Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where My Dog Skip (2000) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 64 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about his childhood dog Blackie & all of the cinematic dogs he’s fallen in love with over the years. He writes, “Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.”
What Ebert had to say in his review: “The sweet thing about ‘My Dog Skip’ is the way it understands the friendship between a kid and a dog. Dogs accomplish amazing things in the movies, but the best thing Skip does is look up at his master, eager to find out what they’re gonna do next.” -from his 2000 review for The Chicago Sun Times
I remember seeing My Dog Skip in the theaters as an angsty teen in 2000 & being insulted by the film’s relentlessly overly-sentimental melodrama. The movie downright offended me in the way it tried to illicit gooey, genuine feelings in its maudlin, Hallmarkish story about a boy & his dog. The years have softened me around the edges, though, and when revisiting the film now it’s difficult to muster up the same kind of anger I felt in the theater that day. My Dog Skip is a maudlin, half-hearted picture about the special connection an awkward child develops with his first pet, but I was totally okay with that lack of ambition or nuance this time around. This isn’t a particularly memorable or exceptional movie in any particular way, but it’s also not an especially bad one either. As far as kids’ movies about Jack Russell terriers go, it’s a much more tender, nostalgic picture than, say, the mixed-species pro wrestling action comedy Russell Madness, but that’s okay. There’s more than enough room in this world for mostly decent movies about really good dogs to justify their own existence.
In the film, a very young Frankie Muniz (at the very beginning of his career-defining run on Malcolm in the Middle) struggles with the daunting task of making friends in a town of young bullies determined to break his spirit & label him a “sissy” in World War II-era Mississippi. To help him combat this loneliness, the boy’s mother buys him a Jack Russell terrier for his 9th birthday, a dog he names Skip. His father (an overly-surly Kevin Bacon) is at first against this development, complaining that “He’s a little boy & a dog is a big responsibility” and that because dogs eventually die or run away Skip is “just a heartbreak waiting to happen.” Fair enough, but heartbreak is a part of growing up & Skip eventually proves his worth in the family by bringing his pint-sized owner out of his shell & allowing him to grow as a young man with goals, confidence, and a social life. There’s a few gags here or there about Skip playing baseball & football, driving a car, enlisting in the army, and going to the movies, but for the most part My Dog Skip is a pretty straight-forward coming of age story about how much a little boy loves his dog. It’s simple & maybe even a little bit mawkish, but it’s fairly effective stuff.
Ebert himself mentions in his own review that it’s difficult to be too hard on this film critically, given that it was seemingly made with a very young audience in mind. He writes, “A movie like this falls outside ordinary critical language. Is it good or bad? Is there too much melodrama? I don’t have any idea. It triggered too many thoughts of my own for me to have much attention left over for footnotes.” After reading Life Itself‘s depiction of Ebert’s childhood, it’s easy to see how My Dog Skip could trigger a critic-proof sense of nostalgia for Roger & the film almost takes on the function of an illustration of that phase in his life. Ebert owned a different breed of dog as a child & his home state of Illinois was a far cry from My Dog Skip‘s Mississippi setting, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine him looking back fondly on his childhood & the “simpler times” long gone while watching the movie.
I don’t have that same connection to this version of the past as Ebert did & I found myself frustrated with the way the movie brought up hefty issues like segregation-era race relations & wartime corruption of youthful exuberance (represented here in a Luke Wilson role that feels half-baked at best) only to leave them almost wholly unaddressed. It’s difficult to watch the film without thinking of movies that have tackled this kind of coming-of-age period comedy much more sincerely: Matinee, The Sandlot, and Stand By Me all immediately come to mind. Again, all of this is rather inconsequential, though, as the film’s limited ambitions in terms of its craft & the simplicity of its target audience shield it from most critical scrutiny. If you have any affection for emotional bonds with dogs & the emotional frailty of friendless children, the film is bound to strike a chord with you that overrides almost all complaints you could muster about its lack of attention to craft. I didn’t have that sentimentality in me at 13, but I have an excess of it now that I’m nearing 30 & I ended up finding the film very sweet at a second glance despite its hokey simplicity.
Roger’s Ranking: (3/4, 75%)
Brandon’s Ranking (3/5, 60%)
Next Lesson: Wendy and Lucy (2008)