The perennial boy-and-his-dog story receives elegiac treatment in “My Dog Skip,” a tender, if overly sentimental, version of Mississippi author Willie Morris’ 1995 boyhood memoir. Alternately evoking rich, reflective memories of the 1940s Deep South and succumbing to obvious nostalgia and drama to keep things pumping for a contempo aud, the Warners release — completed in time for Morris to view it before his death in August — has been unaccountably held out of circulation until now. Flaws and all, this is superior family entertainment in the tradition of quality that co-producer Mark Johnson (“A Little Princess”) has long championed. But because it is live-action rather than animated and overlaid with a literary sensibility, kids may be less moved than their parents. This, plus a misleading PG rating, which may dampen kiddie turnout, will result at best in mid-level B.O.
In adapting Morris’ slim, episodic volume, tyro feature scribe and ex-journalist Gail Gilchriest sometimes struggles to find dramatic through-lines. While Morris’ adult voice makes an immediate presence, care of Harry Connick Jr.’s “Thin Red Line”-like narration, story tries to establish young Willie (Frankie Muniz) as an 8-year-old weakling, endlessly pummeled by neighborhood bullies led by Big Boy Wilkinson (Bradley Coryell). Willie’s world without friends his own age is highlighted when mother Ellen (Diane Lane) and father Jack (Kevin Bacon) arrange his ninth birthday party, and the boy has no one to invite.
Willie’s only pal is sports stud Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson). But Dink is of draft age, and quickly goes off with fellow Yazoo, Miss., recruits to fight Hitler. Ellen, though, lifts Willie’s spirits with a birthday gift of Skip, a smart, rambunctious English fox terrier (six Jack Russells superbly trained by Mathilde De Cagny and William S. Grisco). Jack, who lost a leg in the Spanish Civil War and is overly protective of his only son, at first doesn’t allow Skip to stay, warning Ellen that dogs die and are thus “a heartbreak waiting to happen.” In one of pic’s rare adult exchanges, Ellen counters that taking responsibility for a pet is a way for their son to grow up.
Ensuing chain of episodes proves Ellen correct, in sometimes effective, sometimes obvious ways. Though often poetic, the narration occasionally tells us what we can see, which is that Skip — whom Morris describes in the book as having “an inborn sense of possibility and adventure” — leads Willie into a wider sphere of life experience, from proving his manhood in a cemetery initiation with Big Boy’s gang, to falling in puppy love with adorable Rivers Applewhite (Caitlin Wachs).
While pic is glorious in displays of pure, unabashed Americana, as when Willie presents Dink’s gift of a German helmet and gun belt in a show-and-tell for classmates or when the boy simply trots through the Ol’ Miss woods with loyal Skip, it seriously falters when things turn dramatic or cute.
Dink’s inglorious discharge for cowardice is effectively conveyed through town rumor-mongering, but eventual confrontation between Willie and his hero falls far short of the mark, as do awkward action set pieces involving moonshiners. Willie’s parents also curiously vanish from much of pic — a loss, given the combined talents of Lane and Bacon.
Under Jay Russell’s direction, pic’s shifts from dark to ultra-whimsical are too sudden, making cutaways and bits involving Skip’s darling side nearly as manipulative as the William Ross score drowning in Copland-esque sap.
This is a story in which humans play second fiddle to a dog that achieves the symbolic value of a force of nature. Yarn’s denouement, with grown Willie leaving home and arthritic Skip aging before our eyes, is exceptionally affecting. No less moving is Muniz, able to convey silently a wide range of feelings with uncommonly natural ease — and a stark contrast to his turn as wisenheimer Malcolm on new Fox series “Malcolm in the Middle.” The child actor, not unlike Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” puts the rest of the cast in the far background.
Tech credits, especially James L. Carter’s fine lensing and David J. Bomba’s detailed design work, are top-notch all the way.