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by: Michael Dequina

"Boy and his dog" movies always seem to fly over my head. Perhaps it's because I've never been much of a pet person, or more likely it's because in pandering to everyone from the tykes to the old folks, the cutesiness is often cloying and the sentimentality is almost always syrupy. My Dog Skip, based on Willie Morris' beloved World War II-era-set 1995 memoir, is guilty of committing both those crimes. However, while this family film often follows the traditional mechanics of its genre, the emotions it elicits feel far from manufactured.

That isn't necessarily the case in the early stages of My Dog Skip, which traces young Willie's (Frankie Muniz) relationship with the titular canine, whom he receives as a 9th birthday gift from his mother (Diane Lane). With the departure of his next-door neighbor and idol, celebrated former high school athlete Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson), for military duty, Skip (whose full name is "Skipper") quickly becomes Willie's new best friend. Unsurprisingly, the development of their relationship comes complete with all the usual precious scenes of Skip trying to drink out of a toilet and charming the pants off the locals in Yazoo, Mississippi.

Skip the film takes a longer while to charm its audience, and while that sounds like a knock, it's actually a compliment. Despite some moments of melodrama (such as Dink's slow-mo departure, bombastically scored by William Ross), director Jay Russell works at a low key, subtly planting the emotional seeds that come to full blossom by the film's conclusion, which packs a profoundly poignant punch. The film's effectiveness is every bit as much his collaborators' doing as it is his own. Although some of the situations he's placed in are cloying, Muniz never falls into the trap himself; he's remarkably assured and--crucially--real for child actor. Ably supporting him are Lane, Wilson, and, as his war veteran father, Kevin Bacon. And while a number of the film's failings fall squarely on her work, scripter Gail Gilchriest must also be commended, in particular for some lovely passages of voiceover narration, nicely read by Harry Connick, Jr.

My Dog Skip is a nice film, and its unabashed sentimentality is certain to lead some viewers to call it too nice. But that's what makes it an ideal family entertainment: harmless to the kids, while offering something deep and valuable for the adults. My Dog Skip is a touching film with its heart in the right place in a day and age when so many movies don't have one at all.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)


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