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Time is a benevolent filter, it cushions our memories. A World War II veteran can calmly explain how he picked up a live grenade in 1944 and threw it back at that machine-gun nest. But while time can give us perspective, it can also round off the corners of those memories, sand down the splinters – so that what’s left bears little relationship to the original events. My Dog Skip, a loving and often too reverent memoir of a dog and his boy, suffers from historical amnesia and an overdose of wistfulness. Young children will likely enjoy Skip’s energy and antics, but anyone over the age of ten will probably be very bored.
In adapting Willie Morris’ 1995 memoir, a rather slight and nostalgic work to begin with, director Jay Russell and screenwriter Gail Gilchriest have definitely accentuated the positive. Their version of 1942 Yazoo, Mississippi is a sunny one – children respect their elders, the war is a long way off and racial strife is nowhere to be seen. Willie (Frankie Muniz – from TV’s Malcolm in the Middle) is precocious and towheaded. An only child in an era of large families, he’s bored and lonely. On Willie’s ninth birthday, Mom (Diane Lane) comes through with Skip, a Jack Russell Terrier pup. Stern and protective Dad (Kevin Bacon) resists at first, but he’s soon won over by that durn dog’s charm.
And charm us he does. We see scenes of Skip playing football with Willie, begging for scraps at the butcher shop, and helping introduce Willie to his first girlfriend, Rivers (Caitlin Wachs). It’s all photographed by James L. Carter in idyllic amber tones, and Harry Connick Jr. supplies a narration that suggests that Skip isn’t just a dog, he’s really a four-legged Yoda – imparting his ultimate wisdom and helping Willie come of age.
The film is a series of unconnected vignettes, strung together like a child’s summer camp necklace, pinecones next to seashells. Each manages to tug (indeed, often shamelessly yank) at the heartstrings. But Russell chooses to show each one of Skip’s actions as Something Larger. He can’t raise a furry ear or wag his tail without the accompaniment of swelling string choruses or slow motion, and eventually this portentous treatment grows tiresome. Nor is there much change in Willie throughout the film. There’s a brief coda showing him heading off to college, but nothing to show the effect that Skip has had on him besides supplying companionship and laughs.
There are a number of wasted resources and missed opportunities here. Both Lane and Bacon give thoughtful and restrained performances; they’re playing "older" roles for the first time and make the transition admirably. Muniz manages to overcome the handicap of being terminally cute to bring a depth to Willie that most child actors couldn’t approach, and Wachs is charming. But the patchy and repetitious script works against them. A subplot involving Willie’s neighbor Dink – town sports hero returned from War in disgrace as a coward – is introduced, then strangely abandoned. Segregation is shown, but its effects never explored. Apparently all the Yazoo colored folks have no problem at all with being confined to the balcony at the movie theater.
Anyone who’s ever owned and loved a cherished pet will no doubt be charmed by My Dog Skip, a sweet, sweet story that paints a glowing picture of a time long forgotten, perhaps one that never really existed. But the film forgets that sugar is best used as a seasoning, not a main course. So bring hankies – but maybe also insulin.
– Bob Aulert