Warner Bros. // 1999 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 4th, 2011
Who says best friends have to be human?
"In life I find that memories of the spirit linger and sweeten long after memories of the brain have faded."
Young Willie (Frankie Muniz, Malcolm in the Middle) is celebrating his birthday. His presents include a bow tie, a pocket knife, a copy of Huckleberry Finn, and a brand-new puppy named Skip. Naturally, the other gifts pale in comparison to that last item. Willie's always had trouble making friends and he's immensely happy to have someone to spend time with. While the second world war rages overseas, Willie and Skip stand up to some local bullies, battle some wicked moonshiners, make friends with a girl and do what they can to help the war effort.
In his review of My Dog Skip, the esteemed Roger Ebert said, "Don't trust any critic who writes about My Dog Skip without remembering his childhood dog."
Fair enough, sir. My childhood dog was a black Labrador Retriever named Little Bear. He was an immensely friendly, playful dog and I loved spending time with him. When I would run outside, he come running towards me and eagerly jump on me; ready for an afternoon of fun and games. Unfortunately, Little Bear was a bit too strong and rough for my younger siblings -- he was a sweet dog, never bit anyone and never intended any harm, but sometimes he would come barreling towards the little ones and knock them flat on their backs. Eventually, my parents decided enough was enough. Little Bear disappeared and I was handed that time-worn, "we found a farm where he has lots of room to run" story. I was deeply saddened by this, as I regarded Little Bear as a close friend.
Be assured, I love dogs very much and I can certainly appreciate the deep emotional connection many will feel towards the story of a young boy and his first dog. Heck, I even got a little misty during that moment in which Willie Morris sits in the veterinarian's office with Skip, hoping desperately that the little fella is going to recover. As touching as this is, as good-natured as the story is and as well-intentioned as the filmmakers are, none of that excuses the fact that My Dog Skip simply isn't a very good film.
This is the sort of period drama in which all of the characters seem to be aware that they are living in an Important Time in History. The citizens of the town behave as if their actions are being recorded for a time capsule. Consider the moment in which a young man heads off to college. Examine the way that he waves, the expression on his face and the way he turns his head one last time before getting on the bus. It feels so agonizingly staged, as if the young man is attempting to milk the sentiment of the moment for the cameras. Far too many moments in the film feel like that and the movie suffers tremendously as a result.
My Dog Skip might have been an inoffensive pleasure if it had simply remained focused on the relationship between Willie and Skip, but it tries to bite off far more than it can chew. The film hopes to use the relationship as a springboard to examine the state of the nation during World War II, racial tensions, sexism and the trauma of war. Unfortunately, it deals with each of these items in an agonizingly simplistic, patronizing manner. "Like all dogs, Skip was colorblind," the narrator says. "He made friends easily with people of all races and origins. The town was segregated back then, but as we know, dogs are a lot smarter than people." C'mon, really? Or how about the scene in which Willie's father (Kevin Bacon, Footloose) declares that he doesn't want Willie to have a dog because he might grow too attached to it. "Dogs die, run away, get hit by cars. They're just tragedies waiting to happen. He can't handle that!" the father says.
Of course, the father makes the transition from being stern and overbearing to sensitive and understanding rather quickly, and somehow the presence of the dog is responsible for this. Even so, that's more convincing than the story of Dink (Luke Wilson, My Super Ex-Girlfriend), who A) goes to war, B) comes back from the war a terrified alcoholic, and C) is cured of his problems after Willie invites him to a baseball game. The scene in which Dink reveals that he left the war because he couldn't handle being forced to kill people doesn't belong in the movie, simply because the movie isn't equipped to deal with it in any significant way. The film also tries to establish a subplot in which Willie's mother (Diane Lane, Unfaithful) defies a series of '40s housewife stereotypes, but the film quickly forgets about her.
The film looks respectable enough in hi-def, as My Dog Skip receives a sturdy 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The image is a little soft on occasion, but detail is mostly quite good. The warm, gentle color palette comes across quite nicely while darker scenes benefit from respectable depth. Aside from small flourishes of period detail, the film doesn't offer much of note on a visual level. The audio is quite good, though I think William Ross goes a little overboard with his string-dominated score. Suffice it to say that the soundtrack would go very well with waffles. Dialogue is clean and clear -- sound design tends to be a bit front-heavy, but nothing in the film would offer a terribly immersive experience in any case. Supplements include two audio commentaries (one with director Jay Russell and one abbreviated track with Frankie Muniz and animal trainer Mathilde de Cagney) and a theatrical trailer.
Skip is a lovable dog. Yes he is...yes he is! Who's a good boy? Who's a good boy? Skip's a good boy isn't he? Yes he is.
Also, retired Judge Norman Short loved this film and went so far as to call it, "masterfully written," so perhaps I'm just a cynical old grouch who should be paid no heed.
I wanted to like My Dog Skip, but most of the non-canine elements are handled in a clumsy, mawkish, unpersuasive manner. The Blu-ray is fine, but there's no urgent need to upgrade if you're a fan.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG