I quite liked it. It's pretty much exactly what you'd expect, but it won the Broadcast Film Critics Award for "Best Family Film" of 2000 and was the first family film for Warner Bros to do strongly at the box office since Space Jam in 1996.
It's based on an autobiographical book by Willie Morris, about his childhood in Mississippi during World War Two. He's nine years old and he's an only child with a father who lost a leg in the Spanish Civil War. He also doesn't really have any friends. He practically worships the boy next door, Dink, but Dink's twice his age and about to go off to war. You'd think he'd only just moved to the neighbourhood, but in fact his family's been living here since he was six months old and he just doesn't get on with the other boys. They're bullies. He likes reading and he's bad at sports.
However one day, his mother gets him a dog. His father tries to take it away, but the movie's title should tell you how successful he is. After that, we're just hanging out with Willie and Skip as they run around Mississippi, watch wartime films in the cinema and grow up together. That's it. That's the film.
The story has a point, thank goodness. The film's also capable of being funny or charming, but Morris's thesis is that Skip helped him grow up. A dog has no social inhibitions. A dog will run up to anyone and loves nothing more than running around with a ball. A dog can help you learn how to get along with other people, if they like dogs too. (Fortunately everyone likes this one. He's cute.) Dogs are colour-blind and don't care about racial segregation. Time and again, Skip ends up leading Willie into a world he'd barely even realised existed. The black community is one. Girls are another. Other human beings his own age are the first, frankly.
Others are helped too. We see that war damages people, but in time we also see both of these men starting to get over their problems. "He's a big boy. He'll be okay."
This is a nice story. It's heartwarming. It's made lots of people cry. I liked it, but it didn't get to me quite as strongly as it did for others. I think my main problem is the other three boys, who just struck me as tedious. They're boring when they're bullies, then later they're charmless and still not particularly likeable when they've (sort of) become friends. It's good that they've become less obnoxious, but that's it. The film's so focused on the Willie-Skip relationship that I never got much sense of what he was like with the other three boys or indeed what he got out of hanging out with them in the first place. (The answer might be "nothing", but at the moment that's merely one hypothesis.)
The adult actors are good, of whom the most famous is Kevin Bacon as Willie's dad. More importantly, though, the children are fine. No one jumps out at you as being incompetent. Willie is played by Frankie Muniz, in his first starring role in a feature film. It was released around the same time as the Malcolm In The Middle pilot, which of course would make Muniz a household name. Here he doesn't reach the level of those few truly brilliant child actors and I think he's playing himself rather than Willie Morris, but he does everything that's asked of him and he successfully carries the movie. He shows emotional range. He never screws up a scene. He should be proud of what he achieved here.
His co-lead is also an American sitcom star, incidentally. Skip is played by the Jack Russell terriers who played Eddie on NBC's Frasier. The real Skip had been a fox terrier, but unfortunately the production team couldn't find any trained ones. However the Skip(s) they found are great, especially that comedy crawl in the cemetery.
There are a few points where I think the tone could have used a tweak. There are two moments where the film got a bit Children's Film Foundation (the moonshiners, the baseball slapstick), which pushed it slightly into cartoonishness. The last line is also delivered with a bit too much syrup for my taste. "That wasn't totally true. For he really laid buried in my heart."
These are minor, subjective wrinkles, though. It's a good film. It made me laugh and it has emotion. The heart-wringing finale is the one everyone goes for, but personally I liked the less obvious redemption of the men who came back damaged from war. The real Willie Morris, incidentally, saw a preliminary screening of the film in New York and called it "an absolute classic", but then had a heart attack and died without ever seeing the final version. The film's dedicated to him. It's a simple story without much in the way of surprises, but I think being based on a memoir gives it a fair amount of licence in that direction. Plenty of people absolutely adore this film, if that helps.