All kiddie films are not created equal. Doug's First Movie and The Rugrats Movie, for instance, came off as quickly assembled spin-offs of popular animated TV shows, and the putrid Pokémon: The First Movie was little more than a shoddily crafted grab for cash in the wake of the unexpected stateside success of those ubiquitous trading cards.
Even the high-quality productions aimed at the younger set, like the recent Stuart Little and the otherwise excellent Toy Story 2 and The Iron Giant, were hopelessly intertwined with vast quantities of tie-in products. Which came first, the plan for the line of toys or the decision to make the movie?
"My Dog Skip," adapted from the Willie Morris memoir of the same title, offers a kinder, gentler alternative -- a different breed, if you'll excuse the pun. A coming-of-age story that's set mostly in the 1940s in small-town Yazoo, Miss., it follows the adventures of the sensitive, smart young Willie (Frankie Muniz, star of TV's "Malcolm in the Middle") and his loyal, loving Jack Russell terrier.
The movie is a pleasant, entertaining yarn -- one marked by references to Mark Twain and "Stand By Me" -- that may charm parents as much as it does their children. This isn't the shiny, glossy, short-attention-span-theater approach of so much kid-movie fare. The only merchants who may notice profit increases after its opening weekend are pet-store owners.
Arkansas-born director Jay Russell (whose background includes children's videos, the critically lauded film "End of the Line" and work for network and public TV) opens his latest offering with close-ups of the objects that line the shelves of a little boy's bedroom. In place of computer software and movie posters, we see a baseball in its glove, a U.S. flag, a bust of Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell and a copy of Twain's "Huckleberry Finn."
It's a simpler time for sure. As Harry Connick Jr. relates in a somewhat extraneous voice-over that occasionally interrupts the narrative, the summer of 1942 finds Yazoo City a town of "10,000 people and nothin' doin'." The entire story that follows is a flashback remembered from the point of view of a kid who grew up to become an accomplished writer and the editor of Harper's magazine.
Although it's solidly situated in the slow lane of middle America, the narrator's world is a place marked by colorful characters. The tableau begins at home: Willie's dad, Jack Morris (Kevin Bacon), is a stern guy who incurred a major injury in the Spanish Civil War, but a streak of tenderness lays buried just beneath his gruff exterior. Mom Ellen (Diane Lane) is a bubbly go-getter with a cigar-smoking habit that identifies her as unconventional. Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson), the high-school athletics star next door, is about to ship off to fight Hitler in Europe, where he'll become (temporarily at least) even more of a hero to his young fans.
In the course of the ensuing story, Willie befriends the neighborhood's tough kids, develops a crush on a schoolmate named Rivers Applewhite (Caitlin Wachs) and learns a life lesson or two. Russell and screenwriter Gail Gilchriest seemingly have but a single ambition in mind: to deliver a simple, sweet story in an unhurried fashion. Mission accomplished.