My Dog Skip

My Dog Skip (1999)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Frankie Muniz, Diane Lane, Luke Wilson, Kevin Bacon
Extras: Commentary tracks, Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailer

Does Hollywood create enough wholesome family films and do they put them out on DVD? Well, there is certainly not as much family entertainment available on DVD as on VHS, but every once in a while some great films come along nonetheless, like "My Dog Skip," a real gem from Warner Home Video. While this low-budget ($7 million) film went on to make money (it grossed $34 million), it didn’t do the 100 million plus business that the animated films do. Why does this happen? I don’t know. I can only hope that those families who have children will do themselves a favor and seek out "My Dog Skip", which Warner Home Video has recently released on DVD.

"My Dog Skip" is based on a novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Willie Morris and is based on his own childhood story. The film is set in 1942 and takes place in the small town of Yazoo, Missippi. We meet young Willie (played by "Malcom in the Middle" star Frankie Muniz) at age 8. Willie is a shy and awkward boy, who doesn’t have any friends his own age. His only friend is his next door neighbor, high school athlete and favorite son, Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson), who is about to be sent off to World War II. Willie’s parents, Jack (Kevin Back) and Ellen (Diane Lane), worry about him, but aren’t sure how to help.
For Willie’s ninth birthday, his parents decide to throw a party, to which only his relatives come (it’s a truly depressing scene). But, Willie’s party comes to life when he receives a puppy, which he names Skip.

Willie and Skip quickly become best friends and do everything together. With Skip, Willie has the confidence to tour the town and make new friends. Willie soon becomes close to a girl, and becomes buddy with the boys who used to bully him. (Although, these guys are such jerks, I don’t know why Willie would want to be with them.) Willie and Skip go to the movies, spend the night in a graveyard, and play football. In the end, Skip proves to be Willie’s best friend and the ticket to a whole new life.

"My Dog Skip" is one of those nice little movies that isn’t necessarily interested in thrilling the audience, but only wants to tell its story. There are no special effects, no surprise endings, and no musical numbers. Actually, the story is quite simple — we simply watch Willie and Skip grow up together. The story is moving, without every getting too preachy or sappy, although, I must confess, the ending is a tearjerker. This is not to say that the film is boring. The script by Gail Gilchriest and the direction of Jay Russell keeps things moving along nicely, with Willie and Skip going from one activity to another. One does get the feeling that the film turned out to be a "greatest hits" package from the novel, as some of the events are only touched on for a few minutes at the most.

I must give a word of warning to parents or those of you with young children. "My Dog Skip" deals with some mature themes, such as war, alcoholism, crime, racism, and death. I’m not going to ruin the film by going into detail about how the film portrays some of these themes, but "My Dog Skip" does get very serious at times. And unlike the Disney films, which also deal with mature themes (did you see "The Lion King"?), there aren’t any cute musical numbers here to help liven things up again. I would recommend the film for anyone over the age of nine, but it should only be viewed with someone who can discuss the subject matter with the child.

Frankie Muniz is great as Willie, bringing a maturity and complexity to the role that make it rise above the stereotypical "cute kid" genre. Kevin Bacon is good as the stern father, and Diane Lane brings a great deal of playfulness to the role of Willie’s lively mother. Luke Wilson has one of the more challenging roles in the film, as he has to play many different emotions, but he does a fine job. (Although, I can’t help but wonder what his brother Owen would’ve done with the role.) Skip is played by two dogs. One is Moose from the TV show "Frasier" and the other is Enzo, who happens to be Moose’s son.

The Warner Home Video DVD of "My Dog Skip" offers the film in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1, as well as a full-frame transfer, which is presented as an open-matte version that adds some picture information at the top and bottom of the screen instead of cropping it at the sides. Both transfers are good looking with very natural color reproduction. "My Dog Skip" offers many shots of the fields around Yazoo, and these daytime shots come through crystal clear, showing only a minute amount on graininess. The picture appears to have been framed correctly, as there is no warping or bending of the frame. The colors on the image are very clean and true, and show no bleeding or oversaturation. Fitting the ninety-five minute film and the extras onto the single-layer disc, seems to have caused no problems with the compression, as the visual image on "My Dog Skip" is just fine.

The audio on the "My Dog Skip" DVD is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>, which does justice to the film. As this is a drama, there aren’t that many scenes that utilize the full sound field of the surround sound, except for the thunder in the graveyard scene and the crowd noise at the baseball game. However the dialogue and the musical score by William Ross all sound very good and the soundtrack has a deep rich feel.

The DVD also features two audio commentaries. The first one is by director Jay Russell, who, also the executive producer on the film, has am igniting passion for "My Dog Skip" and it does come through in his commentary. In his scene-specific commentary, Russell describes how he got involved with the project, the casting process, and tells many anecdotes about the production of the film. Russell’s talk gets a bit dry at times, but it’s never boring. On the other hand, the second commentary is just odd. It features star Frankie Muniz and animal trainer Mathilde De Cagney. This commentary is not scene-specific and sounds more like an interview, as the duo describes how they were hired for the film and the relationship between Muniz and the dogs. This commentary only lasts 33 minutes, with Muniz saying "This is the end of our audio portion." While there is some interesting information in this second commentary, it still comes off as a bit strange and may have been better realized as a featurette.

The DVD contains the theatrical trailer for the film, and it is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. There are four deleted scenes which include commentary by director Jay Russell. One of these scenes contains a cameo by "Forrest Gump" author Winston Groom, who delivers a very funny line. Russell is quite vague about why this scene was excised from the film. There is a cast and crew list, which contains a bio of author Willie Morris.

"My Dog Skip" is an odd, engaging film. It tells a quaint story of a boy and his dog, but tackles some hard-hitting issues as well. The film will be enjoyable for children and adults as well. The DVD of "My Dog Skip" offers a superior transfer of the film and some nice extras, too. So, if you feel that there isn’t enough family entertainment available on DVD, get out of the doghouse and check out "My Dog Skip".