A Boy and His Dog
Do you secretly watch the kids’ show Wishbone — with that adorable Jack Russell terrier — even though it’s been years since you’ve gotten carded trying to buy beer? Is your favorite Frasier character Eddie? Are you a sucker for big floppy ears, nonstop tail-wagging, and moist brown eyes? Then you’re gonna love Shiloh, a little beagle so devoted to his boy that he’d shame Snoopy into being nicer to Charlie Brown. And grab some kids to watch Shiloh’s adventures with you — not only will they love him, too, but kids need to see these smart, tough, yet thoroughly heartwarming movies.
Wag the dog
Young Marty Preston (Blake Heron, in a passionate yet nicely modulated performance) lives in a remote rural community. There’s not much to do during summer vacation but shoot cans and hang out with Sam (J. Madison Wright), who’s not too bad even if she is a girl. But Marty finds a purpose to his life when he meets a beaten and frightened beagle he names Shiloh (Frannie, a great little doggy actor) and decides to fight to keep him from being returned to his abusive owner.
Shiloh — based on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Newbery Medal-winning book and directed by Dale Rosenbloom — is the kind of children’s movie you will not find many examples of today. It does not pander to kids’ baser instincts — a predilection for toilet humor, for instance — in order to keep kids glued to the screen with cheap, juvenile jokes. Instead, kids will be enthralled by Shiloh because it dares to explore issues that parents often fail to talk about with their children: not the big scary issues parents fear, like sex and drugs, but the big scary things that kids wonder about, like “Is it ever acceptable to lie?” and “Is it okay to defy Mom and Dad when I know I’m right?” In the vein of films like Old Yeller and The Yearling, Shiloh presents Marty — and its young viewers — with complicated lessons to learn and difficult moral choices to make, and it doesn’t insult by offering an easy way out.
Shiloh’s owner, Judd Travers (Scott Wilson: Clay Pigeons, G.I. Jane), is a hard man: poor and alone, he hunts for a living, selling local game he kills, often illegally, with the help of his unnamed hunting dogs. He expects Shiloh to become his best hunter, but his training methods include kicks, butts to the head with a rifle, and imprisonment in a tiny cage. Mortified by the little dog’s treatment, Marty begs his father (Michael Moriarty, never better) to help him keep Shiloh. But the family is in dire financial straits — no money for dog food and vet bills — and besides, Dad reminds Marty, “a dog is a man’s property.” Legally, Marty has no recourse, but when Shiloh escapes to the boy’s succor from Judd’s clutches once again, Marty hides Shiloh in a shed behind his house, sneaking food out to the dog and denying that he has seen the animal when Judd comes looking for him.
Kids will relate to Marty’s dilemma as he fights for what is right even over the objection of his parents and against the wishes of other adults. Discovering that morality is not always black and white, that one’s parents can be both right and wrong at the same time are earth-shattering realizations for children. How do we learn to make moral distinctions? How do we know we’re right when everyone tells us we’re wrong? Marty gets some guidance from Mom (Ann Dowd: Apt Pupil) and Doc Wallace (Rod Steiger: In the Heat of the Night) — Sam’s grandfather and owner of the local general store — but he’s left to make the really hard decisions on his own.
Never fear: Marty and Shiloh triumph in the end. The road they travel isn’t an easy one, but it just makes their victory all the sweeter.
Love thy neighbor
Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season — again based on an award-winning Naylor novel and directed by Sandy Tung — picks up immediately where Shiloh left off. The little beagle is settling in nicely with Marty (now played by Zachary Browne) and his family, but Judd Travers continues to make himself a nuisance, drinking and driving, hunting illegally on land belonging to Marty’s family, and threatening to take Shiloh back. Nasty rumors about him fly about the community, from the accusation that he’s the one who’s been knocking down the neighbors’ mailboxes to “he’s a werewolf.”
Now that he’s saved Shiloh from Judd’s cruel treatment, kind-hearted Marty wants to save Judd himself, despite all the brutality the boy has witnessed in Judd and despite the fact that Judd wants nothing to do with Marty. What makes people mean? Marty asks of his parents and Doc Wallace. How can we redeem mean people? And unspoken in Marty’s quest is: How do we find it in ourselves to be kind in the face of rejection and opposition?
A sad, lonely figure, abandoned by neighbors as a “public nuisance,” Judd is never a one-dimensional villain (character actor Scott Wilson is the standout in the casts of both films), which is hardly surprising in a movie that, like its predecessor, strives for and achieves more nuance and intelligence than the typical children’s movie does. In Shiloh 2, Marty and Judd both face, as Doc Wallace says, “the tests of life” for which there are no simple resolutions. Once again, Marty comes up against the kinds of dilemmas kids often face alone: deciding when it’s right to keep one’s word and when the greater good is to break it; distinguishing truth from gossip and learning how gossip can hurt; and finding out that both kindness and cruelty must be learned and can be taught.
Shiloh and Shiloh 2 are astute stories told without preachiness, but they are simple ones. Likely only adults who are hopeless dog lovers — I needed a few hankies, I’ll admit it — will appreciate the movies for themselves. But watch them with a child you love. The brief scenes of Shiloh’s abuse and other minor violence will probably upset children a little, yes. More probably, kids are going to have a lot of questions to ask of an adult they trust, questions that’ll make you uncomfortable. Maybe it’s enough for kids to hear from you that there are no easy answers.