“I was an only child. He was an only dog.”
You say you like warm family dramas, especially ones that involve sweet, lovable canines? Say, a movie in the “Old Yeller” tradition? Then you may have found something to like in 2000’s “My Dog Skip,” now available on high-definition Blu-ray. It’s about as warm and sweet and lovable as you can get without becoming all maudlin about it.
Yes, it’s a tearjerker. There’s no getting around that. You practically want to get out your handkerchief during the opening titles, with William Ross’s musical score evoking some of the spirit of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And that isn’t its only “Mockingbird” similarity: It’s a semiautobiographical story set in the South, the main character a child, now an adult looking back on his youth in Yazoo City, Mississippi, 1942, just shortly after the U.S.’s entry into World War II.
The youth is Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz), a nine-year-old boy, and the adult Willie who narrates the tale is Harry Connick Jr., whose amiable Southern drawl sounds perfectly suited to the character and events. The real Willie Morris (1934-1999) became a writer and editor, basing several of his best-selling books, including “My Dog Skip,” on his childhood experiences. Here, director Jay Russell (“Tuck Everlasting,” “The Water Horse”) handles screenwriter Gail Gilchriest’s adaptation of Morris’s memoirs.
Expect not only a heartwarming coming-of-age story about a boy and his dog, expect a very sentimental story, too, a nostalgic story even for those viewers far removed from the narrative’s WWII setting. I suppose it’s because almost all kids, male or female, growing up in America have had a dog, a cat, or a cherished pet that meant a lot to them. It’s hard not to identify with that kind of relationship.
Anyway, Will is an only child, something he tells us was unusual in Yazoo City, where large families were the order of the day. As the story opens, he’s lonely, a little sad, and bullied by the other kids in the neighborhood. He describes his mother (Diane Lane) as “lively and talkative” but his father (Kevin Bacon) as “stern and overbearing.” The father is brusque and overprotective perhaps because he has seen tragedy in his life, losing a leg in the Spanish Civil War a few years earlier, and doesn’t want to see disappointment in his son’s life. Will tells us “it seemed that along with the leg, he’d also lost a piece of his heart.”
For Will’s ninth birthday, his mother gets him a dog, a Jack Russell terrier puppy that Will names “Skipper.” Dad disapproves of the dog, fearing it will only lead to grief for Will, but the mother prevails. Never to fear: Skip becomes Will’s “best and most steadfast friend” and changes his life forever. They do everything together, even the dishes.
Some viewers will no doubt find “My Dog Skip” mawkish, stereotyped, and hackneyed. So be it. Certainly, there are moments throughout the film that everyone has seen before, and surely most viewers will easily anticipate the majority of the story’s events. That doesn’t make the film any the less appealing. “Show and Tell” at school, for instance, will evince more than a few hearty laughs in the manner of “A Christmas Story,” yet maybe a tear or two as well. Will’s friendship with the town’s “best athlete and favorite son,” Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson), doesn’t hurt, either, and, in fact, raises him in the esteem of his classmates. And while Will is hopeless at sports, he can always rely on Skip to help him out even there, as Skip helps him in his rapport with the town’s prettiest little girl, Rivers Applewhite (Caitlin Wachs).
The movie seems ideal for every member of the family because even though some of it is admittedly corny and covers many of the experiences we all share, that’s part of the fun. OK, an adventure with moonshiners is a bit over-the-top, but other than that, the film stays fairly close to the reality we all know, or the one we all remember.
“My Dog Skip” is funny, sad, poignant, and impassioned as it covers not only Will’s circumstances but several important social issues, including racial segregation, the War and its effects on people at the front and at home, and, most important of all, friendship, loyalty, and love. The movie combines a sweet, shared sensibility with an enlightening moral tone.
No matter what your age, you’ll want to run out and get a dog.
Warner engineers use a single-layer BD25 and a VC-1 codec to reproduce the film in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1. The colors are deep, although they are often a tad too dark, especially in facial tones. The image is generally soft and warm, which isn’t all that bad considering that it rather fits the wistful mood of the story.
Frankly, I wasn’t aware of the audio during most of the film. I had to stop and take note of it from time to time for the purposes of the review. This is because the soundtrack contains primarily dialogue and background music. The midrange and dialogue are clear and smooth, and the music comes through with admirable realism and range. The front-channel stereo spread covers everything from speaker to speaker, with the surround channels handling a little musical-ambience bloom and the occasional environmental noise. During a storm sequence, the surrounds do come alive, however, with strong impact from thunder, wind, and rain.
The Blu-ray disc includes three major extras, the first two being audio commentaries with star Frankie Muniz and animal trainer Mathilde de Cagney and with director Jay Russell. The other major extra is a brief, four-minute selection of deleted scenes with director commentary.
The minor extras include twenty-seven scene selections, a widescreen theatrical trailer, English and French spoken languages, French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The fact is, there aren’t all that many really good, wholesome, uplifting family films out there that aren’t animations. “My Dog Skip” is as wholesome and uplifting a coming-of-age story as you’ll find, a gem of a movie for children and adults, despite its clichés.