While I freely admit a weakness for sentimental dog stories, Where the Red Fern Grows held my attention much more than I anticipated, which I interpret as a testament to the way the substance of the piece compensates for the Christian-themed sermonizing that permeates the narrative. After all, Where the Red Fern Grows seems highly unlikely to engage cynical viewers (myself included), because it’s a guileless yarn about pure-hearted country folk enduring the Depression, and the movie is scored with tunes penned by the Osmonds and warbled by Andy Williams. American cinema doesn’t get more whitebread. Furthermore, Where the Red Fern Grows has a sketchy budget—a problem the filmmakers easily conceal since every character in the movie is dirt-poor—and the dialogue is spoon-fed because the intended audience includes young children.
Still, the bittersweet nature of the story, the sincerity of the acting, and the vivaciousness of the locations grant the movie an appealingly nostalgic glow. Thus, even though the actual filmmaking is crudely mechanical, many scenes capture the simple joy of a young boy romping through the woods with four-legged friends, and the overall narrative tells a redeeming story about the protagonist discovering mortality. The picture is so edifying that it borders on being educational, but at the same time, it steers clear of the goopy emotional excess one might expect from, say, a Walt Disney Company treatment of similar material.
Based on a 1961 novel by Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows is about Billy (Stewart Peterson), an adolescent living in the Ozark Mountains with his impoverished family. All Billy dreams about is having coonhounds so he can hunt in the woods, but buying such animals is beyond his family’s means. Working odd jobs in between his chores at home, Billy saves enough to buy two pups, whom he names Ann and Dan, and then he trains them to be champion trackers. Adventures including a dangerous storm, a hunting contest, and a nasty encounter with a mountain lion ensue. Through it all, Billy earns the respect of his parents (played by Beverly Garland and Jack Ging) and he learns life lessons from his grandfather (played by James Whitmore). Billy also endures a few run-ins with rotten redneck youths, and he encounters death on several sobering occasions.
Director Norman Tokar, a veteran of many family pictures featuring animals, tells the story in an unvarnished style, bridging sequences with lyrical soundtrack passages integrating music and narration (which is spoken by Rawls, the author of the novel). Whitmore, unsurprisingly, does most of the heavy lifting in terms of acting, although Peterson makes up for in earnestness what he lacks in skill. While Where the Red Fern Grows isn’t a children’s film for the ages by any measure, it’s a solid entry into a beloved genre. (Those who share my affinity for canines will, of course, get more out of the experience than other viewers.) A belated sequel, Where the Red Fern Grows: Part Two—with Doug McKeon taking over the Billy role—was released straight to video in 1992.
Where the Red Fern Grows: GROOVY