“Old Yeller,” “Bambi” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” – what do they have in common? “Classics,” some of you may say, or “traditional family films with a good message.”
I would respectfully disagree. As one who grew up forced to watch these movies, I would call them an integral part in the jading of a generation.
Why do some filmmakers, parents and teachers believe that children must learn about the cycle of life and death – not just once, but over and over again?
I cannot count the number of times I had to endure a screening of “Old Yeller” during my young days at Montcalm Elementary School. Anytime our class earned a reward, returned home from a field trip early or marked some other special occasion, our teachers would often let us watch a movie.
After asking us what we wanted to watch, a group of boys would begin chanting, “Old Yeller.”
I was wishing for anything but a movie featuring a dog contracting rabies.
But, of course, the boys’ screams would drown out the rest of us, and in minutes Old Yeller would be prancing about on the screen.
The first part of the movie was great – Old Yeller bonding with his boy, saving lives and playing the part of hero. Then came the attack by the rabid wolf. Need I say more? Suddenly, we kids were forced into adulthood.
What do you do with a rabid dog? The answer haunts me to this day.
For many years, I thought I was alone in my childhood movie trauma. Then came many discussions in our newsroom, and I realized I was not the only one victimized by too many viewings of good-for-me films.
We frequently talk movies when they are relevant to news of the day or when winding down after a long shift.
Through these informal chit-chats I now know others, too, did not appreciate being forced to watch animal tragedies.
Conversation about “Where the Red Fern Grows” always draws head shakes and words of despair such as “awful,” “heart-wrenching” and “I bawled for hours.”
Once, a staffer not familiar with the book or the movie began asking questions. “What’s it about?” he asked. “What happens?”
“It’s about a boy and his dogs,” I replied grimly. “What do you think happens at the end?”
Although it had been decades since I had viewed the movie, I realized it was still hard to speak of Old Dan and Little Ann without tearing up.
And, at that moment, I realized our generation was scarred. The wound may have been inflicted with good intentions, to teach us about values, the importance of family and the cycle of life, but we still emerged with damage.
Movies tell us that Old Dan, Little Ann, Old Yeller and Bambi’s mom are in a better place. But at what cost to the kids who view the flicks?
Call me sentimental, but I don’t want to watch the dog – or deer – die. Whatever happened to happy endings?
Sadly, the trend of making emotional pictures at the expense of animals has continued. “The Lion King,” “I am Legend” – the list goes on and on.
And remember the 1989 flick “Turner and Hooch"? Did Hooch have to sacrifice his life? I really like Tom Hanks, but couldn’t he take a bullet for his dog?
The answer is no, according to movie dogma. It is the dog who must die at the end, providing the actor with an opportunity for an emotional – and perhaps award-winning – ending.
It’s time to end the animal sacrifice. Although it is make believe, I’m tired of putting dogs on an altar in an attempt to elicit a few tears from moviegoers.
Old Yeller could have been vaccinated. Old Dan could have been kept indoors away from mountain lions.
And kids, well, they deserve the opportunity to watch a good movie with a happily-ever-after ending.
— Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @BDTPerry.