Really, the gap between the Disney Golden Age and the ‘Renaissance’ was rather short. Where the Golden Age ends is a matter of debate – some say it was with Walt’s death in 1966. Some extend that to include 1967’s The Jungle Book, as he had been involved in the early stages and it’s a well-loved film. A few say that it was until Hanna-Barbera’s limited animation techniques took the audience from the big screen spectaculars to the churned-out TV shows, which was circa 1960. Others say it ended when the studio hacked away most of its staff in 1958, making Sleeping Beauty with a much-reduced budget. And some – albeit very few – let it stretch all the way to this film, when the remaining Nine Old Men started a project but let the younger generation finish it. If the Renaissance started with The Little Mermaid, then even if we stop at The Jungle Book, the films that fall through the net are, excepting The Black Cauldron, very much animal-centric. Mice in The Rescuers and in Basil; cats in The Aristocats and Oliver & Company, then the fox of this film and Robin Hood, which facially look almost identical. Then there’s Pooh, but that first theatrical release is really a collection of shorts. Not many films.
The Fox and the Hound was one of the handful of prominent Disney films I’d actually never seen – it doesn’t have the best reputation and I never caught it as a child. But getting more interested in animation history as I was, it became inevitable I was drawn to this historic film, which kick-started the careers of an incredible number of animators, but totally fractured the American animation scene – making it in many ways much more exciting. The big names involved here are remarkable. Most famously, it was the film that made Don Bluth leave Disney to form his own studio – though it seems an odd time to call Disney ‘stale’, when at last young animators would be given a chance to try something new (for all its faults, The Black Cauldron is certainly that). It’s also perhaps ironic that I think this film would have been rather better if Old Man Woolie Reitherman had gotten his way and kept the story closer to the book’s – although his opponent Art Stevens hardly represented the young blood. Tim Burton was on the staff, too, reportedly very bored, lasting another film or two but putting in work on his side-projects too. Brad Bird started his career on this film, but despite being labelled part of the ‘rat’s nest’ (of Mouse lovers) left Disney right after it to work on TV animation, with The Simpsons a few years ahead of him yet. His friend John Lasseter met him here, but stuck with Disney: his exposure to computer animation with Tron leading to another chapter of animation history. Another big name of computer animation and Tron collaborator Bill Kroyer (with future wife Sue) was also working on the film, but left because he didn’t like the look of The Black Cauldron – and went on to make the execrable FernGully. There were so many more: future Road to El Dorado co-director Don Paul; Brave Little Toaster helmsman Jerry Rees; Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline director Henry Selick; Tarzan head Chris Buck; RichCrest founder and director of the rather unimportant The Swan Princess Richard Rich; Tangled’s original director and visionary Glen Keane; the man who managed to make one of the most interesting characters in Aladdin a CG carpet with no face Randy Cartwright; Musker and Clements, who as directors took Disney into the renaissance, back into decline and with The Princess and the Frog back out of it yet again; and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron director Lorna Cook. That is an incredible list that spreads out across almost the entirety of the landscape of American big-studio theatrical animation in recent years.
For all that talent, though, this film falls well short of almost anything from classic-era Disney, and most of the films just listed. There are many moments of greatness – great shots, great little sequences, great acting moments, even great scenes. But they are too broken-up by misfires or simple bad delivery to make this a good film. For every little gem like the sophisticated animation of Widow Tweed shooing away birds (Bluth was working on
Tweed– was this nugget his work? It’s nice to think so), there is the kind of thing you just don’t expect in a high-calibre feature production, like the rocks that are going to fall away when trodden upon being painfully obviously made simpler than the background so that they can be animated easily. There may be a bear attack that is remarkably visceral and scary, looking at moments right out of Watership Down, but there are also unfunny scenes with a caterpillar that would have been jarringly babyish in Tom and Jerry, thus seem far worse here. There are far too many instances of the pacing just going off, or there being no impact when something should have been struck hard, and I was gobsmacked when there was the most terrible jump-cut I’ve ever seen for no reason at all, totally ruining the atmosphere of one scene.
There are also grounds to complain about how this film has been damaged technically – for some reason, it seems to be the only Disney DVD that is not in its original ratio. There’s a lot of Academy-Ratio in Disney’s early work, but that’s because it was drawn that way and essentially letterboxed in theatres. This one, though, was originally most of the way to widescreen, but currently exists only in this pan-and-scan version. Not acceptable, Disney.
All the characters are also rather at arm’s length, too. Big Mama is probably the most likeable, and though she’s a slightly painful stereotype, that she’s voiced by Pearl Bailey makes that a little more palatable, as she’s almost where the stereotypes come from, and not in a mocking way. Even she can’t save the songs from being terrible, though – they’re too short, the music is absurdly low in the mix so leaves no impression and the desire to use country and western instrumentation leaves incidental music and songs alike an unmemorable blur. The most interesting character might be Amos Slade, and I give Disney credit for making an antagonist who isn’t an evil villain – hot-tempered and idiotic enough to shoot right at an old woman, yes, but just an ordinary man who after all loves his dogs in his way. Jeanette Nolan’s turn as Widow Tweed is likeable too, if ordinary – and it’s slightly bizarre her husband is also in the film as a grumpy badger. The fox and the hound, though, suffer from being shown as children and young adults: a very young Corey Feldman is a great young Copper, whose delivery of ‘I’m a hound dog’ is one of the best moments of the film, but Kurt Russell isn’t given enough to do when he’s grown. Mickey Rooney, though sounding remarkably like a teenager while over 60, just doesn’t seem to have any interest in his lines or character. Vixey is much-derided, but oddly enough Sandy Duncan’s vocal performance isn’t to blame – it’s not that bad if you close your eyes. The problem was with the lines written and the absurd flirty ‘acting’ the character animators gave her. Also, while at this point in Disney’s history it was quite common for the actors from Pooh to show up in different films, and they presumably thought they would never be so well-known they’d need to change their voices, only Pooh himself showing up as a sinister snake in The Jungle Book was as jarring as this film having Tigger as a woodpecker and Piglet as a hedgehog. The Jungle Book also has Owl, Eeyore and Roo as elephants, but their voices are less distinctive and their lines few – people even seem to mix up which elephant was Ralph Wright: I often see him listed as the grumpy elephant, but he was clearly the slobby elephant.
The designs also seriously lack in originality. Tod the Fox (from Beatrix Potter to The Plague Dogs, foxes always get called ‘Tod’, which after all does just mean ‘fox’) is as I said much like Robin Hood. Along with a squirrel more or less transplanted, the sparrow looks a lot like Wart’s bird form in Sword in the Stone, and Big Mama is basically Archimedes puffed up and given a feather boa (Archimedes being another time one can spot a Pooh actor). Apart from the bear, whose closest relative may just be Fantasia’s Chernabog, about the only piece of fun in the design stages is how young Copper’s brow has too much skin for his head. Ultimately, The Fox and the Hound is a let-down. It’s fine having two cute little animals make friends while destined to be torn apart, but the drama that stems from that must flow well, voice performances must tally with animation and, as we get with Simba, we must have reasons feel like the small, cute child version and the adult are single, unified characters. And in the end, while I liked the conclusion that sometimes, fate just does tear people apart, it needed to be more strongly underlined. Perhaps this is the result of ‘too many cooks’ – people forget the little things that matter, like really making an audience care for characters and what happens to them, and getting the details just right.