Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Big Red

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Big Red

Walt Disney certainly did not invent the dog movie. Canine movie stars had been around since the silent era, including such good boys and girls as Jean the Vitagraph Dog, Strongheart and, of course, Rin-Tin-Tin, the Tom Cruise of dogs. But Walt certainly had an affinity for the genre. Once he started making them, he just wouldn’t let them go, sort of like…well, a dog with a bone.

Big Red (not to be confused, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, with Clifford the Big Red Dog, nor with the soft drink, the chewing gum or Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, for that matter) isn’t a top-shelf dog movie. But it is a kinder, gentler story than some of Walt’s previous forays into the genre. So far, we’ve seen dogs contract rabies and get shot, get lost in the Canadian wilderness and turn into savage killing machines, and keep a mournful vigil at the grave of their deceased master. By comparison, Big Red has it easy.

When we first meet Red, he’s a prize-winning Irish Setter who catches the eye of wealthy sportsman James Haggin (Walter Pidgeon in his Disney debut). Mr. Haggin buys Red for $5,000 with the intention of entering him in the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. He no sooner gets Red settled into his estate when a young orphan named Rene (Gilles Payant) stops by looking for work. Haggin hires Rene to assist his dog trainer, Emile (Émile Genest, last seen terrorizing Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North).

Rene quickly bonds with Big Red, getting a little too close for Haggin’s comfort. Once he realizes that Red only responds to Rene, he separates the pair, forbidding Rene from any contact with Red until after the dog show. Rene gets it but sneaks up to the big house for one last goodbye. Overly excited at the scent of his new best friend, Red makes a break for it, leaping through a window and getting slashed to ribbons in the process.

Certain that Red will never be a champion now, Haggin orders Emile to put the dog down (people in Disney movies are always quick to have their dogs put to sleep, for some reason). Before he can do the deed, Rene smuggles Red off the estate to his late uncle’s remote cabin. Once he’s nursed Red back to health, Rene returns the dog to his rightful owner. In an attempt to recoup some of his investment, Haggin decides to sell both Red and his mate, Molly, to another dog breeder. They’re loaded on to a train but escape before they reach their destination.

Rene finds out the dogs have gone missing and tracks them down, finding Molly has given birth to a litter of puppies. Once the little family is able to travel, Rene stuffs a backpack full of puppies and starts leading the dogs back to Haggin’s place. Meanwhile, Haggin himself has ventured into the woods looking for Rene. After an encounter with a mountain lion, he’s thrown from his horse, injuring his leg. Fortunately, Big Red and company find Haggin in the nick of time. Impressed by Rene’s integrity, courage and fortitude, Haggin offers to take the boy in again, not as an employee but as his foster son.

Big Red is another Winston Hibler production. Even though humans are featured more prominently than in his previous outings, Hibler’s True-Life Adventures experience is still very much in evidence. The Canadian landscape is practically another character in the film and Red and Molly have ample opportunities to prove they don’t really need a human scene partner.

The film was based on a novel by Jim Kjelgaard, a prolific writer of young adult novels mostly about dogs and other animals. Big Red was far and away his most successful book, spawning two sequels following the adventures of Red’s sons, Irish Red and Outlaw Red. Sadly, Kjelgaard did not live to see his work adapted to the big screen. He had suffered from a myriad of health problems since childhood, causing chronic, unbearable pain. In 1959, he took his own life at the age of 48.

To adapt the book, Disney brought some new blood into the studio. TV and radio writer Louis Pelletier wrote the screenplay. We’ll see his work again in this column, as Pelletier stuck with the studio for the rest of the decade. Walt also found a new director that had honed his skill in television. Norman Tokar had been directing sitcoms and the occasional drama since the early 50s. Walt had been impressed by his work with kids on Leave It To Beaver, a show he’d directed nearly 100 episodes of.

Once Tokar set up shop on the Disney lot, he never really left. In fact, he only ever directed one feature outside the studio, the 1974 family drama Where The Red Fern Grows. But he was a solid team player for Disney, directing movies across a range of genres well into the 1970s. We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of Norman Tokar in this column.

We’ll also be seeing Walter Pidgeon and Émile Genest again. Pidgeon wasn’t necessarily a big box office draw but he was certainly well-respected in the industry. He was a two-time Oscar nominee and former President of the Screen Actors Guild. Sci-fi nerds like yours truly probably know him best as Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet. Big Red doesn’t present much of an acting challenge to Pidgeon. The role basically requires him to be stern and aloof, which pretty much sums up his entire screen persona. He’s fine but just about anybody could have played the part and done just as well.

As for Genest, this role is the polar opposite of the sadistic dog-fighter he played in Nikki. Shorn of the mountain man beard he sported in that earlier film, he’s almost unrecognizable as the same actor. As loathsome as he was in Nikki, I never wanted to see Genest around dogs again. But he completely redeems himself here, teaching Rene the tricks of the trade and showing himself to be a loving husband and strong father figure.

One actor we won’t be seeing again is Gilles Payant. He never made another film after Big Red and I’m not entirely sure what happened to him between this movie and his death in 2012 (some sources claim he went into real estate). He’s a little bit stiff and his line readings betray the fact that English was not the Quebecois actor’s first language. But he has a solid screen presence and an easy, natural rapport with Red and the other dogs. Given time and the inclination, he probably could have developed into a decent child actor.

The only real problem with Big Red is it’s a bit of a snooze. Tensions never run particularly high, even when Haggin is being threatened by a hungry mountain lion. The movie is pleasant enough and it’s kind of a relief to see a Disney dog movie where the animals remain largely out of harm’s way. But the stakes start out low and seem to get lower and lower as the movie goes on. For a while, it seems like the movie is leading up to the big Westminster dog show but Big Red never even gets a chance to compete.

Big Red debuted in June of 1962 and it reportedly performed fairly well at the box office, outgrossing Lad: A Dog, a competing dog movie released the same day. Scraps, the Irish Setter who starred as Red, was honored by the American Humane Association with a PATSY Award (a trophy previously won by such Disney animals as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and my favorite, Toby Tyler’s Mr. Stubbs). But Walt never returned to the world of Big Red, despite the fact that there were two sequels just sitting there, waiting to be turned into movies.

There were, however, plenty of other dogs (and wolves and horses and even a cat or two) out there waiting for their moment in the Disney spotlight. Walt would have another animal movie in theatres by the end of 1962. And the year after that, he’d finally produce a sequel to his first and most popular dog movie.

VERDICT: Another one that’s not exactly a Disney Plus but slightly better than a Disney Minus. Let’s call this one a Disney Meh.

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