Movie Review - Old Yeller

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Robert Stevenson
Walt Disney Productions

I was pleasantly surprised.

Old Yeller was one of those movies that somehow seemed to have just too much going against it to get anything better than a Not Worth Watching Again. It has a nostalgic value for people who haven’t seen it in anywhere from five to fifty-odd years; it has a sad ending; it has that exasperating younger brother; it is about a dog. I didn’t expect to enjoy it much, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Nostalgia is often either blinded to or produced by slang—blinded to it because slang isn’t quite swearing, and it’s easier to forget; produced by it because slang isn’t quite swearing, and we’re so used to the worst that the bad becomes endearing. Most people are unfamiliar with the origins of “gee whiz”, or haven’t yet grasped their weightiness, but even if you are one of those people who hasn’t done much looking into the etymological roots of slang, just use your imagination and you’re sure to catch on to the significance of at least some of the other terms that appeared in Old Yeller: danged, dang-busted, dogged, golly (which showed up thrice) and doggone (which came up a total of eight times—set to music).
There are a number of occasions when characters use derogatory language to and for animals that have given them grief. The words themselves are not objectionable, but the attitude behind them is something that parents should simply be aware of, if their children have similar tendencies.
And that little brother is still there, even if I did like the movie better than I thought I would, which means that there is a good deal of another kind of language that parents might not welcome: defiance, whining and screaming. If your family is anything like mine, however, you won’t have to explain to the children in it that Arliss’ manner of address is inappropriate. If your family is anything like mine, the children in it will automatically cringe the moment he appears on the screen.

Arliss is responsible for most of the negative remarks I have to make about the worldview, as well, directly or indirectly. Why does Arliss need a dog in the first place? Because “he’s too little for [his older brother] to play with; he gets lonely.” I’m fairly certain you can fix this kind of loneliness in children the same way you can fix their boredom: you put them to work. However, the boy’s youth seems, according to the rules of his family, to exempt him from responsibility in a couple of different senses. When his older brother contends with their mother about indulging Arliss in his lie-telling, she responds by encouraging Travis to “let him tell his stories the way he wants to… Arliss is just a little boy with a big imagination,” she says. “Won’t hurt to let him use it.” It’s poor logic, and a poor philosophy, but one that is mentioned only the once, and that is, like Arliss’ character, more likely to offend than influence children.
Old Yeller might be viewed as a “coming of age” story because of the responsibilities and hardships that the still young Travis has to bear as the movie progresses, but I believe that would be a misnomer. Travis is lent the position of “man of the house” not because he was a boy who needed to grow up, but because he was already man enough to handle the job. There are a couple of times in the film, however, where this maturity, along with his possession of new information, brings Travis into conflict with his mother. This is a scenario we have all seen many times in the movies, but in Old Yeller it may, perhaps, merit at least a little hesitation and thought before we condemn it entirely. Questions about what level of authority was actually given to Travis when his father went away, how important the issues themselves were, and how parents and older children ought to deal with conflict in general, may need to be asked and answered before we lump the more emotion- than rebellion-driven parent-child clashes of this movie in with all the other clashes in all the other movies.

Violent and Intense Content:
But Old Yeller is better known for its intense ending than for its language issues or its worldview. Before you get anywhere near the ending, however, you have to deal with violence of a perhaps unexpected kind. Arliss’ unfortunate habit of throwing rocks at his brother and other people with whom he is in disagreement never results in serious harm in the movie, but there is the chance that its potentially humorous overtones could contribute to the all-fronts assault on children’s sense of sympathy.
Blood is shown in a couple of scenes, but primarily as an accessory to the injury*, rather than a shock-prompter. The relative intensity of the scenes in which the characters receive their wounds is more likely to bother sensitive viewers than the red that appears on clothes and fur is.
The theme of hydrophobia, or rabies, and the way it is played out in the story, may be disturbing to younger viewers. Arliss’ willful disobedience to his mother, which so very nearly results in his exposure to the snarling teeth of a rabid animal too large to hold off, will not have to be pointed out as wrong behavior to the children in your family. There at the end of the movie, the scenes get very intense for a G-rated film, even without the influence of a special sensitivity to animals’ fates, and if you need to factor your love for animals into the rating, you will probably need to add another “very” to the intensity level.

Sexual Content:
Almost as an aside, I thought it best to mention that in one scene Travis is shirtless, and that Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker kiss briefly at the end.

I haven’t been the sort to be particularly interested in movies about animals since I was about six, and when I do find an animal movie that I like, I generally like it because of the human side of the story. This is the case with Old Yeller, and I’ve no doubt my review is biased by my preferences, but I’ve equally little doubt that the people who prefer the canine characters to the human ones won’t need me to persuade them that Old Yeller is a good movie. The difference is that, for the animal lovers, the story ends in tragedy. For those who are more interested to see Travis meet that tragedy like a man, the story ends, we might almost say, happily.

I don’t think I could Recommend Old Yeller to an individual. After all, it isn’t exactly a light, fun sort of movie, and it still has the little brother in it. Individuals might enjoy it, but my recommendation is to families—particularly families with boys, and within that category families that have had even a little taste of the country life portrayed in the film. There are countless suggestions out there for “girls’ night” movies, but very few for movies for fathers and sons to enjoy together—at least, not without moving the suggested age bracket up into the teens—so allow me to be among the few who aim their G-rated recommendations toward the men and boys in our families. Because the intensity is targeted straight at the emotions, it would be almost impossible for me to give a definitive age cut-off for Old Yeller, but if you plan to show this movie to children under the age of ten, I strongly suggest you preview it first and maybe guess a trifle higher than what you think can handle it. Remember, a year or two can make a great difference in a child’s emotional sensitivities and in his ability to appreciate the story and message. Old Yeller is a family movie, as I have said, and better suited for adults and children than for children by themselves.

* Spoiler Warning (You may want to read the conclusion to the review to find out my recommended age range first, if you are looking for particulars for the sake of the young children in your family) - Travis is attacked by a wild boar, and is fairly severely injured, as is Yeller who comes to his rescue. Travis’ wound is never actually shown, and Yeller’s is not shown graphically.

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