Friday, January 2, 2009


"My Dog Skip" (*** out of ****)is pretty feisty.

Although Hollywood has hyperbolized this autobiographical account of late author Willie Morris' youth in Yazoo City in the summer of 1942 and the canine who changed his life, "My Dog Skip" measures up as an endearing, tail-wagging, Alpo epic aimed more at nostalgia-minded adults than adolescents. This pretentious but picturesque parable about a pooch (albeit one with more pedigree than most) and his famous young master strives for the poignancy of "To Kill A Mockingbird: but lacks the complexity of the Harper Lee classic. "Mockingbird" explored racism, while "Skip" only nods at it. Nevertheless, sophomore director Jay Russell has freshman scribe Gail Gilchriest have spun a superficial but entertaining saga about a boy and his dog that quenches your emotions without insulting your intelligence.

Life for nine-year old Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz of TV's "Malcolm in the Middle") is no picnic. Not only is Willie small for his age, but he also doesn't fit in with everybody else. Being different at his age poses huge problems. Willie prefers reading rather than romping around with a football, so the school bullies regularly prey on him. They corner him after class, knock his books out of his arms, rip up a letter,and call him names. Willie's next door neighbor, Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson of "Home Fries"),the most celebrated jock in Yazoo City, becomes his friend. The bullies cannot understand why Dink pays Willie any attention. When Dink enlists in the U.S. Army for duty overseas in Europe, Willie is saddened because he is losing his only friend.

Although his father loves him, Jake Morris (Kevin Bacon of "Sleepers") is so embittered by the loss of a leg in the Spanish Civil War that he doesn't give Willie much room to frolic. Ironically, Jack tries to shield Willie from the pain of life as he struggles to deal with his own loss. Meanwhile, Willie's resourceful mom, Ellen (Diane Lane of "Untraceable"), awakens the Tom Sawyer in her son. She gives Willie a puppy for his ninth birthday. Jack hates the idea. "Dogs are just a heartbreak waiting to happen," he insists. Willie's heart will break, he fears, if anything tragic happens to the animal. Despite Jack's objections, Ellen puts her foot down. Willie gets to keep the puppy!

Skip becomes Willie's best friend. Willie's circle of friends widens. Eventually, the school bullies accept him, especially after Willie spends a stormy night in a spooky graveyard without turning chickening out. This is where Skip and Willie run afoul of two scummy bootleggers. Skip acts as matchmaker, too. He arranges Willie's first date with sweet little Rivers Applewhite(Caitlin Wachs of "Thirteen Days"). They go to a movie and share popcorn with Skip. As Willie's confidence swells, he takes Skip for granted. At a baseball field, where Willie is playing finally instead of watching, Skip delays the game. An enraged Willie clobbers him, and Skip skedaddles. Later, pair of villainous bootleggers traps Skip, beat him with a shovel, and leave him for dead.

"My Dog Skip" unfolds as a fairly ordinary sequence of vignettes which feature either Willie undergoing his rites of passage or the mischievous Skip in an adventure of his own. For example, when Jack and Skip are collecting blackberries, they cross paths with a couple of hunters. Willie watches as a deer dies from a rifle shot. He touches the blood with his fingers and examines the blood as the animal takes its dying gasps of air. Russell and Gilchriest have taken a formulaic plot and embroidered it with several ironic lessons about life. Luke Wilson's ill-fated jock, Dink Jenkins, serves as a contrivance to show that not all cowards are alike, especially when they hail from championship stock.

Frankie Muniz refuses to be upstaged by the six adorable Jack Russell terriers alternating in the lead role. Two of them, Moose and Enzo, appear on NBC-TV's "Frasier." Luke ("Blue Streak") Wilson rounds out a sympathetic cast as Willie's next door neighbor who fights the Nazis and experiences the horrors of combat and the shame of cowardice. Ken Bacon brings surprising depth and compassion to what essentially constitutes a cameo as Willie's wounded father. Jack Morris displays a dour Hemingway quality. Although he won a medal for losing his leg in the war, Jack assures Willie,"I'd rather have the leg."

Only kids that have not been weaned on Ritalin, PlayStation, and MTV will appreciate this tear-jerking tale about a terrier with its refreshingly authentic depiction of rural Mississippi. "My Dog Skip" shuns the slobbering slapstick of "Beethoven" for the heartfelt sincerity of "Old Yeller." Above all, despite his scene-stealing antics, Skip balks at performing far-fetched feats of the Rin-Tin-Tin variety! Willie Morris saw "My Dog Skip" three days before he died of a heart attack at age 64and gave the movie his blessing.

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