Based on the popular children’s novel by Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows is very heavy on family values, but it isn’t particularly politically correct in any way. The main theme of the film is that with hard work and patience, God will see fit to answer your prayers and often in the most unexpected ways. As comforting a message as that is, Where the Red Fern Grows isn’t an easy pill to swallow when we’re expected to root for a hero who chops down a 200-year-old oak tree just to get the pelt of a scrawny, mangy raccoon.
Billy (Stewart Peterson) lives in the Depression-era Ozarks with Mother (a dour Beverly Garland), Father (Jack Ging), his two sisters and, in the next town over, Grandpa (James Whitmore). Billy wants nothing more than a coon hound, and Father certainly understands that a boy should have a dog, but the family is just too poor. When Billy questions the power of prayer, Grandpa tells Billy that “he needs to meet God halfway.” Billy takes this to mean that he needs to do odd jobs to raise the money himself.
Billy buys two pups, Dan and Ann, with the money and soon, they become the best coon dogs in the county. The money the coonskins bring in starts to help mother and father realize their dreams as well. Overcoming obstacles of all kinds, Dan and Ann and Billy become the best friends. But then, a mountain lion, apparently on loan from Charlie the Lonesome Cougar, eats Dan and Ann dies of separation anxiety.
Where the Red Fern Grows was a beloved book when I was growing up. I never saw the movie as a lad, but I imagine, in its time, it was cherished as well. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t stand up. It isn’t well-shot, it’s poorly acted, and, frankly, it’s horribly dated. It’s no Ol’ Yeller.