Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXXI: Neither one of you sees your natural boundaries


THE FOX AND THE HOUND

1981
Directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich, and Art Stevens

Spoiler alert: man, that bear came out of nowhere, huh?


You know, for a Disney cartoon, The Fox and the Hound is a stone-cold bummer.  Other than Make Mine Music and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (though package films don't really count) and, I suppose, Pocahontas, it's the only Disney feature that comes with anything like an unhappy ending.

Yet The Fox and the Hound's ending is profoundly unhappy.  Its ending is less unhappy than its beginning (or its middle), but even a child will recognize that it's still very sad, and that all that its heroes ever accomplish over the course of their film is a single moment of moral clarity, and, with it, mere survival.  As for the evils which oppressed them, they did not defeat them; and so the extremely sour prospect of being good while the world stays bad is as close as The Fox and the Hound ever gets to a neat little bow.  In the end, even our heroes' unlikely friendship, the one suggested by the title (and rather more than suggested by a shamefully mawkish song), is still dead, and the film mourns its passing—unmistakably implying in its final shot that even though our fox protagonist will probably be okay, as far as a semi-domesticated animal exiled to the wilderness can be "okay," he has nonetheless lost forever the two creatures who loved him during his childhood.  At best, he might occasionally spy them from afar, but he will almost certainly never interact with them again.  And if this bums you out, God, don't look at the source novel to discover how it ended, because as far as I can determine Daniel Mannix's The Fox and the Hound is Bambi, a Life In the Woods, but for nihilists.

And, yeah: might as well do that immediately, for while it's senseless to discuss The Fox and the Hound without mentioning Bambi, I mention it now with purpose—because whatever problems The Fox and the Hound has (and it has many), when it's genuinely working (and it often is), there's a sense of artistry and ambition to it that hadn't been tapped by Disney for decades, not since the days when Bambi and things like Bambi were still considered possible.  Maybe it's just a good rule for Disney: when inspiration runs low, look to the North American forest, and something rejuvenating will come out of it.  It worked for Bambi, it worked for Fun and Fancy Free, and it worked here (though it stopped working pretty suddenly with Brother Bear).  In any case, the artistry and ambition I mentioned is on display the very instant the Buena Vista logo disappears and the film starts.  Here, The Fox and the Hound begins with unprecedented austerity, as we enter a realm that slowly reveals itself as a gloomy Appalachian woodland.  For several minutes, we drift around its foggy interior while the opening credits play; and we hear, at first, almost nothing.


It might be the single best opening sequence of any Disney film, but as beautifully done as it is (the background paintings and the effects animation are both intoxicatingly rich, not to mention it bears the most forceful multiplane in years), its greatest triumph is sound, starting with nothing but the rhythm of the wind blowing through the trees, and somehow this is a sad and anxious wind, like it knows what's coming, and it works marvelously on the nerves.  To this is eventually added the calls of forest animals, but soon we hear a dog, and we recognize this as a bad portent, since it arrives with the first tuneless sound of Buddy Baker's score, which only fully resolves itself into music with the appearance of a vixen, holding her kit in her teeth, driven to desperation by enemies we never see, but can, by the sounds they make, identify.  And so we arrive at the mid-film twist of Bambi, but immediately.

It's a great beginning, worth examining in depth even if much of the film doesn't live up to it.  This isn't to say that nothing does; though, yes, its average scene is significantly worse.  This also makes itself fairly clear immediately, when the kit the vixen left behind meets most of the film's unnecessary side characters all at once, starting with Big Mama the owl (Pearl Bailey), who enlists the aid of a pair of other birds—Boomer the woodpecker (Paul Winchell) and Dinky the finch (Dick Bakalyan)—to help the poor orphan find a new home.  This is successful, because the kit happened to be abandoned upon the property of the kindly widow Tweed (Jeanette Nolan), who, upon discovering him, devotes herself to his care.  She names him Tod, short for "Toddler," which is lame, but we'll let that go.  Tod (voiced as a kit by Keith Mitchell) grows, but, as befits a wild animal, he's largely unable to obey rules, particularly when it comes to staying on Tweed's land; and one day while out in the woods, he runs across a juvenile hound dog, Copper (voiced as a puppy by Corey Feldman).  They have an instant rapport that blossoms into deep friendship.


Unfortunately, an enduring bond was never their destiny—as Big Mama understands all too well, but can't quite seem to communicate to Tod, even with the help of macabre visual aids—for Copper is the new dog of the pelt hunter Amos Slade (Jack Albertson), who's in the process of being trained by Slade and his old dog Chief (Pat Buttram) to accompany them on expeditions to kill all sorts of woodland creatures, and especially foxes.  Summer turns to winter; Copper spends his first season on the hunt; and, upon his return (now voiced by Kurt Russell), there's no chance for him to remain friends with Tod (now voiced by Mickey Rooney, and ain't that a pair), particularly as Tod, hoping to rekindle their relationship, does little but remind Slade of his existence. Slade gives chase, and it's only through Copper's mercy and Tod's nascent vulpine wiles that Tod escapes, injuring Chief in the process; Tweed, correctly guessing that Slade's taken this personally, sees no alternative but to abandon the young fox for a second time, dumping him in a game preserve in the hopes that he'll live a normal fox life.  This doesn't work for long, because Slade and a newly-enthusiastic Copper--blaming himself for what happened to Chief and banishing mercy from his mind—are determined to get their revenge.

Sounds great in summary, and it's often great in execution—the melodramatic emotions sometimes overflow entirely, like when Tweed leaves her uncomprehending pet in the middle of the woods (helped along by what is by far the film's most effective musical interlude).  It is, of course, almost unrecognizable as an adaptation of its source material, effectively repositioning it from a matter-of-fact story about animals (who were never friends) to an allegory about humans.  But even though one of the big reasons Bambi's so great is that, uniquely, it is about animals, The Fox and the Hound can be something infinitely more common, yet still acquit itself admirably.

In many respects, it does!  Like Bambi, it has no sympathy for hunters, and it's a good parable of the potential conflict between honor and duty.  Equally obviously, it's a big ol' fable about racism—a moving one, full of anguish over a fallen world that can't let the damn fox hang out with the damn dog, although it's such a surprisingly downbeat fable that you find folks badly misreading it as an endorsement of separatism rather than a heartcry against it.  (But then, it almost plays better as a fable about sexuality, and, for much of its runtime, it's an interpretation that the film—presumably unintentionally—doesn't exactly discourage, with a lot of affectionate physical contact between Tod and Copper that is probably just the animation principles of two of the film's largely-honorary "supervising animators," Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, kicked into overdrive, but which do tend to read as very gay.  If not for the unfortunate overenunciation of Tod's courtship of the vixen, er, Vixey (Sandy Duncan)—unfortunate because that scene is downright awful—the impression it could leave you with is nothing less than the story of one young gay or bisexual man thrown out of his rural hometown, who eventually fell into a heteronormative relationship by default, and his old flame, who in his misplaced self-loathing went full-on reactionary; and insofar as kid's cartoon race narratives are plentiful but kid's cartoon queer narratives are rare, without Vixey you'd probably hear a lot more about The Fox and the Hound these days than you usually do.  Anyhow, it's at least fun to point out that the first thing Tod does when he gets to the big city/open woods is shack up with a male porcupine who offers him a bed.)

So overall, a solid story—inestimably superior to the aimless crap Disney was doing in the 60s and early 70s.  But, in the details, it can still be disappointing.  For starters, there are the comic relief birds, granted a film-long subplot about their fruitless quest to catch a caterpillar, which one supposes somebody thought mirrored the themes of the film—ultimately, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly (after, like, a year, mind you)—which really only suggests they didn't know what the themes were.  Less charitably, they simply needed filler, and so turned to comedy, which works out so rarely for Disney I don't know why they do it; and it's basically a series of incongruously-goofy comic shorts that, on their own, might've been inoffensive, but can't help but be hateful and degrading here.  The silver lining is that they are so disconnected; as with Bambi's animal friends, they don't really figure into the story.


The songs, on the other hand, do figure into the story, and this is the one element that I think hurts it as an aesthetic object, because on this one metric, The Fox and the Hound is possibly the worst musical Disney ever did.  Its best song, "Goodbye May Seem Forever," is still mediocre, though it at least performs its function well (its lyrics are pretty heartbreaking).  In what I'm sure is no coincidence, it doesn't share a writer with the rest.  Two of the others, Stan Fidel's "Best of Friends" and Jim Stafford's "Appreciate the Lady," you'd think did share the same writer, because both are barely songs at all (there's a "bad Randy Newman" quality to each, and, yeah, yikes).  They're unbearably saccharine pieces of shit—"Best of Friends" at least gets paired to an otherwise adorable scene between Tod and Copper, which almost excuses the mushiness, but "Appreciate the Lady" comes part-and-parcel with Tod's introduction to Vixey, which is terrible on every other level, too, from the basic soft-headedness of its take on vulpine sexuality to its smallest beats, like when Tod asks a wild fox if he has permission to call her by her first name, as opposed, I guess, to her formal title.  As for the other two songs, also Stafford's, "A Huntin' Man" must not be very memorable, in that I don't remember it, and "Lack of Education," Big Mama's attempt to beat some sense into Tod, while better than the rest musically, is still lyrically dumb ("elimination! lack of education!" are things that rhyme!), and it still sounds more like spoken word poetry than a song.  I understand that Pearl Bailey was a Broadway star?  Oh well.

None of that's the big problem.  The big problem caused frustration even before the film was finished.  It was even part of the fracture within the studio that turned into a full-blown schism halfway through its development.  If hardly the first example of the Disneyfication process, it's one of the most infamous, for while Mannix's novel, sensibly enough, had Chief simply die—when a train hit him, so that checks out—the Disney cartoon merely breaks his leg, apparently in an effort to tone down the darkness of a film which began with the violent death of its hero's mother, and ends, well, how it ends.  It's too much to say it guts the drama, but it makes it less-motivated than it should be; meanwhile, its one-dimensional interpretation of Slade is at least as damaging.  (Consider that a man driven to revenge against a dumb animal for hurting his favorite dog should probably, at least once, show some affection for that dog.  I'm also no great fan of Slade firing his shotgun at Tod even after he leaps upon Tweed's moving automobile; Slade's supposed to be a drunken imbecile, but "oops! manslaughter!" is still probably taking the character a touch too far.)

The Fox and the Hound was supposed to be—and, in some ways, still was, for despite all the backstage backbiting, it was very commercially successful—the arrival of Disney's next generation.  But history remembers it mostly as a debacle, which brought the tensions within the studio to a head: it was during animation that Don Bluth and fifteen other animators resigned.  But it was also the first film to bear the screen credits of both future titans Ron Clements and John Musker, and it occasioned the first piece of trivia I know about Clements, which is that he spent a lot of his time on this movie asking why they weren't killing Chief.  Meanwhile, Wolfgang Reitherman was forced out of his director's role by executive producer/soon-to-be Disney president, Ron Miller, and by his co-director, Art Stevens, who himself was ultimately supplemented by a pair of men picked by Miller, Ted Berman and Richard Rich; and this was, effectively, the end of Reitherman's career.  But then, when one hears what Reitherman's deal was, one tends to side with his opponents, no matter how much they like old Woolie: Reitherman wanted yet another dumbass song, this one a nonsense-word number sung by Charo.  Altogether, then, production was a disaster; as new animators were hired to fill the depleted ranks and finally finish the film six months late, much of the burden devolved to the veteran assistants.

Miraculously, it doesn't show.  Despite it all, Fox and the Hound feels like the consolidation of a new Disney—it was the first feature in forever with a serious budget (in 1981, it was the most expensive animated movie ever made, at least in unadjusted dollars).  It looks like it has a serious budget.  The work of color stylist Jim Coleman and background artists Daniela Bielecka, Brian Sebern, and Kathleen Swain grants Fox and the Hound the lushest visuals of any Disney movie since Sleeping Beauty, outclassing everything made between there and here, and even a fair number beforehand.  The use of color in particular is gorgeous—it is an overwhelmingly green film, offset by Tod's orange, though it also layers in golds for autumnal mood, especially in the finale—and if it's not quite Bambi (for it lacks Bambi's flexible expressionism), it's impressively close with any given backdrop, with only a few here and there that stick out as poor or underdetailed, and specifically because they're not as excellent as everything else, which tends to get the balance of atmosphere and detail exactly right, hovering beautifully between representationalism and impressionism.

As for the animation, it's at least as much of a quantum leap, confirming a second, better phase for Disney's Xerography Era.  The groundwork was laid in The Rescuers for restoring color to the line, and this is about as close to recapturing the style and grace of Disney's Golden Age as the studio was ever going to get without computers.  The humans are—well, they're fine, though Slade is a somewhat-lazy caricature.  But Tod and Copper are both wonderful—Copper the hound has the obvious appeal of skin so loose it folds up around his head, and Tod's plenty cute himself—but where the character animation really shines is the way it does action.  When threatened, they become uncomfortably violent animals, dropping every vestige of "cuteness" in favor of the terror they simultaneously inspire and feel.


Above all, there's the most famous thing about The Fox and the Hound: the way that Slade and Copper's revenge is cut short with the deus ex machina of that bear, an eruption of primordial nature into a very human-feeling drama.  Animated by Glen Keane, who made his name with it, the bear's an aesthetic break from everything else—even the meaner, more realistic versions of Tod and Copper.  It's a chaotically-drawn nightmare of black smudges and red eyes that enters this movie like the wrath of God.  It drives one hell of an action sequence (Disney's best since Maleficent turned into a dragon, at least)—and it aligns with the film's emotional arc perfectly.  (It's likewise nice that Wolfgang Reitherman's final film—even if he ultimately had little to do with it—also got to end with a rad monster, just as his parts of Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Sleeping Beauty had.)  Yet as awe-inspiring as Keane's bear is, I might love the denouement even more: the way that Copper remembers his friendship, and places himself between Slade and Tod, first hesitantly, then taking a final, determined step.  Wordless and grand, there's enormous power in such a simple-seeming scene.

The Fox and the Hound has taken a significant beating in later years as nostalgia fades and critics judge it as lacking against its peers—though it's hard to say why, given its neighbors are The Rescuers and The Black freaking Cauldron.  (If I had to take a wild guess, it's because animation nerds align themselves with Don Bluth.  For reasons that certainly do not actually show up in the man's filmography, they think he's a cool rebel.)  I don't believe I'm especially nostalgic for it: before rewatching it as an adult a year ago and again last week, I barely remembered it.  But it's gained place fast in my personal Disney ranking, and for all its behind-the-scenes problems, if the annoying parts were just a little less annoying, or if it just hadn't lost its nerve with its central plot point, I think I'd call it a masterpiece.

Score: 8/10

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