DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.
We’re getting close to the halfway point now in this mad fool’s quest to review every one of the Disney canon classics, so now is as good a time as any to make a confession.
I’m full of it. I’m a fake. A fraud. A charlatan.
I don’t know anything about animation.
I make it up as I go along.
Okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. What I mean is, I’m constantly learning as I do this. Every review I do, I’m basically sitting down to a movie I may not have seen for years (or in a few cases, never at all) and then researching on the fly. This means that a lot of my preconceptions of these movies are constantly getting blown apart, and it often feels like this one discrete group of films never runs out of ways to surprise me or to show me my own ignorance. That’s part of the fun. Take this week’s offering for example. I had this idea that the animation quality of the Disney movies declined terribly after Walt’s death, and wasn’t restored until the glorious Renaissance (praise to the great Renaissance!) of the late eighties/early nineties. I was convinced that pretty much every movie in the Mourning Era was an ungodly, poorly animated mess that wouldn’t pass muster in Soviet era Czechoslovakia.
So then, imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch The Fox and the Hound only to realise I was looking at some of the most beautiful animation in the canon since…honestly? Sleeping frickin’ Beauty. I’m not saying it’s on par with that, obviously. I’m just saying you have to go back that far before you come to a movie with better animation. It’s a thing to behold. It becomes a little less surprising when you realise who was working on it though. Wolfgang Reitherman, who directed Sleeping Beauty and all of the Scratchy Era movies produced this film, his last for Disney before retiring. On animation duty were the last of the Nine Old Men; Ollie Johnston & Frank Thomas and a whole host of long time Disney veterans. But you also had the new generation of Disney animators which today reads like a “Holy Shit!” list of animation greats; Don Bluth, Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Glen Keane and Brad Bird.
“So” I hear you say “with such a dream team of animators working on it, this must be a fantastic movie right?”
No. No. It’s really not. It’s kind of a hot mess. Part of the problem might be the source material. The Fox and the Hound, a 1967 novel by Daniel Mannix, doesn’t exactly scream “Disney”.
It screams “MISERY!” in case you were wondering. I don’t mean that it’s dark. Disney can do “dark”.
But “dark” isn’t the same as “bleak”. Disney does not do bleak. Disney does not do sad endings. A Disney movie will never leave an audience feeling worse about the world and their place in it than when they came into the cinema. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with hope. There’s nothing wrong with optimism. Depressing people is easy. People are naturally pessimistic (we’d scarcely have survived this long if we always expected everything to be fine) and we’re uniquely receptive to anyone who’ll tell us that everything is fucked. One of the hardest things in art is to create something beautiful and uplifting.
Now, I haven’t read Mannix’s book (I don’t think it’s in print over here) so I’m just working off the various synopses I’ve found online. This is IMDB’s description of the book’s plot:
“Almost every aspect from the novel was either changed or eliminated entirely. Tod had two vixens that he mates and has cubs with, all of whom are killed by the hunter, Tod intentionally kills The Chief by jumping out of the way of an oncoming train, Tod dies from exhaustion while being chased by Copper, the hunter was an old drunk and the novel ends with the hunter being sent to a retirement home and because dogs aren’t allowed he’s forced to shoot Copper.”
Yeah. It lacks cheer, is what I’m trying to say. Also, it has a body count that makes Hamlet look like Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Also, Samuel Beckett once read it and burst into tears. To this day, it’s not clear if Mannix wrote a novel or a suicide note with some unusually detailed metaphors. Clearly, a faithful adaptation of this book would be totally different from anything Disney had done before.
And there’s the problem. During the course of making this movie, there was a schism between those who wanted to follow the old Disney formula, and those who wanted to stick closer to the book and create a film radically different from the studio’s previous works. The conservatives, those who wanted to make just another Disney movie, were led by director Art Stevens whereas Wolfgang Reitherman (who had been directing and animating those movies since Pinocchio) was in favour of hewing closer to the book. Stevens pretty much won this battle, and the dispute ultimately led to Don Bluth deciding that Disney was a spent force creatively. Turning against his old masters, Bluth rebelled and left with around a fifth of the animators to found Don Bluth Studios.
So what happened when the bleak, nihilist vision of Daniel Mannix met the sunshiney kingdom of the House of Mouse?
Let’s take a look.
The opening credits are gorgeous. No music at first, just forest sounds and the wind as we pan over lush, beautifully painted forest backdrops. Then, slowly, the score starts to come through. Melancholy and sinister, it sets the tone beautifully. Already, this movie’s big influence is crystal clear. This film owes a big debt to Bambi.
We see a mother fox running through the forest with a tiny cub in her mouth being chased by dogs. She hides the cub behind a fence and then runs off. We hear a gunshot and, since we never see her again, can assume she…escaped and went to live on a nice farm. As for the fox cub…
The cub is actually rescued by Big Mama, a friendly horned owl played by the great Pearl Bailey.
Big Mama enlists the help of Boomer the woodpecker (voiced by Tigger’s voice actor Paul Winchell) and Dicky the dickybird (Richard Bakalyan) to get the fox cub noticed by Widow Tweed, the kindly farmer who lives nearby. Tweed takes the cub in and names him “Tod”.
Meanwhile, next door, a hunter named Amos Slade arrives home and greets his dog, Chief, voiced by Pat Buttram.
Amos tells Chief he’s got a surprise for him and Chief thinks it’s lunch. Instead, it turns out to be nothin’ but a hound dog. Which could still be lunch, but only in Korea. Anyway, Amos tells Chief he’s got to look after the pup, who’s named Copper.
One day, Tod and Copper meet in the forest and quickly become friends. Big Mama watches from a tree as they play hide and seek and sings Best of Friends. Pearl Bailey does her best with it, but this song is pretty bad. It’s the kind of bland, smaltzy lyrics that you get in a lot of animated movies in the eighties.
The next day, Tod comes to visit Copper on Slade’s farm. Things go south quickly when Chief wakes up and chases Tod into the chicken pen. Slade thinks Tod’s trying to eat his chickens and things…escalate…and before you know it Slade is chasing Tod down the road in his car with his shotgun looking to Tupac his furry ass.
Tod jumps into Widow Tweed’s car as she starts out on her milk run and Slade opens fire on her. That turns out to be a mistake. Widow Tweed stops the car, grabs Slade’s gun off him and shoots up his car.
Yeah. I’m thinking the last time a man pulled a gun on Widow Tweed, she was still Mrs Tweed. For about five more seconds. Slade, not realising that he has fucked with the wrong broad and that he’s really lucky to have escaped with his moustache intact, tells Widow Tweed that if Tod comes near his farm again he’ll shoot him and that “this time I won’t miss.”
Amos takes Copper and Chief up to the mountains to teach Copper how to hunt. Tod’s sad to see him go, but Big Momma flies down and tells him that when Tod comes back he’ll be his enemy. She does this with the…song? Lack of Education. I put the question mark there because I’m not even entirely sure you can call it a song. It’s a weird hybrid, half spoken, half sung thing and it’s near the top of my list of the worst Disney songs I’ve ever heard.
And what’s worse, movie…you wasted your Pearl Bailey. You had Pearl, and you let her go to waste. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive you for that. Here, listen to her cover of Big Spender. Does that sound like a woman whose talents were put to good use in this movie? No, it does not.
Tod says that Copper will never change and that they’ll always be friends forever. Big Mama doesn’t actually call him a dumbass to his face, but you call tell she’s thinking it really hard (or maybe that’s just Pearl thinking about her agent).
Time passes, and a harsh winter settles on the farm. It’s so cold that it starts to have a rather strange effect on the local wildlife.
Tod’s lonely without Copper, and he’s only too glad when spring rolls around and Amos, Chief and Copper return home. But Copper has changed.
Copper is now a fully trained hunting dog, and voiced by Kurt Russell to boot so you know he’s not to be fucked with. Poor Tod on the other hand is still an innocent domesticated fox voiced by…
Okay, I am shortly going to bash the ever loving shit out of this movie. Seriously. This movie is Apollo Creed and I’m Ivan Drago. If it dies, it dies. So let me take a few minutes to praise something I really like about this movie. It takes its time. It’s not afraid of quiet scenes and the characters have a lot more depth than in most Disney movies. And this scene where Tod and Copper meet again is quite beautifully played. Tod just wants to know that they can still be friends. Copper is obviously glad to see him, but warns him to stay away so that he won’t get hurt.
And I don’t normally try and read subtext into Disney movies. I think for the most part Disney is like Shakespeare, it’s all there in the text. But yeah, it really does work as an allegory for a gay relationship. In fact, I’m calling it. Tod and Copper are my third favorite gay Disney couple.
But their tender reunion is interrupted by
the forces of heternormative oppression Chief, who wakes up and charges Tod. Well, that’s more than even the number one box-office draw from 1939 to 1940 (spanning two decades) can handle, so Tod runs off with Slade, Chief and a reluctant Copper in hot pursuit. Copper finds Tod but says that he’ll let him go this one time.
Tod tries to make good his escape but he gets ambushed by Chief who chases him on to some train tracks on a bridge over a river. Now. This is a cartoon. And they’re on traintracks. So what mode of transportation absolutely has to appear within the next minute?
Okay, so it’s around here that the movie slips on the soap in the bathroom of stupid and goes head first down the marble stairs of idiocy, hitting it’s head on every step before rolling to a halt, bleeding, comatose, naked and wet in the hallway of too-damn-dumb-to-live. As Copper and Slade watch in horror the train tears towards Chief and Tod.
(NOTE: Mr Rooney, if you’re reading this then I must apologise that the only references from your nearly ninety years in the business are from a single episode of The Simpsons. This, unfortunately, is how my wretched generation rolls. Forgive me.)
Tod manages to avoid the train by…
Tod manages to avoid the train but Chief gets hit and knocked clean off the bridge. And yes, he gets knocked off by the train. He doesn’t jump. Remember that. He falls a good, oh, sixty feet. On to a rock. Copper finds his lifeless body and sees Tod looking down from the bridge. And Copper…goes nuts. Honestly, that’s the only logical explanation.
Copper yells at Tod that he’ll get him for “this” if it’s the last thing he does.
Look, you can argue he’s distraught or upset or whatever and…fine. I guess. But this isn’t just a momentary thing. This is the major inciting incident of the movie. Copper spends the rest of the movie tracking Tod for the sake of vengeance and it just doesn’t make logical sense. How is this Tod’s fault? There is literally no way even the most grief-stricken brain could blame Tod for this, and certainly not days after the fact when he’s had a chance to think things through. Now, in the book pretty much the same thing happens but with some key differences.
1) Tod in the book is not voiced by Mickey Rooney and so is free to be kind of a dick. He deliberately taunts Chief repeatedly by going near him but outside of the range of his leash until Chief goes berserk, snaps the rope and tears after him.
2) It’s implied that Tod deliberately lures Chief onto the train tracks rather than being chased there by Chief as in the movie.
3) The animals in the novel don’t talk and behave far more like real animals, without the human level of communication and understanding they have in the book. So it’s more believable for Copper to develop a hatred of Tod for causing Chief’s death.
But yeah. This is my big problem with the movie. The central conflict just doesn’t make sense.
Well anyway. Widow Tweed finds Tod in the forest but realises that it’s just too dangerous to keep him on the farm. So she drives him way out into the forest, and is forced to abandon the closest thing she has to a child so that he at least has a chance of survival wait just a damn minute here!
Okay, in fairness, parental abandonment scenes can be absolutely brutal and they don’t milk it too much here. They milk it. Yes. But it’s bearable. Just about.
She leaves Tod in the forest and he’s left with nothing to do but take shelter from the rain and watch the recycled animated squirrels from Sword in the Stone as they leap cost-effectively from tree to tree.
Tod tries to find a place to stay and ends up shacking up with a rather friendly porcupine voiced by John Fiedler (Piglet in Winnie the Pooh). In fact, he’s maybe a little too friendly. Not that I’m judging, Tod. I too have been a homeless teenager lost in the big world. The Unshaved Mouse knows that a bed is a bed.
Back at Slade’s farm, Amos and Copper see Widow Tweed driving home and Slade figures out that she’s left Tod in the game preserve and he tells Copper that they’ll get him. Because Amos Slade also thinks that Tod was driving the train and has gone into full Captain Ahab mode.
They go back into the cabin where Chief is wait…WHAT THE CLOSE UP MOUTH WHORE FUCK!!!!???
HE’S STILL ALIVE?
HE’S STILL FUCKING ALIVE…
NO! NO! NO!
YOU DO NOT GET TO DO THAT MOVIE! HE WAS HIT BY A FUCKING TRAIN (and I cannot believe I have to even finish this sentence) AND THEN HE FELL SIXTY FUCKING FEET OFF THE DAMN BRIDGE!
ON! TO! A! ROCK!
HE’S DEAD! HE IS NO MORE! HE HAS CEASED TO BE! HE HAS RUN UP THE CURTAIN AND BEEN SENT TO THE DOG POUND INVISIBLE! HE’S BOUGHT THE FARM! HE’S POPPED HIS CLOGS! HE’S CHEWED HIS LAST SLIPPERS! IF EVERY BONE IN HIS BODY HADN’T BEEN MUSHED TO JELLY HE’D BE PUSHING UP THE DAISIES! HE’S A STIFF! HIS METABOLIC PROCESSES ARE NO MORE! BEREFT OF LIFE HE RESTS IN PEACE!
THIS IS AN EX-DOG!!!
You know what? I take it back. THIS is the moment where the movie completely goes off the rails. And they knew it too. This was the major point of contention during the creation of the film. Some of the crew thought that killing off a major character would be too traumatic for the poor lickle children in the audience, while others felt that the poor lickle children might actually like a film that made a lick of goddamn narrative sense.
There is so much wrong with this, I mean…
Let’s leave aside the question of where Amos Slade got a dog that can survive being HIT BY A TRAIN…
Sorry, sorry. I’ll try to keep calm. Fuck it. Maybe Slade found Chief in a rocket ship.
Okay, it’s utterly stupid, but I’ll let it go. But ask yourselves. What possible motivation do Amos and Copper now have for hunting Tod? They didn’t have one before, sure, but if we stuck our fingers in our ears and hummed really loudly we could pretend they did. But now? They’re trying to avenge the death of someone WHO’S STILL ALIVE! And it’s not like he’s been crippled for life! He’s got a cast on his leg for Christ’s sake!
You put a cast on someone’s leg when there’s an expectation that it will heal. He’s going to be fine! Copper has sworn vendetta on Tod for mildly inconveniencing his near indestructible Kryptonian buddy.
Now, you may remember that I had no problem with the fact that they decided not to kill off Trusty in Lady and the Tramp. But that was different. That was near the end of the movie and it was done so as not to sour the happy resolution. The reveal that Chief is still alive happens halfway through and it is not a small problem. This is a fundamental flaw in the core relationship of the movie, namely that it now makes no goddamn sense. Oh, and to make it worse, when Chief comes looking for some sympathy Amos tells him to get back inside before he breaks his other leg.
So…it’s only bad when Tod does it? Hell, it’s only bad when Tod happens to be in the same place where some random guy in a train does it?
Amos Slade? I hate you. I would piss on you if you were on fire, but only the parts that weren’t burning.
Sigh. Okay. In the game preserve, Big Mama flies over to the game preserve to check up on Tod. Instead, she meets up with Vixey, a young female fox.
Disney universe rules state that there can only ever be two foxes in existence at any one time (they’re kinda like Sith), so Vixey is obviously very interested to hear that there’s a young male fox about her age in the area. Big Mama offers to set them up if Vixey will help her look. Because she’s got a little motto, it always sees her through. If you’re good to Mama, she’ll be good to you.
Meanwhile in the porcupine’s lair…
Okay, you know what? I’m just going to show you the scene as it happens and let you be the judge.
Bed’s a bed Tod. No one’s judging you. Although the fact that you don’t remember makes me very suspicious of this porcupine. He and Tod will not be making my list of favorite Disney gay couples.
Big Mama flies down and asks Tod if he had a good night and he’s all “What? Who talked? What have you heard?!” but she introduces him to Vixey. He tries to impress her by showing how well he can fish but he ends up making an ass of himself.
Vixey can’t help laughing at him and Tod loses his temper and calls her a “silly, empty headed female”.
Thankfully, Vixey doesn’t take that kind of shit and tells him to screw off. Big Mama tells Tod that he can’t talk to Vixey that way and Tod sighs “Aw raspberries.” because he’s a nineteen forties card sharp dressed as a fox as part of some elaborate con to beat the Vegas house. Big Mama smooths things over by singing Appreciate the Lady, the best song in the movie which means pretty much jack shit. It’s pleasant enough to listen to, but the lyrics are just insultingly basic. God, I miss the Shermans.
Anyway, Tod and Vixey settle down together and everything is just groovy. But then…
Dun! Dun! Dun!
Slade and Copper arrive the forest on a mission of stupid, stupid vengeance. Copper finds Tod’s path to the lake, and Slade sets a shit ton of traps for him, saying “Amos you old coot, the devil himself couldn’t have done it better!”
Tod and Vixey manage to avoid the traps, but cornered in their den by Copper and Amos and fair is fair, it’s a tense and exciting scene. They escape out the back entrance and make for the waterfall with Copper and Amos close behind.
Okay movie. I’ve put up with your stupidity long enough. C’mon. Give me something. Something to justify your existence. You’re a Disney movie! Give me just one solitary moment of awesome! YOU CAN DO IT BOY!
Alright, it’s completely out of left field and it’s kind of a deus ex machina but I don’t care. A goddamn bear has just appeared in this movie and it’s kicking ass, chewing gum and taking names and it’s all out of gum and names and ass which leaves only AWESOME.
The bear attacks Amos and he shoots it but that only makes him mad. Seriously, even the bear can’t believe how stupid that was.
Amos gets pimp slapped down the mountain and gets his foot trapped in one of the traps and the bear moves in to finish him off. Copper tries to save Amos and attacks the bear and this is just such a frickin’ amazing fight scene I feel like I’m suddenly watching a different movie. I love this fucking bear!
Anyway, Copper gets whalloped by the bear and it looks like it’s all over. What? Chief can take a train to the nuts and walk it off but you get hit by a bear and suddenly you come over all weak-kneed? You suck, Copper. But then Tod arrives in the nick of time and distracts the bear, leading him up to the waterfall. The bear lunges and they both go over the falls.
Of course, waterfalls are morally selective. Lethal to villains, but totally harmless to heroes. So unfortunately, the bear is now dead. Rest in peace.
Well, maybe not totally harmless to heroes. Tod washes up on the shore, battered and barely able to move. Copper finds him, and is followed by Amos. Amos takes aim at Tod, but Copper stands between them, refusing to let Amos shoot his friend. It’s a powerful moment, well done, and you will get no snark from me.
Amos, probably realising just what an asshat he’s been, finally gets the message and leaves Tod alone and he and Copper head home.
Back at the farm, the movie closes with Widow Tweed and Amos having mended their fences as she tends to his injured foot over his protestations. Chief notes that he’s making a lot of a fuss over a little injured foot and…yeah, I think he’s earned the right to say that.
The last shot is of Tod looking out over the farm, while the memory of his promise Copper that they’d be friends forever echoes in his mind.
My God, such an improvement over The Rescuers. Clean movements, very little scratchiness, some of the most beautiful backgrounds we’ve seen since the Restoration ended and some very, very nice character animation.
The Leads: 15/20
Young Tod and Copper are genuinely adorable. And more time is given to developing the relationship of the two leads than we usually get.
The Villain: 04/20
Amos Slade would be boring if he wasn’t so poorly motivated, petty, completely unthreatening and all around pathetic.
Supporting Characters: 13/20
Dinky and Boomer are fun, but Pearl Bailey is wasted as Big Mama. A mixed bag all in all.
The Music: 05/20
These songs honestly would not feel out of place in a Care Bears movie. There, I said it.
FINAL SCORE: 53%
NEXT WEEK: The game’s afoot! Join the Unshaved Mouse as he reviews Basil the Great Mouse Detective…
What? That nameless terror crawling out of the very core of the earth itself, cutting through me like a winter’s frost? Yeah, what’s up with that?
The Black Cauldron? I’ve never heard of it.
God, you’re an asshole. Walt, are you going to tell me what’s going on?
Well I don’t know, I think the overall quality may have gone down but there were still some very good films in between…
What are you?
NEXT UPDATE: 21 March 2013