Earnest Boyhood Tale For Dog Lovers

Wilson Rawls’ classic coming-of-age story in Where the Red Fern Grows has been a popular children’s novel since its debut in 1961. The timeless tale about a young boy and his beloved coon-hunting dogs was first made into a motion picture in 1974 with minor success. It was then remade in 2003 with more notable Hollywood names like Ned Beatty and Kris Kristofferson, coming from producer Bob Yari in a saccharine package.

The 2003 adaptation is sweet and largely faithful to the source material, featuring a fine cast and an excellent soundtrack. While the movie doesn’t break any new ground and the scatter-shot direction could be improved, it’s a streamlined telling of the story.

Where the Red Fern Grows is a timeless tale of a boy coming of age and the dogs who help him

Actor Dabney Coleman (War Games) is the glue that holds the PG-rated movie together, a touchingly sentimental performance from the veteran character actor. The first-rate cast is this remake’s strongest aspect.

Set in the Ozarks during the Great Depression, 10-year-old Billy Coleman (Joseph Ashton) comes from a poor family living on a rural farm. He dreams of buying two coonhound pups, loyal dogs used for hunting raccoons and other critters. Musician Dave Matthews makes his film debut playing Billy’s father. He’s not a great actor by any means but his role is fairly limited. Experienced professionals like Ned Beatty and Dabney Coleman carry most of the dramatic weight.

Billy saves up all his money for two years, enabling him to purchase pups he names “Old Dan” and “Little Ann”. The trio become an inseparable tandem in the backwoods of his family’s farm. The young Billy and his dogs soon become the best coon-hunting team in the valley, earning enough to help support his own parents and family with his efforts.

Billy’s adventures with his beloved dogs see him chasing down the sneaky ghost coon, harsh conflicts with other boys his age, facing a dangerous mountain lion, and joining the annual coon hunting contest with more experienced dog handlers.

The story is popular with young boys because there are real stakes involved for Billy. His joys are often tempered with loss and even death as he learns more about life during his travails. It’s a strong component of the original novel and this faithful remake.

The big disappointment in this adaptation is Kris Kristofferson’s limited role, who has a brief scene and then narrates a little. The music legend is an afterthought after his token appearance opens the movie. Dabney Coleman and young Joseph Ashton have the majority of important screen time. It’s a solid ensemble cast backing them with smart casting decisions for each role.

The storytelling is a bit ham-fisted and maudlin, hampered by a few unusual creative choices. Co-directors Lyman Dayton and Sam Pillsbury love their musical montages and major chunks of plot are advanced using the storytelling device. The folksy soundtrack has songs from such singers as Alison Krauss and Wynonna Judd. There is an occasionally idiosyncratic pop selection but the music largely works for the period setting and heart-felt tale.

Where the Red Fern Grows is a timeless tale of a boy coming of age and the dogs who help him during that critical stage of life. It’s a movie made for dog lovers and young boys, without any cynicism or postmodern reinvention marring its strong moral lessons. This isn’t Oscar fare but a strongly traditional tale of family and values nicely put together for the screen.

Video

MVD licenses a decent, generally film-like transfer from Bob Yari Productions which is properly saturated and has no significant issues. The 1.85:1 presentation has a little softness but produces capable definition and clarity for a 2003 movie. Exteriors pop with real depth in vivid, sharp detail.

Healthy flesh-tones and an even contrast reveals a clean scan from excellent elements. While the film elements may or may not be the camera negative, there’s very little visible wear in the bright cinematography.

The main feature runs a full, uncut 85 minutes on a BD-25 with an AVC encode. The mild grain structure is nicely replicated. There are no signs of filtering or ringing. The lively picture quality isn’t reference material but has many fine attributes for a low-budget remake.

This is a stable, consistent presentation with occasionally impressive video. You can’t expect much more from Where the Red Fern Grows than this disc.

Audio

Audio options include 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 stereo PCM. The audio score gets knocked down for the inclusion of a lossy surround mix. An argument could be made the lossless stereo mix has a better soundstage with tighter bass and stronger fidelity.

It’s not a bad surround mix but rather pedestrian, spreading musical elements and minor ambient cues into the rear channels. There aren’t any wow moments and channel separation is uninspired. While it’s mildly discrete, the sound design isn’t impressive. Dialogue is smoothly intelligible and dynamics are adequate.

Optional English SDH subtitles play in a yellow font.

Extras

The PG-rated movie was originally put out by Disney on DVD. MVD has licensed Where the Red Fern Grows for BD as part of their Marquee Collection. MVD ports all original bonus features found on the Disney DVD, two featurettes.

The Blu-ray is coded for all regions.

“The Roots of a Classic” Featurette (06:31 in SD) – Covers the story’s journey from book to film through interviews with the filmmakers and author’s wife, Sophie Rawls.

“Lights, Camera, Animals” Featurette (07:44 in SD) – An animal trainer who worked on the film discusses the animal cast and preparing them for their roles.

Where the Red Fern Grows Trailer (01:29 in SD)

Getting Even With Dad Trailer (02:42 in SD)

The Point Trailer (02:13 in SD)

Savannah Smiles Trailer (02:51 in SD)

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review by the label. This has not affected DoBlu’s editorial process. For more information on how we handle all review material, please visit our about us page.

Where the Red Fern Grows (2003)
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Movie

The classic novel about a growing boy and the dogs he loves receives an earnest, wholesome adaptation with a cast which includes Dabney Coleman, Kris Kristofferson, Ned Beatty, and musician Dave Matthews.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 36 full resolution, uncompressed HD screen shots grabbed directly from the Blu-ray: