying out for equal screen rights for felines alongside their canine competition?

Sure, cats are probably harder to train than dogs for theatrical roles (not intended to imply that they're less intelligent - after all, who's the smarter not to sit up, roll over, or fetch on command?), and few studios are probably willing to sign any contracts that ensure their feline stars of lucrative, back-end catnip payoffs. After all, there are enough hopped up human performers in "La-La" land that we certainly don't need to add to the mix.

Regardless of whether the cats are unwilling to perform in such roles or the studios don't think they're any sort of box office draw, we're now subjected to yet another "boy and his dog" flick in the form of "My Dog Skip." A well-crafted and fairly enjoyable - if increasingly episodic - throwback to family films of yesteryear, the picture is based on Willie Morris' 1995 memoir about growing up in WWII era Mississippi.

Headlined by the extremely personable Frankie Muniz ("Lost & Found," TV's "Malcolm in the Middle"), who delivers a performance that's nothing short of winning, along with Harry Connick, Jr. voicing the character as a retrospective adult narrator, the film should play equally well to older kids and nostalgia-craving adults.

The latter will probably enjoy the film's old-fashioned appeal, what with its lush cinematography - courtesy of James L. Carter ("One False Move," "Destiny Turns on the Radio") - and production design - from David Bomba ("Body Shots," the HBO movie, "Gia") - and storytelling technique that's all but extinct in most of today's youth-based films. The kids, on the other hand, will probably easily identify with the universal joys and tribulations of growing up, and most likely will enjoy the antics of Skip, played by a series of look-alike pooches trained by Matilde DeCagney and William S. Grisco.

That said, the film does have some problems and the first one directly relates to that title character. While plenty of misgivings are usually overlooked or at least tolerated to some extent in kids' films, the dog is obviously too much of a gimmick here. Of course, that's not uncommon in kid-based productions featuring dogs, but any time Skip runs, jumps or otherwise springs into action here, it feels a bit too much like a plot device rather than a natural occurrence.

That, when tied to the "life lessons" such actions are supposed to represent and William Ross' ("My Fellow Americans," "The Evening Star") occasionally over manipulative and on the cue score give the film an artificial and somewhat forced feel. While kids won't mind - as such moments play right into their sensibilities, fears and wishes - adults might have a bit harder of a time swallowing such chunks without choking. While it's not a horrible or debilitating problem, things do seem to work better when the dog's not around or at least is relegated to the background. Of course, and not surprisingly, there isn't a plethora of such moments.

Other problems are also present, however, although their severity in relation to one's enjoyment of the film obviously depends on the viewer's age, level of film critique and overall mood. For starters, the film relies perhaps a bit too much in its voice over narration to explain events (seen and unseen) and to fill in gaps between scenes. Fortunately, it's not terribly overused and one can cut that element some slack since it's a traditional component of kid-based stories and films. It also helps that segment of the audience more easily follow what's occurring on the screen.

A bit harder to accept or forgive is the film's increasingly episodic nature. Of course, if one is to look at the proceedings from a literal sense, one's childhood memories from a half century ago are bound to be scattered at best and the film does have to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Even so, and despite the overriding "life lessons" and accompanying small collection of subplots that manage to keep things moving along, they lack the necessary cohesiveness to give the film the proper momentum it needs and deserves (such as was the case in Warner's under-appreciated "The Iron Giant" - a unique spin on the boy/dog story).

The filmmakers, director Jay Russell ("End of the Line") and screenwriter Gail Gilchriest (marking her writing debut), also near entirely jettison two of the film's biggest assets -- Kevin Bacon ("Stir of Echoes," "Footloose") and Diane Lane ("A Walk on the Moon," "Murder at 1600"), who play the boy's overprotective and concerned parents respectively. While it's understood that the story will naturally be focused on the boy and his dog, some of the film's best, but unfortunately sparse moments involve the talented performers and their interaction with Muniz's character.

Other performances are generally okay, including the likes of Luke Wilson ("Blue Streak," "Home Fries") as the hometown star athlete who returns from war a changed man, and Caitlin Wachs ("The Next Best Thing," "Shiloh Season") who's just as cute as a button as Willie's "girlfriend." Yet, their and other performer's characters are often either abandoned or simply not developed that well (including bits about the town's black population that come off as sporadic at best).

Then there's the content factor. While the film is appropriately rated PG, many parents are apt to see the flashing "family film" insignia and take all of the kids - regardless of age - to see it. While, for the most part, there isn't anything horribly offensive - although the scene featuring a bootlegger clocking the pooch with a shovel (mostly off-screen) is a bit much - it's too bad that the filmmakers and/or studios are so afraid of the G rating that they include enough material to bump the film up one rating notch.

With the omission of the profanity and a toning down of some of the material, the film could have had the same overall effect, but with a lowered and more family friendly rating. Despite the fact that some of the biggest grossing films of all time have been rated G, those responsible for these sorts of films continue in their incorrect belief that PG is better than G (I now officially step down from my rarely used soapbox).

None of that's meant to imply that the film is horribly flawed or that audiences won't enjoy or even be affected by the proceedings. Quite the contrary, it's highly likely that at least some viewers and critics will gush over the film, and rightly so, at least for certain parts of it.

The performances from the leads are first rate, the dog is cute and obviously well trained, and the film simply oozes the appropriate old-time feel. Unfortunately and at least as far as adult audiences are concerned, however, the manipulative strings are too easy to spot and the story comes off feeling more like a series of remembered vignettes than a cohesive and well-structured tale. While none of that's a horrible sin and kids probably won't mind, the film should have been better (and could have at least featured some cats for equal time). We give "My Dog Skip" a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 24, 2000 / Posted Posted March 3, 2000

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