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My Dog Skip

The term ''coming of age'' in films is often associated with first love, first war, first kiss -- even first roll in the hay. For Willie Morris, it was his first dog. And when Morris did come of age, he wrote a memoir of his experience titled ''My Dog Skip,'' which has been adapted into a sweet, quiet film about growing up.

The story set during World War II revolves around young Willie (Frankie Muniz), a shy, book-reading loner in Yazoo, Miss. Eight years old, Willie is an only child with no friends other than next-door neighbor Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson), star athlete of Yazoo. Dink takes a liking to Willie but soon ships out to serve in the war, leaving him alone again.

Willie's mother (Diane Lane) decides to give him a Jack Russell puppy for his 9th birthday (which is attended by no friends, just grandparents), but his overprotective father (the ever-stalwart Kevin Bacon), a crippled war veteran, whisks it away. Having seen enough pain in his life, he doesn't want to see his son suffer any more than necessary, and in his eyes the quickest way to do that is to hand him a pet that could get sick or die in front of his eyes.

But Lane's character decides, after her kids-need-to-grow-up reasoning fails, that she's going to give Willie the dog anyway -- the expression on Bacon's face is priceless -- and thus, Skip (played by Enzo, the son of ''Frasier's'' dog Moose) joins the household.

It becomes apparent that Skip's role in Willie's life will surpass that of mere pet: He plays Cupid to Willie's relationship with blond, apple-cheeked Rivers Applewhite (Caitlin Wachs), and he charms Willie's way into the gang of boys who used to beat up on him.

When Dink finally returns a fallen hero, having gone AWOL during the war, Willie's attempts to reconnect with him are rejected, and when the disappointed youth takes it out on Skip, he finally begins to experience the painful emotions his father tried to shield from him.

Muniz, currently starring in Fox's sitcom hit ''Malcolm in the Middle,'' is cute and appealing as Willie. His gravelly voice and wide-eyed innocence fit the role well, as a young boy whose world is embodied with heroes and patriotism (he even volunteers Skip to serve in the war), so it's difficult to watch when disappointment ultimately leaks into his life.

Bacon and Lane are exceptional as the stern father and stubborn mother, but their roles all but disappear once the decision is made to give Willie the puppy. It's understandable that the film should center on the boy and the dog, but these parents deserved more screen time. Wilson does what he can with a small part, neatly filling out the role of the hometown hero who returns in disgrace.

''My Dog Skip,'' while a family film, is far from the boy-and-his-dog adventures that Disney is made of. While it includes the cute, cuddly moments (which seem especially sugary with the 1940s backdrop) between Willie and Skip, it also adds a dark layer; Harry Connick Jr.'s somber narration as the adult Willie hints at the impending end: growing old. When Willie's innocent world first begins to fray, so does his stoicism, revealing glints of anger.

There are also some scenes that might frighten small children: Willie and his father encounter a hunted deer in the woods, and two crooks menace Skip with a shovel. The two tones try to stay out of each other's way but find themselves colliding a few times.

Since there's no driving plot, the film ambles along at an easy pace, pointing out an anecdote here and there. It might be too leisurely for those reared on MTV-style directing and dizzying action sequences, but it's a pleasant piece for families who don't mind a long Sunday stroll once in a while.

* MPAA rating: PG, for some violent content and mild language.

''My Dog Skip''

Kevin Bacon: Jack

Diane Lane: Ellen

Luke Wilson: Dink Jenkins

Frankie Muniz: Willie Morris

Moose: Skip

A Warner Bros. presentation. Director: Jay Russell. Screenplay Gail Gilchreist. Book Willie Morris. Director of photography James Carter. Editor Gary Winter. Production designer David Bomba. Costume designer Edi Gigliere. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.