This is a good, old-fashioned boy and his dog movie, based on the memoir of Willie Morris, who grew up in 1940’s Mississippi, a small, sleepy town of “ten thousand souls and nothing to do.” It is lyrical and very touching, with many important issues for family discussion.
Willie (“Malcolm in the Middle’s” Frankie Muniz) feels like an outsider, bookish and unathletic. He does not have a single friend to invite to his 9th birthday party. But one of his birthday presents is a friend, a puppy he names Skip.
Willie’s “lively and talkative” mother (Diane Lane. luminous as always) gives him Skip over the objections of his “stern and overbearing” father (Kevin Bacon). One of the most interesting scenes in the movie for older kids is the parents’ debate. Willie’s mother says, “He is a responsible boy who needs a friend.” His father says that pets are “just a heartbreak waiting to happen.” Having lost his leg — and much of his sense of hope about life — in a war, he wants to protect Willie from loss as long as he can. But Mrs. Morris knows that loss is the price we pay for caring, and that what we gain from caring — and from loss — is well worth it.
Skip and Willie find “unconditional love on both our parts.” Skip is a good listener and a loyal companion. Together, the boy and dog explore an ever-widening world. Skip helps Willie develop confidence and make friends with other boys and with the prettiest girl in school. Willie grows up in the segregated South, but Skip makes friends without regard for color, and takes Willie along.
Some of the adventures Willie and Skip share are scary (like an all-night stay in a cemetery that turns into an encounter with moonshiners) or sad (Willie’s hero, a local sports star, returns from combat in WWII very bitter and humiliated). Willie learns about the world with Skip. He learns about himself, too. Angry and embarrassed at his poor performance in a baseball game, he hits Skip, who runs away, devastating Willie. Taking responsibility for his behavior and facing the consequences start him on the road to his adult self.
Families who see this movie will have a lot to talk about. Parents should give kids some background to help them understand WWII-era America, with ration books and scrap drives. Be sure to point out the evidence of segregation, including separate ticket booths and seating areas at the movie theater and an adult black man calling a white boy “sir.”
Talk about what makes bullies behave the way they do and how the skills that make a child successful are very different from the skills that make an adult successful. This is shown by Willie and by his althetic friend Dink, who went to war filled with bravado and returned badly shaken. Discuss the way Willie and his friends respond to Dink’s return, especially in connection with Willie’s comment as an adult that “loyalty and love are the best things of all, and surely the most lasting.” Ask kids what they think of the way Willie’s parents disagree about whether he should have Skip, and how parents want to protect their kids, sometimes maybe too much so.
The movie tells us that even as a grown-up, Willie thought of Skip every day. Ask kids what there is in their lives right now that helps them grow up, and what it is that they will think of when their “memories of the spirit linger on and sweeten long after memories of the brain have faded.”
Warning: spoilers ahead. Parents should know that there are a couple of strong words in the script, a deer is killed by hunters, a child tells a scary story, menacing bad guys threaten Willie and Skip, and Skip is badly injured. When Skip finally dies (of old age) it is still very sad. A four-year-old boy sitting near me was inconsolable and kept repeating, “Skip died?” all the way to the car.