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OLD YELLER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tommy Kirk, Dorothy Maguire, Fess Parker, Kevin Corcoran, Chuck Connors
Director:  Robert Stevenson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.75:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  84 Minutes
Release Date:  May 7, 2002

“Travis…you know we’ve got to.”

“I know, Ma.  But he’s MY dog…I’ll do it.”

Film ***1/2

Most of us had some kind of pet or pets when we were kids, and for a lot of us, our first experience with death came because of them.  It’s always an experience that begs the second big question…the first is “where did I come from?”, and the second is “where am I going?”

Old Yeller is partly a movie about a dog, but it’s mostly about a boy whose experience with the dog helps him to grow up a lot faster and better than he ever thought he might.  That boy is Travis Coates (Kirk).  At the beginning of the film, his father (Parker) is leaving the family ranch for a three month cattle drive, leaving the boy in charge of the family and the land during a critical time.  If, for example, he doesn’t get the corn sown just right, there’ll be no food for the winter.

The father leaves, and at the same time, a big yellow mutt enters the scene.  At first, he seems like a mischievous troublemaker, turning Travis’ simple farm chores into a nightmare.  But his younger brother Arliss (Corcoran) takes to him, as does his mother (Maguire).  It’s going to be an uneasy peace between the two.

But as the movie follows their adventures, Travis learns there’s a lot more to Old Yeller than meets the eye.  He’s smart, fast, and brave…traits that are immediately apparent when he saves young Arliss from a bear attack.  Travis warms up to the dog., then learns to love him.

But children’s relationships with their animals are temporary ones at best.  By the time Travis’ father returns home to the ranch, Old Yeller will be a memory.  And Travis will have taken his first sad but sure steps towards adulthood by learning that love sometimes comes with grave responsibility.  For my money, Tommy Kirk gives one of the greatest juvenile performances ever in a movie with this role.

Based on the original book by Fred Gipson, who also co-penned the screenplay, Old Yeller has been a family classic for 45 years now, and it’s easy to see why.  It holds the power to touch both young and old like few films have.  I remember the first time my mother sat down with me to watch it…I didn’t know then, but I know now that she knew what was coming, but she was letting me experience it for the first time.  I think maybe in watching me, it helped her to see it for the first time all over again. 

I think it might be the same for me if I ever get to introduce a child to this movie.  Old Yeller is just that kind of picture.

Video **

As much as I enjoyed seeing the movie again, I was a little less than enthralled by the video presentation.  Thumbs up to Disney for offering it in anamorphic widescreen, but come on…did this seriously merit a THX certification?  Colors are sometimes vibrant in a few beautiful segments, but mostly, they fall a tad flat.  Tones seem just a click less natural than they should.  Images are a bit soft throughout…the level of detail falls sadly short in many deep focus scenes.  I didn’t notice any grain or too much in the way of print problems like scars or spots, but a little restoration effort was definitely in order.  A classic like this deserves nothing else, especially if it’s going to sport the THX logo.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack fares a little better, but there’s a noticeable difference between dialogue scenes and scenes with more effects and music.  The former sounds its age a little more…a bit flatter and thinner.  The music, on the other hand, sounds terrific, and the many effects scenes are quite lively and open up nicely with some good dynamic range and subwoofer signal.  For a 45 year old film, this is an easily impressive mix.

Features ****

The features are fantastic, starting with a pleasant commentary track on Disc One.  It features Tommy Kirk, Fess Parker, Bob Weatherwax (the son of Old Yeller’s animal trainer) and, recorded separately I think, Kevin Corcoran.  It’s a nice little trip down memory lane, less scene specific and more just talking about whatever enters their minds at the time, but overall, an enjoyable listen.  The movie is also preceded by, appropriately enough, a Pluto cartoon short, the classic “Bone Trouble”.

Disc Two contains all the other goodies, starting with a new documentary “Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic”.  It contains new interviews with the cast members and fond recollections of Spike, the dog that played the title role.  There is a 15 minute conversation with Tommy Kirk, which is a delight…he recalls not only this movie, but a lot of other pictures he made with Disney over the time period.  There is a short compilation tribute called “Dogs”, all about…well, dogs (in the Disney movies, of course).

The production archives are extensive, and include production stills and photos, cast bios, advertising artwork, a trailer and TV spot, audio archives (a radio spot, a special on sound effects, listening to the audio of different scenes one stage at a time), a reunion of the Gipson family (the man who wrote the book), a Disneyland special on dogs (about an hour), a screenplay excerpt, and a “Lost Treasures” segment on the Golden Oaks Ranch, where much of Old Yeller was filmed.

Finally, there is a Disney studio album from 1957…a look at Disney and their projects for that year.  Another outstanding Vault Disney package!

Summary:

If Disney can take a word of constructive criticism about their Vault Disney series, it would be to pay as much attention to their transfers as they do their remarkable features packages.  Just slapping a THX logo on doesn’t automatically make it quality.  Old Yeller is a landmark family film that gets a fine array of extras to go with it, but it could have used a little better picture quality to make it a truly classic DVD.