A boy and his dog. It's one of the oldest stories in the world, but it still makes a good movie from time to time.
The latest specimen of the breed is "Shiloh," named after a shy little pooch - a beagle, actually, like Snoopy but somewhat less articulate - whose adventures begin when he's bought for $35 by Judd Travers, a West Virginia hunter. Judd had a difficult childhood, we eventually learn, and he takes out his lingering frustrations on the animal kingdom - rabbits and raccoons he tracks down and sells, and hunting dogs he mistreats if they don't behave the way he wants.
Shiloh doesn't like this new owner and runs away the first chance he gets. He's rescued by Marty Preston, an 11-year-old boy who lives with his family not far from Judd's ramshackle home. Marty wants to buy Shiloh from Judd and give him a better life, but Judd won't hear a word of it - either because he likes Shiloh as a hunting dog, or because he's so ornery he just doesn't like to see anyone happy.
Marty returns Shiloh to Judd, but when the beagle escapes a second time, Marty hides him away and claims to have no idea of his whereabouts. Judd is suspicious, and so is Marty's father, who sympathizes with his son but won't come between a dog and its legal owner. He also hates lying. The climax pits Marty and his dad against Judd and all the mean habits he's accumulated in his sadly disgruntled life.
"Shiloh" is refreshing partly because it's a well-made family picture that tells a good, clean story without relying too much on cute animal tricks or sentimental plot twists. For a movie aimed at family audiences, it also takes a surprisingly sophisticated view of the moral issues involved.
Marty has trouble "doing the right thing" because he's caught between two right things to do: telling the truth and returning Shiloh to his legal owner, or saving the dog from a life of obvious misery. The solution he eventually finds - agreeing to keep quiet about Judd's illegal trapping if Judd sells him the dog - is far from ideal. But it teaches Marty, and us, that the world is too complicated for a few simple rules to resolve every problem.
"Shiloh" is extremely well acted by a human cast including young Blake Heron as the hero, Michael Moriarty and Ann Dowd as his parents, and the great Rod Steiger as the local veterinarian who treats Shiloh's wounds after a bad scrape. Best of all is Scott Wilson as Judd, whose meanness is unforgivable but at the same time understandable, considering that he grew up with hardships as bad as the ones he's giving Shiloh now.
Dale Rosenbloom directed the movie from his own screenplay, based on a novel by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor that has won a large number of prizes including the prestigious Newbery Medal for children's literature. Frank Byers did the cinematography, vividly capturing the backwoods settings where much of the story unfolds.
"Shiloh" is easily the best family film so far this year, and a healthy reminder that movies suitable for young viewers don't have to be bland or boring for the grown-ups who take them to the theater.
* 'Shiloh' has a PG rating. It contains some violence aimed at the dog and its young rescuer, but this is suggested rather than explicitly shown.