Life Imitates Arf

My Dog Skip strays off course

Willie Morris' 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 escapades of the central canine character, depicted as smarter, faster, and plain all-around better than any other dog, verge on magic realism. And despite the time and place, there's very little in the way of threat from either the war or racism. Morris, a noted 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 must 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 can, notably by turning a minor, unnamed soldier into a significant character (and Morris' 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 cinematically reimagined as a big-time loner ridiculed by all the boys his own age. And 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' 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 not to be quite as heroic as he seems; and, of course, the filmmakers were unable to resist that great old standby of Southern movies: evil rednecks with buck teeth and bottles of moonshine.

Muzzle tov: Frankie Muniz in My Dog Skip.
Muzzle tov: Frankie Muniz in My Dog Skip.

It should be noted that the dog himself is fantastic. When Morris' 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 more about young Willie than his dog. Muniz (Lost and Found) is not a bad choice for a 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 voice-over narration (by Harry Connick Jr. as the older Willie), and way too much of it. Where the movie sticks to Morris' 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 colorblind." Get it, nudge-nudge?

Given the relatively small number of family films that arrive sans toy tie-ins, you could certainly do a lot worse than take the kids to My Dog Skip. As these films go, it's certainly better than Warner Bros.' most recent boy-and-his-dog movie, the execrable A Dog of Flanders. Still, it ain't no 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' 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 who 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 interest 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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