My Dog Skip

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If it weren’t for the simultaneous success of TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” the heart-warming family film “My Dog Skip” might get no attention at all — the same undeserved fate that “October Sky” and “The Iron Giant” got last year.

As it happens, though, the star of “Malcolm in the Middle” is Frankie Muniz, a fantastically talented pre-adolescent boy who has all of America talking right now — which means the fact that he also stars in “My Dog Skip” will earn that film some extra notoriety, and hopefully an audience.

In the film, based on Willie Morris’s autobiographical novel, Muniz plays 9-year-old Willie, a small-town Mississippi boy in 1942 who prefers reading over football and who is generally a lonely, friendless lad, until his parents give him a puppy as a birthday present.

Soon Willie and Skip are best friends, and the adorable Skip even helps his owner make contacts with some boys his age, as well as a cute little potential girlfriend. They’re inseparable, this boy and his dog, and they get into more than a few hijinks and adventures together.

There is crisis, of course, and tension near the end (bring a hankie), but not in a manipulative or trite way. The tears aren’t jerked out of us; they’re massaged gently and unashamedly by a genuinely sweet-natured film.

Muniz, who looks straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting, gives this film every bit of its emotional strength. When Skip becomes imperiled, watch Willie’s realistic and wrenching reactions and try imagine just about any other child actor pulling it off. Muniz is enormously sympathetic, winning us over in everything he says and does.

Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane are also good as his parents, though their roles are small and their dialogue a bit goofy at times. Also, I’m not sure I believe Kevin Bacon as a war hero with a wife and kid. He still seems too young to me, but maybe that’s just me.

The film would be darn-near perfect were it not for one thing: the narrator. Provided by Harry Connick Jr., the voice of grown-up Willie barges in on just about every important scene, often ruining the moment. He also likes to talk when no talking is necessary — like when we see a series of shots of Skip walking around town, being greeted by everyone and getting treated like the town’s favorite dog, there’s the narrator, telling us that Skip always gets greeted by everyone and is treated like the town’s favorite dog, like we’re too dumb to understand what the moving pictures are telling us.

Much of the narration is overbearingly philosophical, too, often beating us over the head with how important this coming-of-age experience is. Skip, he tells us, “possessed the wisdom of a creature as old as time.” We don’t need pretentious pseudo-depth; just shut up and let the simple, unassuming movie speak for itself. The narrator is like a pompous college professor explaining “The Cat in the Hat,” taking something simple and overstating its complexity. Ignore him, though, and you’ve got yourself a fine movie, for kids and adults.

B+ (; PG, very mild profanity and vulgarity, mild violence.)

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