Disney By the Numbers: The Fox and the Hound (1981)

One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.

This is Disney By The Numbers.

thefoxandthehound


 

This is the story of an unresolvable conflict, much like the Civil War or any time I played ‘Risk’ with my siblings. It has everything you look for in a good story: In-fighting, betrayal… retirements… prepositional phrases!

The Fox And The Hound, as you probably know, is about the unlikely friendship and conflict between a fox and a hound… natural enemies…. much like cats and dogs, or elephants and mice… or… brothers and sisters… or

thefoxandthehoundsimpsons

Wait… what was I talking about again? Oh right… The Fox And The Hound.

Oddly enough, the conflict between the characters,  reflected a very real conflict brewing in the walls of the Disney Animation Studio. A transition was under way and a war was coming. A war that the men in charge didn’t even realize was happening until the shots were fired.

Did any of this conflict bleed over into the finished product? I mean, I’m sure we could look at the numbers, but they probably don’t give us any answers.

Spoiler: They do.

 

Storytelling

  • Theme 2
  • Tightness of Script 1.5
  • Dialogue 1
  • Use of Comedy 1
  • Use of Drama 1.5

Go with me here… but in Denny O’Neil’s (RIP) 2001 book The DC Comic’s Guide To Writing Comics

thefoxandthehoundcomics
This one.

The famed comic writer talks about the complicated process of  a comic book’s journey from a written script to a drawn page. One of the trials he speaks of is the frustration of being saddled with an artist whose style doesn’t reflect the text. Someone who draws primarily stick figures would be ill-suited to draw a comic book adaptation of  War and Peace, just like an artist who draws grim, gritty violence wouldn’t fit with something silly like Calvin and Hobbs.

thefoxandthehoundcalvin
Okay- this second one is a bad example.

O’Neil specifically likens this to something akin to a piece of string quartet music being played by a tuba. The written music might be good and tubas are great instruments, but they’re just not right for each other.

What does this have to do with Disney’s The Fox And The Hound?

Well… because they really sort of pulled the same thing. The Fox And The Hound novel not only hardly resembles the film that Disney made, it’s a book that’s so relentlessly dark that it sort of baffles the mind that anyone read it and thought it would make a good Disney film.

But Ron Miller wasn’t just anyone…

thefoxandthehoundmiller
“Don’t worry Walt, when I’m CEO after your untimely demise, I’ll drive your company into the ground by adapting a book about animal infanticide, caninicide, human child homocide, and the cruel, relentless, unyielding, inevitability of death. “

Needless to say, the path to adapting such dark source material led to divisions amongst the writers and artists at the studio. A division that largely fell along the lines of the old guard that had been around since Walt was in charge, and the new kids that wanted to make their mark in animation.

This is evident throughout the entire movie, but nowhere more than here

thefoxandthehoundchief
When you wish upon a starrr!

In the book,  Chief is mowed down by the train and it serves as the reason Copper wants to kill Tod so much. In the movie Chief jumps and… hurts his leg… so that’s the reason why Copper and Tod are now mortal enemies.

In spite of the compromises made, in spite of completely altering the story from one where Copper and Tod are life long rivals, to friends that get torn apart… the movie still feels relentlessly gloomy. Oh sure, there’s a few sweet scenes where we get to see the kids pal around… but even those are tinged with melancholy and foreboding.

Case in point, Bambi is considered a darker Disney movie because sandwiched between all the cute animal shenanigans, Bambi’s mother is shot. The Fox And The Hound? That’s how that film opens. It’s a message that, from the get-go, we shouldn’t be expecting the typical Disney fare.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are other Disney films that are generally well-regarded that have similarly dark themes and moods, but they work because the follow the 80s kids film formula which goes as follows: You can subject a 7 year old to any level of trauma in a story as long as there’s a happy ending.

For examples see: Goonies, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Gremlins, The Secret of Nymh, An American Tale, Return to Oz, Transformers: The Movie and almost everything Spielberg did from 1981 to 1993.

The problem here is that The Fox And The Hound doesn’t follow that formula. It opens with matricide and then has an ending that is, at best, melancholy… It leaves the audience feeling unfulfilled at best. Which brings us to our last point… and that would be the themes of the movie.

The Fox And The Hound ponders the question of whether two people from different backgrounds can see past their differences be friends. It’s an obvious metaphor for racism. Disney has tackled racism in their films to great effect, particularly in Zootopia. But here’s the difference. Zootopia ends with everyone at dance party, affirming that while it may take a great deal of work, our prejudices can be overcome. The Fox And The Hound? Well, in the end, after Copper and Tod have been at each other’s throats for the last quarter of the film, they put their differences aside and save each other’s lives… which might make you think that the conclusion will be that two creatures that the world says must hate each other truly can be friends?

thefoxandthehoundending
Turns out not so much.

 

The film truly ends with Copper and Tod basically agreeing to stay away from each other. Tod is where he belongs in the forest with his kind and Copper is on the farm with his.

At worst, The Fox And The Hound delivers the message that some differences are just too great a gulf to cross.  At best, the message is that people from different backgrounds can get along… as long as they stay separate.

I don’t necessarily know that they intended for these to be the messages, but it sure feels like it. So while it does create your atypical Disney ending that some might even call deep, it also comes across as unsatisfying and having a message that just hasn’t aged well.

Total: 7/15

Music

  • Lyrics 1.5
  • Score 2
  • Number of Songs 1
  • Notoriety of Songs 1

Hey! Speaking of not aging well!

Okay, I’m being a little mean here, because by far, the worst aspects of this movie are in the story section and I don’t want to downplay the contributions of the fantastic Pearl Bailey.

thefoxandthehoundpearl
Music Legend, Disney Legend, Animated Owl.

Unfortunately, the problem with the music in this film is that Pearl Bailey is the only contributor. She sings all the songs, and while her voice is lovely, charming, and powerful, the distance it creates a separation between the the music, the characters, and the situations they’re in. It winds up feeling like we’re being told through music what to feel, rather than letting the music show us how the characters are feeling.

And just to, again, touch on how the source material is ill fit for a Disney film… it’s weird that there’s an entire song about how Copper is going to kill Tod. The film is just a bit obsessed with its central conflict. Even in the most memorable, saccharine song, “Best of Friends”, it takes an aside to basically tell the audience that Copper and Tod’s friendship can’t last.  It all sort of contributes to this film being a bit of a downer.

That said, this is still better than say, The Rescuers or our next film, The Black Cauldron, where there’s no music at all. But it is just much less than it could have been, and as great as Pearl is, below the standard for a Disney classic.

 

Total 5.5/15

Animation

  • Fluidity of Animation 2
  • Use Of Color 2
  • House Style 2
  • Character Design 1
  • Breaks New Ground 0.5

Alright, this one is a bit of a mixed bag. Let’s break down the good here.

At the time of release, The Fox And The Hound is easily the best looking film Disney produced since Sleeping Beauty.

The animators managed to pull together and make a beautiful looking film, in spite of their disagreements as to how the story should unfold. A rift that had formed between the old animators and the new up-and-comers. The old guard obviously won out and the young either had to content themselves with waiting for their time to shine or follow the young, 40 year old maverick Don Bluth.

Don Bluth, circa 1982
The face of a man with a devil-may-care attitude that don’t take guff from no man in a suit!

He was unhappy with the direction of Disney Animation at the time and along with 13 other animators, submitted his resignation to Ron Miller so he could form his own animation company.

This left Disney to scramble to fill the holes left, not only with Bluth’s stunt, but also the fact that the last of the Legendary 9 Old Men were retiring.

So, when it comes to the finished product… most of the film looks surprisingly good! In fact, of this era, it probably is the best looking. The lines from the xerography aren’t apparent like they were in previous films like The Rescuers or The Aristocats, and the characters move in a completely natural way.

On the other hand, there are numerous times when the characters almost look like they’re standing in front of a green screen. Obviously, the background of a given scene is first painted and then the characters are animated separately and superimposed onto it. This has been how animation has pretty much always worked. But something about The Fox And The Hound… the characters sometimes don’t look like they’ve blended into the shot  and it can be distracting.

But don’t let that bit of criticism fool you. This is still a massive step up from what we had before and beginning to approach Disney’s once and future greatness.

Total 8.5/10

Love Story

  • Character Interaction 3
  • Importance To Overall Plot 3
  • Complexity 2
  • Pulls At Heartstrings 1.5
  • Overcomes Obstacles 1.5

When people remember this movie, when they get nostalgic about this movie,  it’s pretty much just the first half they’re thinking of. The cute, cuddly part where Copper and Tod are becoming friends and playing together.

thefoxandthehoundfriends
Ain’t they precious?

It’s the heart of the movie, and Disney knows it. In fact, when they decided to make a direct to sequel video (of course there’s a sequel), do you think they based it on adult Copper and Tod mending their differences and maybe introducing their kits and pups to each other?

Nope. It’s an in-between-quel where they’re still adorable kids and Copper joins an all dog country music band….

thefoxandthehound2
Look, nobody ever accused Disney sequels of actually being good

 

Why is this important?

Because for as important as this section is to the movie… it’s also not that long. While rewatching it, I was struck by how briefly young Copper and Tod interact. They essentially hang out twice. And we the audience barely get to enjoy it because both times, in spite of how cute it is, someone, whether it be Pearl Bailey’s Big Mama, or another character is there to remind us that someday they’re going to try and kill each other.

And then before you even know it, they’re grown up and the movie wastes no time in trying to get that to happen. It doesn’t even take Chief not dying to flip Copper over the edge. Even before that happens, Copper tracks down Tod and says he’s going to let him go Just this once“.

So let’s get this straight; this movie, about two best friends, has one friend telling the other that he won’t kill him as a one time deal.

So all I’m really saying, is that if you’re looking for a couple of Disney Best Friends…

toystory
These guys are probably your best bet.

Total: 11/15

Hero

  • Sidekick 2
  • Charm 1
  • Goodness 1
  • Emotional Transformation 1
  • Comedy 1

With the title of “The Fox and the Hound.”  we have two obvious candidates for our main character. But my wife and I quickly settled in on Tod for that spot. Copper is great and frankly, the more adorable of the two as a kid. But he’s also much more reactionary. Tod is the one that drives the plot through most the movie, while Copper also spends the latter part of it as an antagonist.

So it makes sense that Tod is our hero.

But Tod is… well he’s fine. He’s just fine.

As far as Disney heroes goes, he’s generally affable and good-natured. He’s a cute kid and as an adult he’s voiced by none other than Mickey Rooney so he’s got that going for him. Although Copper is voiced by Kurt Russell so…

thefoxandthehoundsnake
Like this, but animated

But Tod is no Snake Plissken. He’s not even an  Aladdin, or Basil of Baker Street, or Ariel. He’s not topping a lot of people’s lists of best Disney protagonists. He’s not even the top Disney Fox. He’s competing with freaking Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and Nick Wilde

thefoxandthehoundfoxy
That said, he’s definitely not the worst Disney fox.

Total: 6/10

Villain

  • Evilness 1.5
  • Comedy 0.5
  • Sophistication 0
  • Henchmen 1
  • Poses A Threat 1.5

They say that a hero is only as good as his villain.

Well meet the exception to the rule. Amos Slade, hunter, Copper’s owner, and just an all around ‘meh’ of a villain. While Tod won’t top hero lists, he could still likely fall in the middle.

Slade? Oh, he’s clear at the bottom. Like… maybe slightly above Edgar of The Aristocats .

He’s not particularly evil, or bright, or charming. He just is a trigger happy old codger that hates foxes and has no concept of boundaries or property rights. I mean, yeah, if we met him in real life we probably wouldn’t like the guy, but we also wouldn’t really put him in amongst the likes of Maleficent, Jafar, or Scar.

That said, as I was watching this film… any time he spoke I couldn’t help but feel like I recognized the voice. And then it hit me where I’d heard that entitled, judgmental, gravely whine before…

thefoxandthehoundgrandpajoe
Like this but animated… and not the worst like Grandpa Joe here is.

That’s right. Amos Slade is voiced by the worst villain in cinematic history! The guy that single-handedly made us root for Wonka to kick Charlie out of the Chocolate Factory while the Oompa Loompas sang a song about ditching your crappy relatives.

When I realized this, I immediately wanted to not only bump Amos up to full marks in the villain category… I wanted to give him bonus points in villainy! But luckily my wife was able to talk me down from not only unfairly judging this character, but also from burning all the candy we had in the house.

(That said, I’m don’t want to disparage Jack Alberston who lent his voice to Amos and did an amazing job in spite of dying of cancer at the time. Grandpa Joe was just written to be horrible and he did his job as an actor.)

Total: 4.5/10

Supporting Characters

  • Comedy 0.5
  • Inventiveness 0.5
  • Clear Help Or Hindrance 1
  • Strength of Relationship with Main Character 1

I’ve already gone out of my way to praise Pearl Bailey’s Big Mama, and mentioned a few of the other side characters in passing. But I’m not entirely sure there’s much more to talk about. The other wild animals don’t really add much besides give a warning to Tod about Copper and involving us in an entirely time wasting subplot of two birds trying to hunt a caterpillar. By itself, it’s harmless but it literally contributes nothing to the over all narrative. You could cut it and not miss a thing.

The same goes for Tod’s romance with a girl vixen named… uh… Vixey and is voiced by Sandy Duncan…

melodytimesandyduncan
Who’s personal contributions to the Disney company are waaaaay more interesting than this movie.

Tod having a love interest allows for a Pearl Bailey number but it’s not like Tod talks to her about his feelings of being abandoned by the Widow Tweed or losing Copper as a friend. Nope, she’d just there to be a girlfriend, be in momentary peril in the final chase and… stand with Tod for the final shot of the movie.

So in this regard, The Fox And The Hound stands out among Disney films as the supporting cast doesn’t really do much to contribute to the over all score. I mean, they don’t actively take away from it like some others, but they don’t really help either.

Total: 3/10

Disney Magic and Legacy

  • Theme Park Presence 0
  • Timelessness 0
  • Impact On Culture 0
  • Scope of Audience 1
  • Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 0

I was never a bully in school.

I know, you’re shocked to learn that the guy who writes reviews of Disney movies was the guy getting stuffed into lockers and not the other way around. But I can imagine that it might get a bit exhausting for a bully to be hitting a kid for too long. After a while I imagine it’s just not that much fun.

That’s kind of what I feel like with this movie. Yeah, there’s plenty for me to mark it down for… but it’s almost to the point where I feel like I’m being cruel. And I don’t even actually hate this movie. I almost even have nostalgia for it because I remember liking it as a kid. Sue me, I had a soft spot for cuddly animals and best friends.

But as much as I want to be nice to it, this film just doesn’t really earn points in this category. You can’t see Copper and Tod characters in the parks, even when they break out the really obscure characters for the parades. Most people remember this movie but very few would call it a favorite. It’s messages seem really dated as does the music and… yeah, it can make you cry… but not in the Disney feels kind of way. More in the… why is the world so cruel? …Kind of way.

This isn’t to say that this movie left zero legacy. It’s just… none of it is on the screen or in the parks. But the behind the scenes footprint of this movie is massive! And while this is probably the most appropriate place to talk about that… I want to end on a positive note so we’ll end with it.

Total: 1/10


Grand Total: 46.5

I’ve made a point of talking about the conflict in the studio surrounding this film. Don Bluth, of course left the studio with this film and that will actually be further addressed in an upcoming review. But there’s also a bit more to tell.

Because while The Fox And Hound is where Disney’s old guard and retired,  and the new kids on the block (the animators, not the 90’s boy band) remained to finish the film. And many of them stayed with the company and blazed the way for the Disney Renaissance. The list of animators who remained to work on The Fox And The Hound is a veritable who’s who of the Disney Renaissance. Names like John Lasseter, John Musker, Ron Clements, Glen Keane, Brad Bird, and even Tim Burton all came out of this movie as Disney’s primary talent.

theavengers
Like this… but pasty-looking white dudes with pencils, mustaches and bad fashion senses.

This isn’t to say that everything these guys, who would forge some of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time, would be a masterpiece. Much like the Avengers, things would get really messy, complicated, and sad before they were able to pull themselves together and be amazing. Because while The Fox And The Hound was a decent if flawed film, things would get worse before they would get better.

theblackcauldron
Much. Much. Worse.

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