Relentlessly nice, this coming-of-age tale of a boy and his dog
in Yazoo, Mississippi, during the early 1940s embraces just
about every cliche of the genre that one might imagine. Based
on the memoir by the late Willie Morris, it’s about an
undersized eight-year old (played by the precocious Frankie
Muniz of “Malcolm in the Middle”) whose acquisition of a
remarkably personable pooch (a Jack Russell terrier played for
the most part by Enzo, an offspring of Moose, who was Eddie
on “Frasier”) teaches him all about Life, Love, and Loss. Soon
little Willie develops a closer bond with his stern father
(Kevin Bacon), who’d lost his leg in the Spanish Civil War;
becomes pals with the neighborhood youngsters who’d earlier
bullied him endlessly; and even gets close to the cutest girl
in the school, sweet little Rivers (Caitlin Wachs). He also
deals with the apparent cowardice while serving in the military
of his idol, next-door neighbor Dink (Luke Wilson), and is
even introduced, ever so slightly, to the realities of racism
in his town.

As you can tell, the script offers ample opportunities for
scenes of juvenile high-jinks, puppy love of every possible
permutation and family bonding, in addition to frequent
moments of heartbreak and uplift as well as lessons about
accepting people different from oneself–all of which, when
accentuated by William Ross’ soupy score, ladled over climactic
moments like warm Maple syrup, should make for an almost
insufferable experience.

The fact that “My Dog Skip” isn’t intolerable, despite its
being, in the final analysis, a shameless tearjerker, is the
result of the considerable charm afforded by its cast, both
human and canine. Muniz, though far from the peculiar family
he’s part of on TV, remains a pleasantly impish kid, likable
without being overbearing about it. Bacon, who’s really
grown as a actor of late (see “Wild Things” and “Stir of
Echoes”) does a solid turn as his dad, and although she has
less to do, Diane Lane is fine as his mom as well. Wilson,
who’s often seemed ill-at-ease onscreen, does a nice, laid-
back turn as the troubled neighbor. And apart from Clint
Howard and Peter Crombie, who chew up the scenery pretty badly
as two moonshiners who threaten Willie and Skip at a couple
of moments, the supporting cast is colorful without becoming
obnoxious. Moreover, it’s hard to resist Enzo, a pooch who
exudes animal magnetism.

It’s inevitable that “My Dog Skip” has some sequences that put
young Willie, and even more importantly Skip, in jeopardy; and
the ending is calculated to draw tears from even the hardest
of hearts. For these reasons some very young children might
find a few moments emotionally trying, just as they could be
temporarily disturbed by “Bambi” or other older Disney flicks.
But overall, unlike such recent misfires as “A Dog of Flanders,”
this is a cannily-crafted, uncommonly satisfying piece of
family fare, and despite its almost absurdly manipulative
quality it should win over all but the most Scroogelike