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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Old Yeller is a classic 1950s tearjerker about love and loss between a frontier family and a dog. It has characters hunting with rifles, and fierce battles between Old Yeller and various wild animals that could be too intense for younger viewers. And, of course, there is the now-legendary climax of the film, which could definitely be difficult for children still coming to grips with life and death of pets and people. Still, it is a classic story of loss, and an excellent way to begin a discussion of those issues.
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What's the story?
At the start of OLD YELLER, in 1869 Texas, Jim Coates (Fess Parker) leaves his family for three months to sell their cattle, and tells his older son, Travis (Tommy Kirk) to take care of his mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and his younger brother, Arliss (Kevin Corcoran). When a stray dog comes to their farm, Arliss "claims" him, over Travis' objections. But Old Yeller turns out to be an outstanding dog and pal for Travis. When Old Yeller saves Katie from a rabid wolf, Travis is faced with the hardest decision of his young life.
Is it any good?
This classic family film is a touching tale. The scene when Jim returns, as Travis and his friend Lisbeth are burying Old Yeller, is particularly meaningful. Jim tells him that the loss of Yeller is "not a thing you can forget. Maybe not a thing you want to forget. ... Now and then, for no good reason a man can figure out, life will just haul off and knock him flat. … I'll tell you a trick that's sometimes a big help. Start looking around for something good to take the place of the bad."
Jim's talk with Travis is a model of parental wisdom, understanding, and patience. He accepts and validates Travis' feelings completely, and does not try to minimize or talk him out of them. (Contrast that with Lisbeth, who tries to comfort Travis by encouraging him to "come to like the pup.") Instead of telling him what to do, he says, "I'll tell you a trick that's sometimes a big help," letting him decide for himself whether to take the advice. Travis was not just reluctant to adopt Old Yeller at first -- he was downright hostile because of the loss of his first dog, Belle. That, at the end of the movie, he is able to accept Young Yeller more easily shows how much he has grown up.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the Coates family lives in Old Yeller. How do they get their food, talk, and behave in ways that are different and similar to families today?
What do you think the ultimate message of the movie is?
How does Travis' attitude toward Old Yeller change throughout the movie?
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