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Part 24: The Fox and the Hound

1981’s “The Fox and the Hound” is a tricky one to review.  There’s just as much working for the film as there is against it.  Previous viewings have left me unimpressed or disappointed, but after this last viewing I began to see the true Disney “magic” lying underneath.  Not to mention after a string of duds and visual eyesores from the 1960’s and 70’s, films like “The Rescuers” and “The Fox and the Hound” represent the beginning of a beginning to the return of traditional and successful Disney animation.  Yes, I meant that sentence to be read exactly as I wrote it. 

To truly appreciate “The Fox and the Hound”, you need to understand that it is the first full film created by the younger generation of Disney animators.  They had worked here and there on films like “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” and had shared the load on “The Rescuers” but with “The Fox and the Hound” it was time to prove their worth. 

As their last act before retiring two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston did some of the early development and animation as a sort of favor and blessing to the newbies.  Larry Clemmons remained head of the story department and Wolfgang Reitherman, who wasn’t afraid to give his two cents, wanted or unwanted, stuck around as producer.  But the clear majority of the work was done by young animators that had paid their dues climbing up the Disney ranks, greats like Glen Keane, Ron Clements, John Musker and of course Don Bluth.  Essentially “The Fox and the Hound” was a passing of the baton.

Though some people dropped the baton.  There were major disagreements between Producer Wolfgang Reitherman (old school) and Director Art Stevens (new school) on various aspects of the film, design, layouts, etc.  The newer team tended to back Stevens and based on previous Reitherman projects like “The Aristocats” and the “The Sword in the Stone” I’d back Stevens too.

Other animators were having a hard time with this transition.  Don Bluth in particular was fed up with the work being produced by Disney and, after dong a small amount of animation on the character of Widow Tweed, took over 15% of the animators with him to start up his own animation company.  This gave Disney something they had not dealt with in a long time: competition.  It also pushed the original 1980 Christmas release back to a 1981 summer release.

Bluth’s career at Disney is somewhat difficult to describe since much of his work as a junior level or assistant animator went uncredited.  Bluth moved up the ladder, receiving credit for his work and eventually becoming a Directing Animator.  Here are just some of the great (and not so great) Disney films Don has worked on:

Robin Hood (1973)

Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974)

The Rescuers (1977)

Pete’s Dragon (1977)

The Small One (1978)

The Fox and the Hound (1981)

“The Fox and the Hound” was directed by animators turned directors Ted Berman, Richard Rich and Art Stevens, a long-time Disney animator and co-director of “The Rescuers”.  At the time of its release “The Fox and the Hound” was a financial success but received a warm to cool reception from the critics.

No “castle logo” to start this film, just the old “Buena Vista” title card.  It has a quiet opening, looking and feeling just like one of those TV movies from the late 70’s / early 80’s.  An American period piece from the Hallmark channel that they’d force you to watch in History class.  It doesn’t emit that big, theatrical feel many Disney films have had.  I couldn’t imagine seeing “The Fox and the Hound” in the theater, which ironically, I did.  The film makes for a good Sunday afternoon TV movie, not a big animation blockbuster.

There’s some great multiplaning right off the bat, which I feel has been absent for some time.  And once the action starts you get a real sense of the strong “Bambi” vibe that goes on throughout “The Fox and the Hound”.  Similar layouts, themes, characters.  That’s not saying it’s as good as “Bambi” but it’s hard not to make the comparison.  And it won’t be the last time to read about it in this review . . .

The character animation in “The Fox and the Hound” is very good.  Excellent movements, emotions and a fluid transition between animal behavior and anthropomorphic and back again.  Best of all is the complete lack of sketchy lines and the full return to a more traditional look of the animation.  Yet when I say traditional I mean only that a line is a line and not a scratchy mess.  The overall animation in “The Fox and the Hound” is like nothing we’ve seen in the past and is a great example of the young animators potential. 

“The Fox and the Hound” features an amazing cast.  Singer Pearl Bailey as Big Mama, Sandy Duncan as Vixey, pre-Goonie Corey Feldman as the young Copper, Jeanette Nolan as Widow Tweed, Jack Alberston (AKA Grandpa Joe from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) as Amos Slade and great Disney familiars like John McIntire, John Fiedler, Paul Winchell and Pat Buttram.  The cast is lead by Kurt Russell as Copper and Mickey Rooney as Tod.  Russell is absolutely fantastic as the loyal, obedient Hound dog and Rooney, though 30 years older than Russell does a pretty good job at playing a 3-year-old fox (that’s 21 in Human years).   Though, when listening to the voice of Tod, it can be a bit difficult to get the image of 60+ year old Rooney performing as Lampie from 1977’s “Pete’s Dragon” out of my head.

Great characters abound in “The Fox and the Hound” (unintentional rhyme).  Which makes appreciating or even recognizing the villain(s) in the film difficult.  I’m not really even convinced there is a villain.  But for arguments sake let’s say that Amos Slade and his old dog Chief are the villains.  True, Amos and Chief are always after Tod, but that’s because Tod, whether intentional or not, is always going where he’s not supposed to or getting himself into trouble.  To the viewer young Tod is just an adorable, precocious youth.  To Amos and Chief Tod is a malevolent, troublesome fox, desperate to get at Amos’s chickens.  Tod actually has no interest in the chickens, but can you blame Amos for thinking so?  But when not in pursuit of the fox Amos and Chief are a funny, likable duo, protective and kind towards Copper.

True, Amos is a hunter and he’s trained Chief and Copper to be his faithful hunting companions, but that’s how the man makes his living and so little of that hunting happens on screen.  Now, the hunter in “Bambi” is a solid villain.  All you know about him is that he’s dangerous and to be feared starting fires and killing animals and not much else.  Both he and Amos kill the main characters’ moms, but because we never get to see the “Bambi” Hunter’s side of things his kill is much more unforgiving.  Plus it’s so hard to take Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) as a bad guy.

More than once the filmmakers show Amos and Chief in a sympathetic light.  Witnessing Chief’s run in with a train is particularly brutal making it even harder to consider him a villain. 

As a pet owner I would take Copper over Tod.  Copper is a good, loyal dog and Tod, though good-natured, is always finding himself in an avoidable predicament.  In a way, I understand where Amos is coming from, wanting to “get rid” of the fox, but because he’s so likable, you don’t want Tod to die, You also don’t want Chief to die and you definitely don’t want the bear to kill anyone.  Oh yeah, did I mention the bear?  The bear is undoubtedly a villain, just not the main one.  He’s never likable.  Point is you don’t want anyone to die (except the bear).  Maybe society is the villain, creating the pre-conceived notion that two people from different worlds can’t be friends.  Can’t we all just get along?

So maybe “The Fox and the Hound” doesn’t have a main villain, which is fine.  Some great movies don’t.  Or maybe, Amos and Chief are some of the best Disney villains ever, complex and interesting, likable yet menacing, in which case I’ve wasted everyone’s time over thinking it all.

Here’s something I don’t need to over think, the music.  “The Fox and the Hound” features a score by Buddy Baker who was also responsible for the “Winnie the Pooh” scores.  It features several songs penned by several different songwriters and of all the songs, only one is enjoyable, the classic Best of Friends sung by Pearl Bailey.  None of the other songs even come close to this tune.  One song in particular is really bad, Lack of Education.  It’s got a really odd arrangement and the music doesn’t seem to fit the lyrics.  Also I think they were trying to do a rap.  Shameful.  One song that had potential but only lasted 5 or 10 seconds long was Amos’s A Huntin’ Man, a great little tune that could’ve been used to further Amos’s bad reputation but instead got my toe tappin’ for a brief moment and made Amos look like a fun guy to hang out with.

Like “The Rescuers” the story of “The Fox and the Hound” is darker and more complex that previous Disney films.  This obviously makes it more entertaining for an older audience, which may have been a concern for the story team so they dumbed it down with some unnecessary slapstick scenes of birds Dinky and Boomer in constant pursuit of an unfortunate but quick caterpillar.  Tod and Copper’s story has very little natural humor so some might say that Dinky and Boomer’s Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner scenes helped move the film along.  I say, it would’ve been braver to leave those scenes out and let “The Fox and the Hound” speak for itself.  Keep Dinky and Boomer, but drop the caterpillar sub plot.  I’ve also yet to make a successful motion picture, so it’s possible my caterpillar-free version of “The Fox and the Hound” would’ve been crap.  I guess we’ll just have to wait until “The Fox and the Hound: The Droke Edition” comes out.

So there you go, a little conflicted on some aspects, a lot entertained by others.  As you may, or may not know, “The Fox and the Hound” has a very tragic ending, but it also has a very happy ending, depending on how you look at it.  It had an unimpressive TV-movie quality, but better animation than the previous two decades of Disney films.  It was reminiscent of past Disney greats, like “Bambi” but it definitely was no “Bambi”.  I’m not exactly sure about the villains, or if there even were villains, but I definitely loved all of the characters.  Well, one thing’s for sure, “The Fox and the Hound” is an enjoyable Disney Classic, at least I think it is.

Strong Points: Animation, story, characters.

Weak Points: Under-produced “movie of the week” quality, unnecessary “comic-relief” scenes, songs.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 caterpillars.

Next Week: “The Lord of the Rings”!  Oops, I mean “The Black Cauldron”!

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