15 July 2012

Disney Daze: Week 24: The Fox and the Hound

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The Fox and the Hound was the first film that shifted the reins at the Disney studio to a new generation of animators. This second wave of talent would include such future cinematic titans as Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and John Lasseter. The younger crowd would soon splinter off, with many creative minds defecting from the studio completely, while others steered the company through its roughest patch before eventually finding its footing with a succession of features that heralded a second Disney renaissance. The Fox and the Hound is decidedly not one of those trumpeted features. It suffers from many of the faults of its predecessor, the abysmal The Rescuers. However the film provides an improvement of sorts upon the previous picture.

The film is based upon a novel by Daniel P. Mannix and tells the story of two animals, a fox named Tod (?) and a hound dog named Copper. The two spend their infant days frolicking through the forest, without a care in the world, but soon Copper is taken away on a hunting expedition and when he returns, the two creatures--now pitted as enemies in the animal world--must give up their friendship. The inevitability of people (or foxes) growing up and growing apart is a rather mature theme for a Disney picture. The disintegration of friendship should resonate much more with adults than with children. This is indeed one of the film's strengths, although the handling of it is for the most part, blunt and uninteresting.

The film most closely resembles the fifth Disney masterpiece, Bambi, with its tale of the immutable laws of the forest and its halves split between carefree youth and the responsibilities of adulthood. While not as intricately detailed and naturalistic as the previous feature, The Fox and the Hound even manages to pleasantly evoke some of the background beauty associated with Bambi, especially in its third act, which is unequivocally the strongest section of the film. There are also more obvious callbacks to the film as well with a brief homage to the young Bambi's pratfalls on the ice as hound-dog-in-training Copper slips and slides on a frozen lake. Meanwhile Tod's clumsily romantic introduction to the female fox Vixey later in the picture immediately recalls Bambi and his pals twitterpated adventures.

There is even a knowledgeable owl who keeps track of life in the woods, but in design the character of Big Mama looks less like Bambi's Friend Owl and more like the spitting image of Owl from Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood. In fact, the only identifier to distinguish the two is the lazy cartoon conceit of giving the female version long eyelashes. The same luscious lashes are added to Vixey the fox who otherwise looks like a mirror image of Tod. And here is one of the biggest faults with The Fox and the Hound. While the background work is well done (if a little sparse) the character design is, on the whole, deplorable. Every character got beat with the ugly stick, or pencil, on their way to celluloid. The most hideous design is that of the puppy version of Copper, who is all hollowed out and lumpy, as opposed to what one assumes was meant to be wrinkled and cuddly. Tod fares a little better, although he gets stuck with a horrible tousled forelock that is distracting and unpleasant. There is certainly a reason that these characters didn't make it onto t-shirts, mugs, or into costumed characters in the theme parks.

Another factor in the film's failing is most certainly the voice performances. Like The Rescuers before it, The Fox and the Hound possesses some of the most distracting, annoying, and out of place voice work in the studio's history. Once again, the voices of children are particularly egregious with cloying readings coming out of both young Tod and Copper, the former voiced by a ten-year-old Corey Feldman. The adult versions of the two stars are provided by Kurt Russell and Mickey Rooney, which is a buddy cop movie I've been waiting my whole life to see, however voicing a dog and fox doesn't quite cut it. Two veterans most known for their iconic work on Winnie the Pooh show up here as well. John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet, shows up briefly and inoffensively, but Paul Winchell's work as a woodpecker sounds like nothing more than an unfunny a parody of Tigger, replete with an ever-so slightly altered laugh. The character of Vixey might get the worst treatment with Sandy Duncan (from The Hogan Family!) sounding not only out of character, but out of place. It is hard to explain, but her voice here doesn't even seem to be coming from the fox she's playing. It is almost as if she was overdubbed after the animation while the rest of the cast's work was done early in production.

Besides being split down the middle with two halves representing the two periods of life, The Fox and the Hound also has a side story used as comic relief that runs parallel to the A-story and has little bearing on it whatsoever. It is a device that seems commonplace in children's films nowadays but at the time was rather unprecedented. The only other Disney feature I can think of with two separate stories that run for the duration of the picture is Cinderella with its screen time dedicated to the exploits of the mice and the villainous cat Lucifer. In The Fox and the Hound this side story involves two clumsy birds, the aforementioned Tigger stand-in Boomer and his pal Dinky who are obsessed with capturing and killing a tenacious worm, who fools them at every turn. These comedic interludes are reminiscent of the bygone era of the cartoon short subjects like Disney's Silly Symphonies or Warner Bros.'s Looney Tunes, although the gags here are fewer and in every respect, less effective. However the payoff at the end of the picture is well done and makes the time spent off the main track with these three a little more worthwhile.

The same can be said for the picture as a whole as the final third, featuring a surprisingly well-conceived and emotionally effective climax, is the strongest section of the film. After Tod is associated with the injury to Copper's mentor, the old dog Chief, Copper and his master seek revenge on the fox. They sneak into a game reserve and set bear traps before tracking Tod and Vixey down and cornering them in a burrow. Soon a grizzly bear appears and Tod risks his life to save them. It is an action-packed sequence that deftly balances the emotional and physical stakes, bringing the picture's themes to a successful and satisfying conclusion. The Fox and the Hound is a flawed, mostly forgettable feature that leaves its characters and its audience thinking back longingly to the past.

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