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Where the Red Fern Grows (2004) DVD Review

Buy Where the Red Fern Grows from Amazon.com Where the Red Fern Grows
Movie & DVD Details

Directors: Lyman Dayton, Sam Pillsbury

Cast: Cast: Joseph Ashton (Billy Coleman), Dave Matthews (Will Coleman), Renee Faia (Jenny Coleman), Mac Davis (Hod Bellington), Kris Kristofferson (Older Billy Coleman), Ned Beatty (Sherriff Abe McConnell), Dabney Coleman (Grandpa), Gary Anson (Bully Wendell), Orvel Baldridge (Mr. Pritchard), Robert Bauman (Hunter #2), Andrew Dickson (Rainie Pritchard), Stuart Dickison (Rubin Pritchard)

Running Time: 85 Minutes / Rating: PG
1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, 1.33:1 Reformatted Fullscreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English); Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned

Release Date: December 21, 2004
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9); Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
White Keepcase

Where the Red Fern Grows, an all-new adaptation of Wilson Rawls' widely-read 1961 novel, makes its home video debut after a five-year-long journey filled with production woes. Filming began in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in the fall of 1999, independently-financed and free of studio attachments. By November, once shooting was near completion, Red Fern's modest budget was non-existent, hundreds of thousands of dollars were owed, and the Screen Actors Guild ordered its unpaid cast to walk away. The remainder of filming took place in the summer of 2002, with a new director and production company. All finished but still plagued by financial and legal troubles, this independent film managed to make only a few festival screenings to strong response. Having been picked up by Disney for home video distribution, only now does it get a chance to be widely seen.

Budget problems and hitting video store shelves instead of theaters are two ominous signs of a troubled film. So it's both surprising and quite satisfying that Where the Red Fern Grows is this good and seamless of a final product. Whether it's the strength of the source material or a case of the filmmakers' skill in front of the camera overshadowing ineptitude in the financing and distribution, Red Fern is solid and shows no signs whatsoever of a trouble production.

On that note, let's focus on the story the film tells. The opening minutes show the protagonist now an old man (Kris Kristofferson, who serves as narrator throughout) whose street-side encounter with a dog brings him back to Oklahoma's Cherokee County in the middle of the 1930s, the setting for the rest of the film.

The Coleman family includes mother Jenny (Renee Faia), son Billy (Joseph Ashton), and father Will (Dave Matthews). In his film debut, Dave Matthews plays Will Coleman.

As a young boy, Billy Coleman (Joseph Ashton) was persistent. Possessing an unnaturally strong desire to have a dog, he heeds the words of his grandfather (Dabney Coleman), a general store owner who encourages him to "meet God halfway." For Billy this entails working on a variety jobs for an indeterminate time. The tiresome labor pays off; Billy has raised enough money, and as soon as he does, he's off to Grandpa to order a couple of Redbone hounds.

When the dogs arrive in the somewhat distant town of Tahlequah, rather than wait for a ride, Billy goes off and gets them. Billy names the Redbone hounds Dan and Ann, and it doesn't take long for the pups to become his two best friends, depicted in a well-done and not formulaic montage.

Billy's persistence again shows up as he trains Old Dan and Little Ann to be not just hunters, but the finest coon dogs around town. The trio's reputation starts to spread as Billy's hounds chase down more raccoons than anyone else in the community. Several more things happen which revealing in detail would take away power from the film. There's that elusive "ghost coon" and a hunting competition that may help Billy's family in their financial struggles (an underlying context throughout). Nonetheless, a film review synopsis lacks the potency of these events and makes them sound less important than they seem to a pre-teen boy in his simple world to which you are drawn.

Where the Red Fern Grows does not have a meaningful message we can apply to society or life-changing importance. Instead, it succeeds by being heartfelt, captivating, and filled with positive values. On the surface, it sounds simplistic and I suppose that this 85-minute filming probably loses or compresses some elements from the text. But it plays so wonderfully that you don't view with the same critical eye or cynicism with which you might approach other family films.

Ned Beatty plays a sheriff who befriends Billy. Billy and his Grandpa (Dabney Coleman), who will sell you dogs, but gives advice for free.

This is an intimate, skillful family film, which sweeps you up in its little setting and makes you care deeply for its characters. It is not heavy-handed, and it doesn't dwell on telling you about the special relationship boys and dogs share. Instead, it shows this very engaging story. The film will resonate more with those who have had a close animal friend, but like Old Yeller, its magnetic drama is in tune with something inside all of humanity, regardless of experiences.

The apt cast serves Red Fern well. Joseph Ashton does a commendable job of carrying the film in his lead role. Dave Matthews proves to be a natural talent, giving a fine understated performance as Billy's father. An aged-looking Dabney Coleman brings the right amount of grandfatherly warmth and wisdom. Renee Faia feels sincere and thoughtful as the caring mother with dreams of her own.

I should confess I haven't read the book, so I can't speak on how faithful an adaptation this is, aside from the safe guess that certain elements have been compressed or removed for time. Still, I do think those who have enjoyed it in novel form should be pleased with this film adaptation on its own merits, and those who are unacquainted can easily appreciate it as well.

Where the Red Fern Grows was previously adapted for the big screen in 1974, also as an independent film. That one was directed by Disney regular Norman Tokar (his only non-Disney work of the decade) and produced by Lyman Dayton. Dayton retained the rights to a remake, and while financing this version himself proved unwise, his duties as director (for the majority of filming, anyway) display sensibilities.

Some may assume this new version of Where the Red Fern Grows is simply a Disney film, and the marriage between the studio's live action ideals and this worthwhile adaptation of literature seems very appropriate. Others may simply not care about the film's storied independent production. Regardless of it all, this final product is worthy of praise. It is good to know that it should reach a wide audience on Disney DVD.

Billy looks for the ghost coon. Billy has a talk with his Pa (Dave Matthews, of the Dave Matthews Band).


Presented in its 1.85:1 original widescreen aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 televisions, Where the Red Fern Grows looks quite good. I noticed a few digital artifacts and a bit of the often-cited "edge enhancement", but the otherwise clean print showcases impressive levels of detail, especially for an independent film. The production never lingers on its scenery, but there are nice Oklahoma locations on display throughout. The video was consistently satisfying, colors were bold and well-defined, though maybe not the most natural. There's a slight amount of grain too, but never noticeable to detract. Overall, there's little to gripe about in this sharp transfer.

An "open matte" fullscreen transfer is also provided; this loses a bit of picture on the sides and adds picture above and below to make the 1.33:1 ratio.

At the times, the music and narration can be overpowering; they are presented at a volume much higher than the rest. While the score is appropriately playful and adventurous, the few songs with lyrics near the beginning of the film are a bit distracting, taking you out of the film rather than immersing you in. The volume peaks may be a part of that. On account of the inconsistent volume, the dialogue felt like it was mixed a bit low, so you may find yourself adjusting. Volume issues aside, the dialogue was crisp as were the sound effects which on occasion make good directional use of the 5.1-channel soundstage.

Lights! Camera! Animals! Sophie Rawls, the author's wife, in "The Roots of a Classic." Main Menu


"Lights! Camera! Animals!" (7:40), the first of two featurettes on the disc, looks the cast of creatures who appeared in the film. Star Joseph Ashton talks with three different animal trainers who worked with the hounds, raccoons, and cougar in the film.

"The Roots of a Classic" (6:20) covers the book written by Wilson Rawls. We hear from cast members (Ashton, Dabney Coleman, and Renee Faia), producers, a few Tahlequah residents, who all offer praise, and at the most length, Rawls' widow Sophie, who explains the origins of the novel and how it came to be published in 1961.

The 16x9 menus are not animated, but they feature a nice rustic design and selections from the score. Disney's EasyFind graphics are included to distinguish the various sections, in case they weren't already self-explanatory.

Before the menu loads, Sneak Peeks play for Pooh's Heffalump Movie (coming to theaters), and DVD releases Bambi, Mulan II, The Young Black Stallion. Page 2 of the Sneak Peeks menu adds promos for the Aladdin Trilogy and the first batch of the Disney Princess DVD line.

A friend needs a friend. A boy needs a dog. A rainy night coon hunt competition.


At last, this new adaptation of Where the Red Fern Grows finds a home, and it fits comfortably under the Disney banner. This intimate drama engages and rewards, proving to be a masterful family film in spite of production obstacles. The DVD features the type of high quality picture and sound you might expect from a major studio film, and the two featurettes make for a nice (if lightweight) bonus.

Wilson Rawls' story remains fresh and compelling in this well-crafted picture, which should please both ardent fans of the novels and the entirely unacquainted.

More on the DVD

The Book: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

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Reviewed December 18, 2004.

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