My Dog Skip (review)

Wag the Dog

I embarrassed the 5-year-old friend with whom I went to see My Dog Skip by bawling my eyes out through the last 15 minutes of the movie. “Are you crying?” she — hardhearted little thing that she is — kept asking me practically from the moment we sat down, to which I could truthfully answer No, I was not… until I was, and then her question changed to an exasperated, “When are you gonna stop crying?!”

My Dog Skip is, in many ways, like Toy Story and its sequel: it’s a movie about childhood that, while totally appropriate for children, is probably going to affect adults much more than the kids that accompany them to the theater. No matter how rotten our childhoods (see Angela’s Ashes), most of us can look back and find some kind of sweetness in the memory of it: in making exciting new discoveries every day about ourselves and the world, in making new friends, and even in the bittersweet memory of becoming self-aware enough to realize that childhood is slipping away.
The writer Willie Morris’s childhood was decidedly not rotten, if My Dog Skip is any indication — and it should be, since it was based on his memoir. Sure, young Willie (Frankie Muniz, who’s delightfully expressive) thinks he’s got things bad: As a sensitive, solitary, book-loving boy in small-town Mississippi in the early 1940s, he’s the butt of ridicule of the rougher, tougher, sports-fanatic boys. And to make things worse, his father, Jack (Kevin Bacon: Stir of Echoes, Telling Lies in America), thinks he’s too young for a dog.

But on his ninth birthday — when only elderly aunts and grandparents can be rounded up for a party — Willie’s mother, Ellen (Diane Lane: The Virginian, Murder at 1600), defies Dad’s wishes and presents Willie with an adorable Jack Russell terrier puppy. Dad puts up a fight — he won’t have the puppy in the house — but Mom of course prevails. Skip becomes Willie’s best friend as they share Huck Finn-type adventures, get pally with neighborhood boys (a dog, unlike Willie’s beloved books, is something the rough-and-tumble kids can appreciate), and catch the eye of “the prettiest girl in town,” Rivers Applewhite (Caitlin Wachs: Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season). Skip himself becomes something of a dog about town, wandering on his own to visit the butcher for a piece of bologna, Willie’s aunt’s house on bridge day (when he can sneak a few tea sandwiches), and even to the colored side of the railroad tracks, to visit with his doggie and humans friends there.

The lessons kids can take away from My Dog Skip — like the value of colorblindness when it comes to people’s skin — are gently offered and subtly woven into the story, so adults aren’t likely to feel bashed over the head with them. But while My Dog Skip celebrates the fun of growing up — baseball games and school show-and-tell and the first stirrings of romance — it doesn’t shy away from harsher realities either. We get a bit of Willie’s adult perspective as he narrates his story (with a voice provided by Harry Connick Jr.: The Iron Giant), but the events young Willie is likely to take most to heart go uncommented on by the narrator (and provide excellent jumping-off points for discussions between parents and kids), as if they struck Willie so deeply that mere words cannot encompass them.

The war, for example, is little more than a backdrop to Willie’s life, and he and his peers are mostly protected from the dark truth of it — Hitler is little more than a generic bogeyman and bad guy for the pretend wars of Willie and his friends. But the effects of war are all around Willie. Jack is a disabled and decorated veteran of a previous war, and curiosity about his father’s experience consumes Willie — and an inadvertent taste of what battle is like shakes Willie badly. But it perhaps also leaves him better equipped to understand his neighbor, local sports hero Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson: Rushmore, Dog Park), whose short service overseas leaves him psychically scarred and no longer the ebullient friend to Willie he once was.

Unabashedly old-fashioned, My Dog Skip is funny and poignant, sweet and sad. This is a wonderful film for anyone who has ever owned a dog (or wanted to), or indeed for anyone who was ever a child.

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