To the dogs: The Dave nods through Fern

Soon you'll be able to have a three dog night with Dave Matthews!

Next month (February 18 to be exact) he'll be on theater screens in the girl-and-her-dog flick Because of Winn-Dixie, but his first acting role hit video stores just before Christmas. Where the Red Fern Grows is about a boy and two dogs.

As regular Hook readers know, this is the movie, based on Wilson Rawls' revered 1961 novel (previously filmed in 1974), that took years to make and years more to find a distributor. That's because– besides the bankruptcy of the first production company– it's an old-fashioned (quaintly or na├»vely so, depending on your point of view) family film, the kind people say they want to see but don't support when it shows up in theaters. Not if it's up against a movie where stuff blows up. A lot of these people won't even go to see a religious movie unless it contains R-rated violence.

Directed by Lyman Dayton and Sam Pillsbury, who utilized the labors of two others on the script (which doesn't seem like it required four writers), Where the Red Fern Grows is better suited to home viewing, although the Oklahoma scenery would be more impressive on a larger screen. It's a movie families can safely watch together and shed a tear or two over, and it's probably better if you don't have to go out into the real world immediately afterward and find your car's been broken into in the parking lot.

The time is 1935, when functional families were the rule– or so they tell us– when hard work and determination paid off and you didn't have to use connections and treachery to succeed. (And all '50s families were like the Cleavers and '70s families were like the Bradys...)

Billy Coleman (Joseph Ashton) is growing up on an Oklahoma farm with his parents (Dave Matthews and Renee Faia) and two little sisters. Grandpa (Dabney Coleman) lives nearby and runs the local general store.

Billy wants huntin' dogs so bad he can taste them– and if the Depression gets any worse he may have to. Because "he ain't got no quit in him" Billy does odd jobs until he saves the money to send away for a pair of hounds, which he has to run away from home to pick up in a neighboring town. There he gets into a fight with some "city boys" (they wear shoes) and meets the kindly sheriff (Ned Beatty).

He brings the dogs home, naming them Dan and Ann (which become "Ol' Dan" and "Li'l Ann") along the way. Before anyone can say, "Omigod, two more mouths to feed!" Billy's taught them to hunt coons– raccoons, lest anyone remember other period slang– and a thriving cottage industry is born.

To keep the film family friendly (and to save on effects and/or advanced animal training) the makers have gone to extremes to avoid showing violence. This means that except for the two main dogs there's almost never more than one animal in the frame at a time. It's all in the editing: cut from raccoon running to dogs running and you assume the dogs are chasing the raccoon. (An exception is explained in one of the DVD extras, an interview with the trainers.)

This method glosses over the transition from a live coon up a tree to a coonskin on the barn wall, and in one scene where a person is killed accidentally there's so little shown you have to piece together what happened from the scene that follows.

The story unfolds episodically: the dogs' first hunt, the hunt for the Pritchards' "ghost coon," and the 20th Annual Ozark Coonhound Championship. Although nothing's presented on a fantasy level, we're supposed to believe the dogs understand Billy when he talks to them, as when he explains they have to leave the coons they've treed and go look for Grandpa.

There are tears to be shed, for Billy will eventually ask, "Mom, do you think God made a heaven for dogs?" (Elvis already told us, "If there's a heaven where good doggies go, Old Shep has a wonderful home." Can't someone weigh in with a theological answer?)

OK, what about the acting? You've got your old pros– Coleman, Beatty, and Kris Kristofferson, who plays Billy all grown up and narrates the story; and you've got the rest, most of whom exude the naturalness of nonprofessionals in Italian neorealist classics, only less so.

Yes, Dave's in the latter group. He has an unfortunate habit of nodding his head, as if to show he's awake, every time the camera points at him; but he looks good, even in Depression-era overalls, and has a pleasant enough screen presence that he doesn't embarrass himself. It will be interesting to see what a better director, Wayne Wang, gets out of him in Because of Winn-Dixie.

 Alison Kraus and Wynonna are the best-known artists on the DMB-free soundtrack. Steve Holy sings the closing song, "Way Back When," which would have worked better at the beginning to set the mood of "...a time when love was saved for the wedding day."

If you want to return to that mythical time, "Where the Red Fern Grows" will take you there. It's the best movie of its kind in a coon's age. Of course, coons didn't live to be very old when Dan and Ann were around.

Young Billy Coleman "ain't got no quit in him" when it comes to finding a hunting dog.