Those who believe that the Disney Machine has been churning out overtly "safe" material for the past several decades, well, those people would be right. But there was a time when the folks who ran Disney's live-action department were not afraid to deliver a heart-wrenchingly sad finalé, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of Old Yeller. (If you think the revelation that the titular canine doesn't live to see the end credits is a shameless "spoiler" on my part, I'll also ruin King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, and E.T. for you right now: He falls off the building, the girl makes it home, and the alien finally hitches a ride back to his home planet.)
It's the tragic ending that helped to make Old Yeller the memorable family classic it is today, so I highly doubt I'm bursting anyone's bubble when I say that, sniff, the poor pup meets a bitter end.
Based on the novel by Fred Gipson and directed by one of Disney's best live-action directors, Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks), Old Yeller is every bit the warm, comfortable, and tragically bittersweet classic that had you sobbing like a infant the first time you saw it. Starring Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran as a pair of 1860 farm-brothers who fall in love with a brilliant new canine, Old Yeller is laden with mild drama, heartfelt emotion, a few worthy life lessons, and an ending that doesn't feel the need to sugar-coat things for the little ones. Love and loss is what the movie is about; Mr. Disney and Mr. Stevenson are to be commended for not softening the blow or omitting it outright. (If Old Yeller were re-made today, not only would the lovable yellow dog survive his rabies affliction, but he'd also learn to talk, wear sunglasses, and make fart jokes.)
Disney staples Fess Parker, Jeff York, and Chuck Connors pop up occasionally to portray a variety of male role models, but it's the pair of boys and their loving mother who take up most of Old Yeller's running time. Well, and the dog, of course. A big sweet mutt of a dog, Yeller is precisely the sort of canine who makes a strong impression on the wide-eyed mini-moviegoer. The dog is playful and mischievous, energetic and brave, smart and sweet. He's the dog we should all have as kids. And by upping the ante and allowing this beloved beast to meet an unpleasant demise, the message is softly-delivered but crystal clear. Death, like love, is an integral and inescapable part of life, so the earlier you learn to accept and embrace both, the quicker you'll be able to appreciate one and deal with the other.
Some choose to see Old Yeller as a bit too intensely SAD for the little ones, but I don't see it that way. Better for a 6-year-old to learn about death through a movie screen, and prepare (just a little) for the healing process, than to deal with it the first time in "real life," and have no idea what it means.
Six years later the Disney folks would dust off another one of Mr. Gipson's novels and bring Savage Sam to the big screen. Featuring the return of Kirk and Corcoran, the sequel, well, it's not a bad flick, but it never once threatened to become even half the classic that Old Yeller is.
With their parents off taking care of a sick grandmother, the boys spend their days working the farm and bickering non-stop. The arrival of another pesky doggy leads to all sorts of mild barnyard chaos, but when a pack of nasty Native Americans arrive on the scene (and make off with a few of our friends), it's up to Sam (and a few helpful humans) to save the day.
Still packed with that old-fashioned and patented Disney Nature Quaintness, Savage Sam isn't a terrible follow-up, but it lacks the spine that the grown-ups brought to the first film, and it's a bit uncomfortably swollen with mildly disagreeable stereotypes where the Native American characters are concerned. A half-decent kiddie adventure, but Sam offers nothing close to the lyrical and poignant drama of Old Yeller.
Video: Old Yeller is presented in an anamorphic widescreen (1.75:1) format, while Savage Sam gets the Full Frame treatment. As to be expected from titles fresh from the Disney vault, the picture quality is quite excellent. On the DVD case Disney proclaims that Sam is a "theatrical sequel," so that begs a fair question: Why the full frame transfer?? The classic original obviously deserves its original aspect ratio presentation, but the sequel doesn't? Strange stuff, if you ask me.
Audio: Both films come with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks. Old Yeller offers 2.0 in Spanish and French, while Sam does 2.0 only in Spanish. English subtitles are available for both films; Sam offers French subs while Yeller doesn't.
On disc 1 you'll find both movies and a bunch of sneak peeks for Lady and the Tramp: Platinum Edition, Toy Story 2: Special Edition, Valiant, and "Disney's Movie Surfers," which promos the upcoming Glory Road and Antarctica: The Journey Home (which has recently been renamed Eight Below).
Disc 2 is dedicated exclusively to special goodies, and we kick it off with Bone Trouble a classic Pluto cartoon from 1940 that was previously available on the DVDs for Old Yeller and Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp's Adventure.
After doing about 3.4 seconds of research, I realize that all of the following supplements have been ported over from the now-out of print "Disney Vault" release of Old Yeller. Also, it seems that Savage Sam was also previously available. So basically, this set is two now-extinct DVDs wedged into one package. (Keep that in mind if you already own either or both.)
Old Yeller: Remembering a Classic is a warm and fuzzy look back at the well-admired family flick, from source material to the final product, which yanked more childhood tears than Bambi did. Interview subjects include Roy Disney and actors Tommy Kirk, Fess Parker, Beverly Washburn, and Kevin Corcoran. The stuff that focuses on Spike's performance is particularly entertaining. Running just over 35 minutes, this is a fine retrospective piece on a classic family film.
Dogs! is an 81-second clip of various Disney doggies. Lost Treasures is a 7-minute featurette that focuses on Golden Oak Ranch, the lovely spot when Old Yeller was filmed, not to mention dozens of other movies. The Disney Studio Album (3:20) shows what was cooking at Disney in 1957.
Conversations with Tommy Kirk is a 15-minute interview segment with the former Disney child star. (He appeared in not only Old Yeller and Savage Sam, but also The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson, The Absent-Minded Professor, and a half-dozen lesser titles.)
The last extra feature is a production archive, in which you'll find an extensive collection of photo stills, artwork reproductions, cast bios, fan letters, premiere invitations, pressbooks, screenplay excerpts, lobby cards, poster & merchandise galleries, radio & TV spots, and theatrical trailers. Also included is a 7-minute news segment about an Old Yeller Memorial in the Fred Gipson's hometown, an audio archive with four vintage clips (Sound Studio: Travis Meets Yeller, Sound Studio: Bear Attack!, Foley Demonstration, and Story Album), and a 52-minute segment of Disney Television entitled The Best Doggoned Dog in the World, which looks at all the wonderful things dogs to the world over -- and offers lots of Old Yeller clips.
If you already own the "Vault Collection" release of Old Yeller, I can't imagine you'll need to pick up this 2-movie collection. In this package you're gaining a lesser sequel, but you're also losing the audio commentary that was present in the original release. The rest of the extras are exactly the same, too.
But if you don't yet own a copy of Old Yeller and you think you'd really like to, this dual-discer offers a whole lot of Old goodies. Just consider the annoyingly full-framed sequel as an extra feature that you'll watch one bored family night, because the original flick is the one you'll keep coming back to. (Bring tissues.)