Warner Bros. // 2000 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 3rd, 2000
Every family needs an optimist.
Every boy needs a dog.
Once in awhile a movie comes along that has old-fashioned flair and manages to both entertain and move you in a unique way. One such film is the masterfully written My Dog Skip. Not only a story about a boy and his dog (though it certainly is that), it is a story of childhood, growing from childhood on the journey to manhood, and a period piece as well, depicting 1942 Mississippi in a touching, sensitive way. I laughed, I nearly cried (well, even if I shed a tear or two I'd never admit it), and I was simply bowled over by this film. Touching, moving, funny, and interesting, with excellent performances all around, this film is one to be watched by the entire family. Warner has now released this little gem on DVD with a very nice special edition, with a terrific anamorphic transfer, a fine soundtrack, and extras that make the disc also one to bring home.
I think I adequately described my impressions of the film in my opening statement. So I'll get into the nuts and bolts of why it was so good. First, the story comes off as completely authentic. Adapted from the novel by the real Willie Morris, the human hero of the story, this script oozes real life memory and emotion at every turn. The characters are as real as the people they were written about. Author Morris often said watching the making of the film was like "watching ghosts in broad daylight."
Nothing is completely black and white in the film, except the loyalty and unconditional love the dog has for his boy. The father, played with magnificent understatement by Kevin Bacon, seems stern and cruel at first but as the film moves along his own motivations and the other sides to him become evident. Diane Lane plays the loving, more adventurous mom who defies her husband in buying her son a dog. Luke Wilson is given a pivotal role as the hometown hero who comes back from WW II greatly changed and often ridiculed, but even he is neither hero nor coward. There is plenty of room for shades of gray, such as the delicate but deftly balanced stance taken toward race and segregation in 1940s Mississippi.
I haven't actually given a plot synopsis yet, and with reason. There isn't a clearly defined plotline to the film. Instead it moves through the life of this boy and the dog who gives him the friendship and confidence to move from the shy bookworm to true boyhood and beyond. Take this "boy and dog" picture, add in more than a little elements of Mark Twain, and then place it in a time and place as real as your back yard. If you have a back yard that is, but I digress.
The real stars of the show of course are Frankie Muniz, who is previously known as Malcolm in the TV series "Malcolm in the Middle," and the dog, who is actually played by two dogs known as Eddie on the TV show "Frasier." Muniz puts in a very adult performance of a boy in different stages of crisis and growth. The two dogs, Moose and Anzo, are father and son who double throughout the TV show and the film as Skip. Skip often steals the show, as you might guess, but he has fierce competition from the fine human actors and great performances throughout the film.
As a period piece this works as well, with location shooting in Mississippi and set design using authentic furniture and decorations, often from the residents of the locations themselves. The setting in World War II is realistically portrayed as the very patriotic citizens deal both in hope and prayer for the safe return of their sons. For the kids, the war is often romantic, but the complexity and shades of gray of it all do come to the forefront later.
This two-sided disc offers both a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and full frame open matte transfers. Just as a reminder, open matte means that no information was lost on the sides, merely extra information was provided on the top and bottom. Both transfers are excellent, though many will enjoy the extra resolution provided by the anamorphic side. But in either case, colors are well balanced and look completely natural, and the look is very clear and highly detailed. A few scenes show a hint of grain from the source print, and one or two quick shots show evidence of edge enhancement, but neither detracts from the overall outstanding look of the film. Very high marks for the transfer, and I won't even quibble about the option of the open matte transfer since it doesn't lose parts of the picture for the viewer.
While the soundtrack is fairly standard dramatic film fare, it does what is expected of it flawlessly. In other words, expect little for the surrounds to do other than provide depth to the musical score and provide ambient sound, such as thunder in the cemetery scene. Still the sound is crystal clear and dialogue is always easily understood, despite the heavy southern accents from the actors. The emotional score opens up across both front and rear, providing plenty of open spaciousness to the soundfield. While I'm not going to pop it in to try to show off my system to the neighbors, it still more than delivers everything I wanted from the soundtrack.
With only one or two complaints, the bonus features get high marks as well. First and foremost there are about one and a half commentary tracks. Yes, you heard me. The first commentary track is from director Jay Russell, who combines anecdotes about the production and shooting with analysis of the film itself and how it was made. He makes frequent references to the book from which the story was derived, and where he needed to make changes to make the memoir more of a story you'd expect in a movie. I found it quite entertaining. The second track only lasts 33 minutes, to the end of chapter 11. It has the young star of the film Frankie Muniz, along with animal trainer Mathilde De Cagney discussing what it was like working with the dogs on set and how the boy and dogs were matched up to work together. While it is informative I was happy it didn't go on for the entire feature length. I felt they conveyed everything they needed in that time. I'm sure space requirements also had something to do with the shorter length, but again I'm not sorry. Next up are 4 deleted scenes that are offered with director commentary. Two are a subplot that was later dropped, and two were just quick shots of the dog that were fun but unneeded. The theatrical trailer and a biography of author Willie Morris complete the package.
I was a bit disappointed with the extras in the area of "cast and crew." Instead of offering bios and filmographies for the actual people in the film, it simply gives a short cast list and the bio of the novelist whose book was adapted for the film. I'm happy enough about the bio but felt the director and cast were given short shrift here. And while I suppose I'm happy about the second commentary overall, I would have rather it actually talked about the scenes the boy and dog were in, and felt cheated when all Frankie Muniz could say about something was "it was cool." Maybe he's still too young to talk about what he's done, despite his great performance in the film itself.
I think I've covered it all. Well written, excellent performances, great actors, high production values, check. Sensitivity and balance with all aspects of production by director Jay Russell, who seemingly handcrafted this script into a great movie. I guess I should add the wonderful adaptation by ex-journalist Gail Gilchiest and the willing cooperation of author Willie Morris. I should say that Morris died one week after getting to see the completed film late last year, and he reportedly loved it. I'm only glad he lived to see it come to life for other generations to enjoy.
I think everyone should at least give this one a rental, and anyone who doesn't mind sentimentality in their films should just go ahead and purchase it. I was a bit hesitant myself at first, and only gave it a rental based on the positive reviews, but now I know I should have just bought it in the first place.
The film is commended for bringing back a seemingly by-gone age of filmmaking and a wonderful story. Warner is likewise commended for another fine offering on DVD. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Director's Commentary
* Actor/Animal Trainer Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Author Biography