March to Disney: The Education of Where the Red Fern Grows

Though branded as a March to Disney post the only discussion of Disney will be at the open, as this film was independently produced and sold to Disney. I got this film as a redemption on Disney Movie Rewards, which is where you can redeem codes and movie ticket points for swag – I usually go for DVDs. It’s a good deal.

As for Where the Red Fern Grows I had not seen this version, but I was aware that it was one of Joseph Ashton’s few follow-ups to The Education of Little Tree – there rare onscreen one as he usually got voice work.

The Education of Little Tree and Ashton’s performance was well-received. Ebert singled him out: “And Joseph Ashton, as Little Tree, is another of those young actors who is fresh and natural on camera; I believed in his character.”

He was also nominated for a Young Artist Award and in my own BAM Awards.

I also have yet to see the original Where the Red Fern Grows (1974) so I was a virtual blank slate going in (which is always a good thing). Essentially, it ends up being a Disney dog-film, one of many. As the film started I wondered if Ashton’s ethnicity would be referenced in the story or if he was just cast for the role in an open casting.

When it comes to casting I have written on it a few times in the past. One casting precept I am fine with is just casting someone “just because.” What I mean by that is exemplified by Love Actually: one of the many characters in the film is Karl, played by Brazilian actor, Rodrigo Santoro. Karl is the unrequited, secretly admired love interest of Sarah (Laura Linney). What I liked about that piece of casting is that it’s a Brazilian actor just cast as the “hot guy,” the crush with no indication from the script or film that he had to be the “hot foreign guy.” It’s incidental and that’s refreshing from time to time.

The reason this is, is that true inclusion and universality means casting actors from all over, as rounded characters and in mixed films. Having all films be a melting pot is utopian, and I get arguments against films for targeted audience, but for the time being they are sadly a necessity. Roles in general for African Americans, Asians, Latinos, women, Native Americans, little people and other groups are limited. Roles for the aforementioned groups in a dimensional piece they play a part of are more limited still. Roles for these groups are usually reserved, in the US, for race-specific films like civil rights tales.

Therefore, when I was under the impression that Ashton was just in the film I was intrigued. However, that only lasted so long as a fractional Cherokee heritage of his mother was referenced. So it does not meet the Love Actually standard, but one thing it did is fully embrace Billy’s heritage. Another thing it does is cast an actor of Native American lineage in a film not ostensibly about his lineage as The Education of Little Tree was.

While I have not read the book there is some American Indians in Children’s Literature did some great research on a post about Native depictions in the School Library Journal’s Top 100 Children’s novels:

On page 10, “The land we lived on was Cherokee land, allotted to my mother because of the Cherokee blood that flowed in her veins.”
Page 43, “I reached way back in Arkansas somewhere. By the time my fist had traveled all the way down to the Cherokee Strip, there was a lot of power behind it.
On page 143, where Rubin says “A long time ago some Indians lived here and farmed these fields.”
On page 254, Billy recalls that he “had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred.”

With those being the sole references to the Cherokee people in the book clearly the boy-and-his-dog(s) aspect has more impact since his goal is to save up to be able to buy them, he has to figure out how to get them train them, and they build his self-esteem.

So this does not quite reach the threshold that a few Māori actors (Temuera Morrison in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Keisha Castle-Hughes in Nativity Story) achieved, but it still is significant. Casting is still a battle. When superheroes ethnicity is changed to anything non-white racist trolls come out of the racist woodwork; whether it is in the best interest of the project or not sometimes actors will be cast to learn a dialect as opposed to being portrayed by a native; even little people have to deal with being digitally multiplied, and now with being replaced by shrunken normal-sized actor; therefore, whenever there’s a Tyrion Lannister, Ellis Redding or Valentin Arregui part it’s notable even more so when it’s a project with many things to say and not just one.

In a utopian world Ashton may have been cast when an actor of Cherokee descent was not a prerequisite, but at least that was a Cherokee cast as a Cherokee.