|Where the Red Fern Grows|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Monday, 20 December 2004|
The much-loved novel by Wilson Rawls was filmed earlier, in 1974, and successful enough to generate a sequel. This unnecessary and unsatisfactory remake took a long time to reach the screen, and went through a couple of directors. Ultimately, it had very little theatrical distribution, but was picked up by Disney for this DVD release.
They shouldn’t have bothered.
The movie begins with Kris Kristofferson as Billy Coleman rescuing an injured dog, which prompts his remembering his childhood in the Ozark hills of Oklahoma. Young Billy (Joseph Ashton) lives on a farm with his family, including his father Will (singer Dave Matthews) and mother Jenny (Renee Faia). His Grandpa (Dabney Coleman) runs the nearby general store. When a pair of visitors get permission to hunt on Dave’s property, young Billy is enchanted by their hunting dogs—coon hounds.
Determined to get hounds for himself, Billy does odd jobs until he has enough money to buy a pair of pups. He has to walk 15 miles to the nearest town to pick them up; he has an unpleasant encounter with town kids (who call him a hillbilly), but a friendly sheriff (Ned Beatty) intervenes. He names the two pups Old Dan and Little Ann, and trains them to hunt.
When they’re old enough, he scrambles through the forest after dark in search of raccoons. The dogs are so adept they become locally famous; the finale is a coon dog competition, but there’s a coda of the usual sort in boy-and-his-pet movies.
Presumably, the book is rich in local color and the excitement of hunting down raccoons, but the movie is dismayingly flat and colorless. Instead of the Ozarks, it looks all too much as though it were shot on a couple of acres in Southern California. All the actors except old pros Coleman and Beatty look like they’ve wandered in from a local mall and stuffed into all-too-clean period clothing. Not only do they not sound like “Okies,” but the song score is painfully modern. At the coon hound competition, when someone breaks into “Old Joe Clark,” it’s a great relief: at last a trace of authenticity.
The pups are cute and the adult dogs very handsome, but they don’t exhibit even the barest outlines of personality. Furthermore, what they’re trained to do is to hunt down cute raccoons so the hunters can kill them. We never see any raccoons killed, but we do see them pursued—although the coons and the dogs are never in the same shot—and from midway on, young Billy wears a Davy Crockett-style coonskin hat, made by his mother. There’s also a cougar lurking nearby, but doesn’t seem very menacing.
It’s very talky, and little of the talk is interesting or involving. We’re told that Billy has problems with a couple of neighbor kids, but we rarely see this demonstrated, even when one of the neighbors is killed while they’re all seeking “the Ghost Coon.” It’s hard to object to Ashton’s performance, but he doesn’t demonstrate any notable traits other than perseverance.
The DVD includes a couple of moderately interesting making-of documentaries, both of which feature Ashton as himself. In “Lights! Camera! Animals!” a couple of animal trainers exhibit their raccoon, dogs and cougars. “The Roots of a Classic” includes an interview with the widow of Wilson Rawls, author of the novel, and briefly touches on how the book brought fame to his small home town of Tahlequah.
All concerned seem to have entered into this project with the best possible intentions, but even if they had succeeded, a movie about hounds trained to track down animals for killing probably isn’t the best material for today’s audiences. But they didn’t succeed; “Where the Red Fern Grows” is a lackluster, unimaginative and routinely made trifle that shows its low budget all too clearly.
The disc includes widescreen and “fullscreen” options, and is equipped with a decent Dolby 5.1 track, although little imagination was used in the sound recording.