Some parents are reluctant to let their children have pets, in part because pets die. I think children should have pets, in part for the same reason. There are things in this world that children should be sheltered from, but we do them no favors, I think, when we try to shield them from sorrow. Try to shield them from sorrow, and you end up shielding them from life.
Which brings us to Robert Stevenson’s Old Yeller, a film that occupies a unique place in our cultural heritage. "It’s not just a dog story," writes Annie Dingus in Texas Monthly, "it’s a rite of passage for American children." She is right. "Who saw Old Yeller?" Bill Murray asks a bunch of American soldiers in Stripes, trying to define our national spirit. "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure. I cried my eyes out!" And on NBC’s "Friends," ditsy Phoebe had a sudden unpleasant revelation as she realized that all her life her parents had always turned off the film before the climax, sparing her the film’s heartbreak — but also its life-affirming wisdom.
That wisdom is that tragic things happen, but life goes on; and if any family film does a better job of making that lesson accessible to children, I dont know what it is. Old Yeller is a rousing, heartbreaking, rewarding coming-of-age tale about a boy learning to be a man in his fathers absence, in particular learning to face tragedy and loss, and to do what must be done even when it breaks your heart. But heartbreak doesnt have the final word; the emphasis in the end is on what has been gained, not what has been lost.
The story was adapted by Fred Gipson from his own novel, which in turn was based on a real incident in which Gipson’s grandfather was saved by a dog from a rabid wolf. Set in post-Civil War Texas, the story opens with the head of a poor family of homesteaders, Jim Coates (Fess Parker), bidding his family farewell for a number of months as he goes on a cattle drive to Salt Lake City, leaving 16-year-old Travis (Tommy Kirk) to act as man of the house.
When a yellow stray begins showing up around the place, Travis, still mourning the death of their dog Belle and in no mood for another dog, is ready to shoot the stray on sight — especially when he begins stealing food. But the dog quickly wins over his younger brother Arliss (cute Kevin Corcoran), then his mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire), and finally even Travis must admit, grudgingly at first and then with increasing admiration, that Old Yeller is no ordinary stray.
The episodic story gives Old Yeller numerous occasions to display his heroism, defending his new family against various threats. But there are intimations that Old Yeller may not be able to stay indefinitely: The dog’s last owner comes looking for him, and Lisbeth Searcy (Beverly Washburn), who clearly has eyes for Travis, warns him that Yeller’s thieving past might mean trouble in the future. And of course the shadow of hydrophobia (i.e., rabies) hangs over the whole story.
Most of this is run-of-the-mill Disney; what makes Old Yeller more than that is not only the gut-wrenching climax, but also the remarkably well-done uplift of the denouement. This is not a film to avoid showing to children. It’s a film that parents should watch with their children, and talk about afterward, as Travis’s father reflects on the film’s events with his son.
Lassie is a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world, that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals.
If Snow Dogs is a fairly typical example of the conventional Hollywood idea of a live-action family film, Eight Below is a typical example of a new trend in family films that includes National Treasure, Hidalgo, Two Brothers, Fantastic Four and The Legend of Zorro. This is a good thing, but not yet good enough.
Faithfully adapted from the popular Newbery Honor novel by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is a good family film frequently verging on being an excellent one, and is quite a bit better than the dog-movie clichés suggested by the trailers.
The obstacle to this duty, of course, is that Joe’s father Sam (Donald Crisp) is eventually forced out of financial necessity to sell Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). However, Lassie twice escapes from the the duke’s disagreeable handler Hynes (J. Patrick O’Malley) in order to keep her appointment with Joe, and eventually the duke takes Lassie to an estate in Scotland, over a thousand miles from her home.
Benji Off the Leash is undoubtedly the first dog movie ever made that thinks that a happy ending for a boy and his dog is not for the boy to get to keep the dog, but for the dog to go off to Hollywood to make a motion picture.
Annaud’s skill and subtlety elevate what is essentially a simple, fable-like throwback to the sort of live-action feature Disney used to make in the 1950s.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.