Rated PG - Running Time: 1:35 - Released 3/3/00

It is an unfortunate reality that most films aimed at children, excepting the annual big-budget animated blockbusters, are sadly lacking from an adult's standpoint. But Jay Russell's My Dog Skip, apparently based on the autobiography of the late Willie Morris and adapted for the screen by Gail Gilchriest, is a delightful exception to that rule. It is a heartwarming film about a young boy and his dog growing up in Mississippi during World War II, with not only a good story but excellent performances and high-quality production values. Its star is Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle), whose performance is elegant for a 14-year-old, but his is only one of several good turns by the supporting cast, which includes Kevin Bacon, Luke Perry, and Diane Lane.

Willie (Muniz) is a shy kid who has trouble fitting in at school, and when the war overseas breaks out, he stands to lose the company of his adult friend "Dink" Jenkins (Wilson), at least for a few years. Seeing that he needs a new companion, Willie's mother (Lane) gives him a puppy for his birthday. Although his dad (Bacon) objects at first, Willie is allowed to keep the pup, whom he names Skipper, or "Skip" for short. The dog helps Willie overcome several obstacles in his social life, including acceptance into an exclusive circle of friends and meeting the prettiest girl in school. The summer of '42 sees Willie coming out of his shell, thanks to the dog, and when Skip gets lost, his popularity compels the whole town to join in the search.

This film's plot is really quite pedestrian, which is not surprising, since it's supposed to be the true childhood story of author Morris (real life is seldom as exciting, but usually more believable, than what happens in the movies). What makes it especially rich are the many layers of character, relationship, and subtext in Gilchriest's script and the ability on the part of director Russell and his cast to convey those layers. Embedded in the scenes, which seem to be simple in nature, are such subjects as the fine line between heroism and cowardice, the horror of war, the hurdles one must overcome for the sake of acceptance, and the pain of regret after one betrays a true friend. These are adult issues we have all faced, presented from a childlike point of view. The sensitive narration by Harry Connick Jr. as the voice of adult Willie adds a great deal to the overall effect. Also, I was particularly impressed with the authenticity of the period surroundings. Director Russell obviously took pains to ensure that every detail fit the 1942 setting; this is something most directors of children's films find unimportant.

Anyone who has ever loved a pet will identify with this story, and even if that is not the case, one can't deny the power of Muniz's performance. It's a simple story, and it doesn't completely avoid the stereotypes often seen in this genre, but My Dog Skip is still better quality entertainment than what usually passes for kids' fare these days. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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