Old Yeller is a hard film to take if you’re a child. I thought the same would be true as an adult, so needless to say, revisiting this family classic for the first time through an adult’s eyes promised to be a harrowing experience. In fact, for the longest time, I hated Old Yeller and berrated its merits as a film. I realize now after years of maturity and a second visit to the Coates family ranch my belittling of this film masterpiece was a defense mechanism to build up my own sense of machismo. The re…lity is Old Yeller is a darling film with a message, and a powerful one at that. But not one of those same old tired political messages too many films try to infuse in their narratives these days. No, rather than trying to push a specific viewpoint, Old Yeller brings something valuable to the table and teaches us all how to love and cope instead of how to think.
I’m sure there aren’t many who haven’t themselves been out to the ranch a time or two to visit Katie, Jim, Travis, Arliss, and the Old Yeller dog, but for safety’s sake, I will avoid giving away the powerful ending, or any other significant spoilers. The plot centers around the hate-to-love relationship between teenage Travis Coates (played well by Tommy Kirk) and an enormous, lovable stray dog christened Old Yeller. It’s against Travis’s will the dog comes into his life, but in the end, the dog will find no greater friend than this young man quickly budding into maturity. For about three months, Travis is left as man of the house, while his father heads away on business, and in this critical three-month period, Travis learns what it means to sacrifice of himself for others. Perhaps most critical of all, he discovers one of the most difficult lessons there is with love. No matter what happens, we know by the end of Old Yeller Travis Coates will be just fine… and that the world will be a better place because of him. Travis is truly an inspiring character, but we also learn what Travis becomes could never be possible without the Old Yeller dog.
The inclusion of Savage Sam, the Old Yeller sequel, really provides a frame of reference for how good the main feature’s brightness, colors, and contrast, are. Old Yeller sports a 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, and no, that is not a misprint. How that varies from the more popular 1.78:1 aspect ratio is too minimal to be seen. There are a few age artifacts on Old Yeller, but overall the picture is rich and vibrant. Not so with Savage Sam, which is presented in the 1.33:1 standard full frame. And what a drab presentation it is. The picture for this sequel contains some dirt, but the real story is how faded the colors are. The weak presentation of Savage Sam really relegates the film’s significance from co-feature on this disc to glorified special feature.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation shows a fine job remastering the old classic’s sound, and the catchy, corny little tune sounds better than it has in quite some time. While dialogue and bass levels could have been stronger, there are no obvious flaws either. It’s not the most dynamic soundtrack, but it really doesn’t need to be. Still, even though it’s always nice to get the five speakers in effect, there isn’t enough going on with Old Yeller to really command a 5.1. But why complain? It’s a good presentation.
The second disc advertises only five special features, but in reality, there is also an extensive Old Yeller production archive not mentioned. It contains audio archives, poster and still galleries, an introduction from Walt Disney himself, and several other tidbits. The highlights for the main special features are the 15-minute Conversations with Tommy Kirk, the insightful documentary Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic, and a short revisit to the Golden Oaks ranch, where the original was filmed. The only remaining features I wish Disney had included with this release are the original novels for Old Yeller and Savage Sam by beloved Texan Fred Gipson. Whether in one paperback volume packaged with the release (they are short books), or as DVD-ROM features, these should have been included.
My id-induced hatred for Old Yeller is finally over. It seems after all these years I’ve finally learned the lesson young Travis Coates learned when he was a little over half my age. I don’t know what that says about me, but I’m glad to admit — finally — that Old Yeller is a classic well-deserving of its status. Savage Sam? Not so much. But it was good to see most of the original cast reunited for another outing. Still, Savage Sam feels like it tries too hard, while Old Yeller revels in its simplicity to maximum effect. As for the technical aspects and bonus material, they justify the purchase, if you haven’t given in to the urge yet. In fact, you might think of purchasing in lieu of buying a real dog for the kids. It’s cheaper, and a lot easier to handle… in so many ways.
Special Features List
- Original theatrical animated short “Bone Trouble”
- Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic
- Conversations with Tommy Kirk
- “Dogs!” short subject
- Lost Treasures: “Ranch of the Golden Oak”
- Old Yeller Production Archive