My Dog Skip Movie Review

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An old fashioned kids' flick that embraces its clichés and serves them up with a contagious, indomitable spirit, "My Dog Skip" is a genuine I-laughed-I-cried pic that miraculously sidesteps the kind of eye-rolling material it could have easily become.

Based on an autobiographical book by Willie Morris about the World War II-era adventures of a lonely, small-town pip-squeak (Frankie Muniz from "Malcolm In the Middle") and his dog (duh!), "Skip" affectionately visits all the expected territory -- bullies, baseball and the prettiest girl in town -- without ever feeling trite.

Young Willie's only real friend is his next door neighbor and hero, Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson) -- Yazoo, Mississippi's star athlete and a recent Army recruit who promises he'll teach the boy to throw a curve ball upon his return from war.

With Dink gone, his parents buy him a sprightly Jack Russell Terrier for his 9th birthday. The pup soon becomes Willie's key to landing a sweetheart named Rivers Applewhite (Caitlin Wachs) and winning over the "Our Gang"-style toughs who pick on him at school.

From the opening credits which pan across Willie's room (homemade sling shot, baseball glove, copy of "Huckleberry Finn") accompanied by piano, flute and chirping birds, director Jay Russell adheres strictly to formula. But there's such a genuine love for the story coming across in the finished film that it all seems fresh somehow.

Much of the credit for this belongs to the talented cast.

Far from being just another cute kid who can scrunch up his nose and bandy about catch phrases, Muniz is a real actor with an understanding of his character's inner buoyancy as well as his only-child syndrome and his feelings about being shy, puny and picked on.

Kevin Bacon makes a great stern dad, a veteran who lost a leg in the Spanish Civil War (why he was there is anybody's guess) and expresses his love by being overprotective. Diane Lane is just as strong, playing Willie's plucky mom (although her role largely consists of looking worried). Even Wilson -- whose somber comedic delivery has landed him mostly doofy nice guy roles in movies like "Blue Streak," "Dog Park" and "Home Fries" -- turns in an honestly heartfelt performance when Dink returns from war a disgraced coward and has to find his confidence again through his friendship with Willie.

Yes, the movie is largely composed of familiar life-lesson episodes, but even the most obvious moments feel genuine, never contrived. Take the now-obligatory (in period children's movies) race issue: Willie befriends an African-American kid when Skip wanders to their neighborhood, and the two have a conversation about the greatest athletes in town. The black kid has never heard of Dink Jenkins. His hero is a teenager named Waldo Grace from his side of the tracks. Nice touch.

"My Dog Skip" unravels ever so slightly in the epilogue, which is launched by a doggie near-death experience (like you didn't see it coming!) and goes on much too long in a voice-over (by Harry Connick, Jr.) about what happened as Willie grew up. But it's easy to forgive the film its indulgences and clichés because they're clearly included out of adoration for the themes they represent, not out of laziness on the part of the filmmakers -- as is the case with 75 percent of movies for kids.

"My Dog Skip" may not be terribly original, but it is affecting, memorable and very entertaining.

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My Dog Skip Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG, Opened: Friday, March 3, 2000

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