Where the Red Fern Grows (2003)

Movie review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Where the Red Fern Grows (2003) Movie Poster Image
Book-based drama is emotionally intense, with mild scares.
  • PG
  • 2003
  • 86 minutes

Parents say

age 7+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

You can achieve your dreams and make life better through hard work and patience. Some faith-based messages like how hard work and prayer make things happen; if you want God's help, you have to meet him halfway; some overt religious messages in the music.

Positive Role Models & Representations

All main characters are hardworking and patient. Billy is helpful and obedient, but he does acquire his dogs in secret, knowing his parents don't want him to have them, and leaves home for a couple of days to pick them up without telling his parents. He works hard on the farm and at training his dogs. When he starts making money selling pelts, he contributes to the family finances. Both his parents are loving guides, allowing Billy to make his own decisions and learn by doing. Grandpa offers advice and support, but lets his pride get the best of him with tragic results.


A few bloody injuries on dogs. Kids fight with punches; a bloody nose, lip, and bruises are shown. Bullies step on Billy's bare foot. Other bullies goad Billy into a bet by calling him chicken. A man swats at fighting dogs with some paper. Sounds of dogs fighting, yelping, and moaning are heard off camera. An axe is buried in something unseen before cutting to a funeral. Some mild scariness in danger from a mountain lion, dogs fighting, and a fall and broken leg in the middle of a storm. Spoiler alert: Beloved pets and a child die.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Where the Red Fern Grows is a 2003 adaptation of a classic children's book that's still required reading in many elementary and middle schools. Lots of good role models and messages about the value of hard work and patience; some are faith based. There's little content of concern, but some of the mild scariness from dogs and people in danger may be too much for little kids. Standing up to bullies involves a fight that shows punching, a bloody nose, bloody lip, and bruising. Bloody injuries are shown on dogs. Spoiler alert: Beloved pets and a child die.

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What's the story?

In WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, Billy Coleman (Joseph Ashton) lives on a farm in the Ozark Mountains during the Great Depression. More than anything, Billy wants a chance to raise hunting dogs, but money to buy puppies is hard to come by. Billy works doing odd jobs and finally earns enough money to buy two hound dogs and teaches them how to hunt raccoons. After a bet that his dogs can finally catch the infamous "ghost raccoon," a tragic accident makes Billy feel like he'll never hunt with his dogs again. But Grandpa (Dabney Coleman) tells him about an annual contest, and Billy can't resist entering Old Dan and Little Ann.

Is it any good?

This sincere and squeaky-clean version of a beloved classic that's still on many school reading lists is enjoyable but may fall short for those who've read and loved the book first. The 2003 version of Where the Red Fern Grows has lots of positive messages about the value of hard work and perseverance, but leaves out some of the stronger content from the book, both positive and negative. This means that the stronger emphasis on religious and character messages are weakened because there's no contrast.

Performances are OK but make it hard to connect emotionally with Billy, his family, and even his dogs. It feels more like you're watching types of people, as admirable as they may be, instead of getting to know real, specific characters. It's an OK choice for family movie night, especially if you're ready to offer reassurance to little ones when people and animals are in danger. But this film version falls far short of the original book; consider reading it aloud, or together, to really experience the full emotional impact of this American classic.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about which character strengths are shown in Where the Red Fern Grows. How do Billy and his family show integrity, perseverance, and being a good sport?

  • Have you read the book, or seen any other movie versions of the story? How are they different? How are they the same? Which do you like best?

  • What are some of your other favorite books or movies about kids and their pets?

Movie details

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