Willie Morris's autobiographical novel, My Dog Skip, is a nearly perfect piece of bedtime reading for kids and their parents. Each chapter is virtually a self-contained anecdote; the descriptions of World War II-era Mississippi are lush and dreamlike; and the central canine character, depicted as smarter than, faster than and plainly superior to any other dog, gets into escapades that verge on magic realism. And despite the time and place, there's nary a word about war or racism. Morris, an acclaimed writer and magazine editor, notes that he was allowed to cheer for a baseball team that had black players, and that's about as deep as that issue gets. The book is, after all, a work of nostalgia, and only a curmudgeon would insist that such a depiction be warts and all.
Needless to say, the episodic structure and lack of significant conflict make My Dog Skip particularly unsuitable for cinematic adaptation, but when has that ever stopped anyone? Director Jay Russell loved the idea enough to try, but at the risk of stating the oldest and most obvious cliché in the film criticism world, the book is much better (and undoubtedly a more accurate memoir).
Screenwriter Gail Gilchriest has done an admirable job of creating continuity among as many of the book's episodes as she could, notably by turning a minor, unnamed soldier into a significant character (and Morris's next-door neighbor). Played by Luke Wilson, town football hero Dink Jenkins serves as a role model for young Willie (Frankie Muniz), who, in typical Hollywood underdog fashion, has been reimagined as a loner ridiculed by all the boys his age. As for added conflict, hold onto your hats: Not only is there the whole peer-approval thing, but the racial element has been made into a bigger deal. Morris's father (Kevin Bacon) is now a bitter, one-legged veteran of the Spanish Civil War who doesn't think his son should have a dog; golden boy Jenkins turns out to be not quite as heroic as he seems; and of course the filmmakers were unable to resist that great standby of Southern movies: evil rednecks with buck teeth and bottles of moonshine.
It should be noted that the dog is fantastic. When Morris's mother (Diane Lane) conspires to create the illusion that Skip is driving the family car, it's far and away the most effective re-creation of the book's atmosphere. Skip also looks good jumping into the air to catch squirrels or play football, and he even brings life to the obligatory drinking-from-the-toilet scene. It's too bad that, despite the title, the film is really about young Willie rather than his dog. Muniz (the title character in the surprise Fox hit Malcolm in the Middle) is not a bad choice for the lead: He's more Elijah Wood than Jake Lloyd and has neither buck teeth nor big dewy eyes. It's too bad the same cannot be said for his young costars.
As with many literary adaptations, My Dog Skip has a voice-over narration (Harry Connick Jr. as the older Willie), and way too much of it. When the movie sticks to Morris's original prose, it's tolerable, but there are some additions that may make you wince, particularly a scene in which Skip romps around with a group of black people, and Connick intones, "Like all dogs, Skip was color-blind." Ugh.
Given the relatively small number of family films that arrive sans toy tie-ins, you could certainly do a lot worse than to take the kids to My Dog Skip. As these things go, it's definitely better than Warner Bros.'s most recent boy-and-his-dog movie, the execrable A Dog of Flanders. Still, it ain't Iron Giant either, although that film's one major misstep (a "Bambi's mother" metaphor for loss of innocence) is repeated here. It should also be noted that William Ross's soaring score screams "Nostalgia!" at every turn, and the moral lessons for kids, as usual, are hammered in with the subtlety of a snow shovel to the face. It's hard to understand why this always seems necessary; most great books for children, including My Dog Skip, relate the story first and have the moral as an undercurrent, figuring that children can work that part out for themselves. Maybe it's uneasy parents that need to be reassured.
It's not hard to understand why the filmmakers opted for extreme sentiment: Morris passed away shortly after the film was completed but lived long enough to give it his blessing. In the interests of full disclosure, it should also be noted that I never had any kind of strong bond with a pet, and thus may be somewhat more immune to the charms and sentimentality of the story than the many canine-lovers of the world (the book helped me to imagine such a bond, while the film did not). When it comes to dog movies, I'll take Air Bud over this one any day. Which isn't to disparage the original Willie Morris tale, but let's face it: Some books just weren't meant to be adapted.
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