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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

“Darling, Forever is a Long, Long Time, and Time Has a Way of Changing Things”

           Disney has a long standing tradition of taking sad, depressing, otherwise soul crushing stories and “Disney-fying” them.  Examples include The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and apparently The Fox and the Hound.  I didn’t know that the film was based on a novel of the same name written by one Daniel P. Mannix before I looked at the film’s trivia page on IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082406/trivia).  Apparently, the title is all that the two share in common because the original story ends with both Tod and Copper dead.  Not exactly the kind of ending Disney is famous for.
            But that’s the kind of story The Fox and the Hound is.  Even in its animated, Disney state, The Fox and the Hound is a difficult film to watch.  It’s probably one of the more straight up dramatic Disney animated films the studio has ever put out.  There are some scenes of comic relief with the two birds pursuing the caterpillar but the mood of this film just cannot be leavened to save its life. 
            Just look at the way it starts.  Most Disney films begin with a piece of music that becomes a motif throughout the film.  The Fox and the Hound starts with absolutely no music at all.  There’s not even any diegetic sound, which is odd because the opening establishing shots occur in a forest. 
It’s one of the tensest openings I’ve ever seen in a Disney film.  It’s so masterfully quiet but gradually the audience can make out some kind of distant noise that is impossible to identify at first.  After an uncomfortable amount of time, a dog barking is clearly heard and a fox carrying something in her mouth is finally visible.  The audience follows her running through the forest trying to evade the approaching dog and hunter, both of which are never seen only heard.  Just after the mother fox drops her mouth bundle off in a safe place, and nuzzles it lovingly, she darts off only to be followed by two deafening gunshots.  And the scene is quiet again.   Basically, The Fox and the Hound kicks things off with Bambi’s mom’s murder scene. 
How can anything be happy after something like that?  The answer: it can’t.  The Fox and the Hound’s flavor is most definitely not sweet, but it’s not exactly sour either.  Most describe it as a bittersweet tale of prejudice and friendship and I would be inclined to agree. 
Most Disney films play with no overt agenda, but this is not so with The Fox and the Hound.  The film is an effective commentary about ignorance and prejudice and where both come from.  It was the film that kicked off the 1980’s for the Disney studio and made a bold statement about what direction the company was going in for that decade.  This new direction was due in no small part to the changes that were happening within the studio.
The Fox and the Hound served as the passing of the torch for the nine old men as this was the final film for Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Wolfgang Reitherman.  They began production on The Fox and the Hound but the film was completed by the new generation of animators that they had been training.  This film marked the first time that a handful of the animators responsible for the success of the Disney studios in the late eighties, early nineties had full creative control.  Names that would become famous to Disney fans included Ron Clements, John Musker, and Glen Keane.
Glen Keane is a name that you’re going to be hearing quite a bit from my mouth from now on.  Of the current generation of animators, he is my absolute favorite.  It doesn’t matter what he is animating, it always manages to be what you remember the most about the film.  In The Fox and the Hound, Keane animated the climactic final confrontation between Tod, Copper, and the bear.

And what a climax it is.  It’s disturbing to see Copper, who had been that sweet little puppy with the pathetic howl at the start of the film, biting and clawing to get at Tod and Vixey in their burrow.  Throughout the film, Tod had never been the aggressor; in this scene, though, Tod only began fighting back against Copper because he felt that his mate was being threatened.  And just when the audience thinks that the battle is over, a monstrous, oversized black bear emerges and shakes things up for everybody involved.
Slade does the natural hunter reaction and tries to shoot the bear, but that only makes the animal angrier than it already was.  Symbolically, Slade becomes caught in one of his own traps with his gun just out of reach.  I say symbolically because if Slade had not tried to inflict his own will on this natural world then his life would not have been in danger and his beloved dog wouldn’t have had to put himself at risk, because Copper bravely attempts to take on the bear himself to draw it away from Slade.  Copper doesn’t fare too well and is most definitely about to be killed until Tod joins the fight.
Keane talked about in an interview that he found the idea of this fox going against such insurmountable odds against a bear for a friend that had been attacking him only moments earlier extremely powerful.  I’m inclined to agree.  While Copper was the one who allowed himself to be influenced into thinking that Tod was his enemy, Tod never stopped thinking of Copper as his friend even after Copper attempted to kill him.  The fight almost kills Tod.

But it has a profound affect on Copper.  When he sees Tod limping through the water when all is said and done, the hound looks simply awestruck and humbled at what his childhood friend just did for him.  Slade, though, refuses to let things go and shows his gratitude to the fox for saving his life by pointing his gun at him.  Then comes the moment that makes the film as resonant as it when Copper steps in front of Tod and refuses to move.  The way that Copper and Slade look at one another is silent save for one whimper from Copper as though saying to his master, “enough.”  When Slade puts his gun down, he looks exhausted and maybe even slightly relieved.

I find it very difficult to simply write off Amos Slade as a villain because he isn’t really one.  He’s a lot like Aunt Sarah from Lady and the Tramp; he’s ignorant and reacts irrationally to things that he doesn’t understand.  I don’t exactly have sympathy for him, but I can’t really rank him as the villain of the film either.  Jack Albertson, as in Grandpa Joe of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory fame, voiced him very convincingly.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Widow Tweed, voiced by Jeanette Nolan.  If there was a character I became emotionally invested in, it was Widow Tweed.  She was such a loving albeit lonely woman and yet she could still hold her own against someone like Slade.  I loved it when she unloaded his rifle into his own radiator.  The love that she and Tod had for each other was palpable.  The only scene I found myself flat out bawling during was when she was taking Tod to live on the reserve.  The emotions in the scene just rang so true that it was gut wrenching for me to watch.
Tod is a character where it seems like bad things just happen to him.  He’s orphaned when he’s just a baby and chickens just seem to freak out when he’s around due to his state of fox-ness.  Yet Tod proves to be extremely loyal as he never gives up on the friendship that he shared with Copper.  Keith Coogan supplied his young voice, while his adult voice belonged to legendary actor Mickey Rooney.
On the hound side of the equation, we have the confused and conflicted Copper.  He’s adorable to watch as a puppy, even managing to win over Chief.  This is a really different take on a Disney dog.  In Lady and the Tramp and One Hundred and One Dalmatians the dog characters are portrayed as incredibly intelligent and independent.  Copper, though, is a more realistic take on a dog, because he becomes a product of his training and upbringing, much like a dog in real life.  He also is owner to one infamous and one famous voice: Corey Feldman (yes, that Corey Feldman) voiced Copper as a puppy, while Disney favorite Kurt Russell voiced him as a fully-grown dog.
There are some Disney voices returning in this film.  Pat Buttram provides the voice of Chief, and Paul Winchell gives a stuttering tough guy performance as Boomer.  Piglet himself, John Fiedler has a small role as the kind porcupine and Sandy Duncan, of The Cat from Outer Space fame, is the voice of Vixey.  All of these supporting characters did a fine job, but the one who managed to tie the story together was the kind owl, Big Mama, voiced beautifully by Pearl Bailey.  She managed to be both maternal and yet was willing to be honest, not hesitating when she told Tod that Copper was going to grow up to be a “killer.”  She also serves in the great Disney tradition of wise owl figures that stems back to Owl from Winnie the Pooh, Archimedes from The Sword in the Stone, and Friend Owl from Bambi
While watching the film, it’s impossible not to make comparisons to Bambi.  They are both thematically tied to the season/life cycle that was so extensively used in the earlier film.  Widow Tweed discovers Tod by her fence in summertime, the season of life thriving; Slade brings home Copper in the summertime.  Copper and Tod meet and become friends in the fall of the year, the season of change.  Copper goes off to learn how to be a hunting dog in the winter, the season of death, symbolizing the death of Tod and Copper’s friendship.  Tod and Copper are reunited and turned against each other in springtime.  During this time, Tod falls in love with Vixey, which makes sense because spring is associated with love.  After a number of harrowing encounters, Tod and Copper are reminded of why their friendship was so wonderful and are both reborn into better versions of themselves, as spring is the symbolic period of rebirth.  The film ends in the summer again, with both Tod and Copper and everyone they know and care about starting over with a new perspective.
To be honest, I came out of The Fox and the Hound with a new perspective too.  This was one of the few films that I was not looking forward to watching because all I took away from it on previous viewings was how sad a story it was.  After watching it now, it still is a sad story but it’s the kind of story everyone needs to hear.  It’s the first Disney animated film of the 1980’s, a decade that would provide one of the worst and one of the best films that Disney has to offer.


  1. This is one of those movies I'm never inclined to watch. I like young Tod and Copper, but then they grow up and it becomes slow and less interesting. I agree there's not quite a villain in the film, though Amos starts getting closer toward the end. The voice work of the leads is good and their story mostly works, but the other stuff does not. I HATE the songs in this film. They seem just random, mostly nonmelodic, and waste the talent of Pearl Bailey. The two birds and their humor as they go for the worm have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. They just don't fit in, and every time we'd cut back to them I'd get annoyed.

    The opening of the movie is stark. It feels a lot like a Don Bluth sort of opening. Bluth famously left the studio right around this time, and part of his problem was that there were story changes in this movie he didn't agree with. I don't know what those are, but I can take at least one guess. Chief should have died. The movie just doesn't work if he doesn't die. He's hit by a TRAIN, and he just gets a broken leg? Then Amos and Copper are all angry and vengeful at Tod for it. Their reaction just doesn't make any sense to me; it feels stronger than the event. I think the dynamic between Chief and Copper is interesting, but the story really demands he die. This isn't like Lady and the Tramp where it's the end of the movie and you can get away with it. It's a structural fulcrum to the story.

    There are good things in the film, but there's a lot I don't like about it and I feel like all attempts at softening it hurt it. I almost never watch it.

  2. Okay, I said before that I couldn't think of a Disney movie that I didn't like. I totally lied. I conveniently forgot about this one. I had only seen it once when I was little, but I was willing to pretend I hadn't and see if maybe I'd like it better now that I'm older. While there are more things I appreciate, and I may feel a little warmer towards it, this movie is officially my least favorite out of all the Disney movies I've ever seen.

    Maybe it's the fact that this one is pretty much a downer. I know the book was super depressing so they toned it down, but it still kind of depresses me.

    Not that it's completely horrible. The animation tends to be very beautiful and I've always thought young Todd was adorable. The scene where Widow Tweed had to give Tod up is very touching.

    However, there were way too many things that I didn't like. Once again, the plot was a bit of a downer. But I also agree that the two birds after the worm is kind of unnecessary. Plus, Vixey's voice kind of bugs me.

    So while there are some redeeming qualities, it still comes in at the bottom of my list.

    Though as a little side note, I had never heard Pearl Bailey's voice before. What a set of pipes!

  3. Tink, if you like Pearl Bailey's voice I recommend seeking out her version of Hello Dolly. Somewhere in the late '60s or so, there was an all-black staging of the musical with Pearl in the Dolly role and it blows the original soundtrack (and the movie) out of the water. It's tough to find, but if you can get ahold of it give a listen! She knocks stuff like "Before the Parade Passes By" out of the park. (my theater geek is showing)

  4. Oh, this was a sad one. Such a downer. Little Tod and Copper were such cuties, but there's an ominous undercurrent to this movie that I can't shake off. The scene with the shed full of skinned animals is macabre and the scene where Widow Tweed says good-bye to Tod is heartwrenching. But none of this is as heartwrenching as the thought of the puppy and the little fox who used to play together and swear to be friends forever battling to the death. The climax in the forest used to scare me. The ending seems very bittersweet even to this day--it's as if Tod and Copper reached an unspoken truce, and yet their peace is still so fragile.

    The ongoing "birds vs. worm" battle was irritating, especially the birds' voices--one with that wiseguy accent (he sounded like he should be running a numbers racket out of the back of a dry cleaner's somewhere) and the other sounded like a dimwit.

    I could never say I hated this film; there was plenty of good in there. Pearl Bailey has such a warm, lovable voice and the scenes with young Tod and Copper are adorable. I always chuckle when Copper snuggles up next to Chief, who looks freaked out at first, but eventually warms up to the little guy. But the end left me feeling down, something I'd never expect from Disney.