21 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: IF ONLY THE WORLD WOULDN'T GET IN THE WAY

With The Rescuers, it seemed that the new blood at the Disney Animation Studios had figured out what was what, and were all pumped up to do something even bigger and better, for with the great majority of the old guard retired or planning on doing so any moment, it was clearly a rich time for the kids to make a real mark, producing something true to the Disney brand name but created with new energy, new style, new storytelling tricks. It was a great moment of possibility.

The next feature, The Fox and the Hound, was released four years later, in 1981; and it was cloying and cutesy, a helpless callback to a number of truly classic movies that it couldn't hope to equal, let alone better. The wheels had fallen off and the wagon drove straight into a tree. Even despite some really beautiful snatches of animation here and there - including one particular sequence that made its directing animator one of the hot new names at Disney - the film would surely rank among the most unendurable, sappy, stupid movies produced during the interregnum of the 1970s and 1980s. Coupled with the unattractive, juvenile Robin Hood, it permits me to formulate what I think to be an important dictum: it goes very badly for Disney whenever they try to make movies about foxes.

So, why the hell did The Fox and the Hound go so drastically wrong? Aside from the fact that over the preceding 10 years, the studio was missing more than it was hitting anyway, there proves to be a most illuminating reason, and to explain it we must not only look at the pre-production of a film that would not be released for four years yet, but also find evidence of a mighty struggle for the soul of Walt Disney Productions; a war whose final battle was maybe only finally fought in the 2006 hiring of John Lasseter as Disney's chief creative officer.

In 1977, the old school consisted most prominently of three men: Ollie Johnston, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Frank Thomas. As far as the production of The Fox and the Hound goes, Johnston and Thomas stayed around only long enough to do some character design and provide advice for the newbies who were taking over for the first time, and for this the two men received a last credit, largely honorary, as "Supervising Animators" - they then both retired early in 1978. Reitherman finally bowed out of directing duties, but stayed on as producer, to lend his years of experience to the development of the stories and characters. Directing duties were to be split between three men: Art Stevens and Ted Berman, both of whom had joined the company in the 1950s, and Richard Rich, who had risen up in the company hierarchy throughout the decade, having started off in the mail room.

I should not want to cast aspersions on anyone's origins, for Walt himself would have adored the fairy-tale mock realism of the situation, but: the mail room? This must have seemed a bit terrible to the many people who'd risen in the company slowly and steadily, paying their dues like they ought. People like Don Bluth, who had just come off of a fairly unpleasant experience when The Fox and the Hound entered production. Bluth had just gotten the chance to make a project all his own to direct, an unusually religious short titled "The Small One", about a donkey in biblical Judea. To put it simply, this film had an uncomfortable time coming together; Bluth was constantly being second-guessed by management, and forced to work with more seasoned animators whose vision for the material didn't square with his own. The result is a not unappealing mulligan stew that doesn't really deserve its present obscurity, but nor is it good enough to justify rediscovery and re-evaluation. Bluth wasn't terrifically happy when it was completed, but at least he'd put his name to a project.

Obviously, I don't know to a certainty that Bluth was jealous of Rich, or Stevens or Berman, or anybody else. In fact, I rather doubt that this was the case. I think the much greater problem for the gifted animator was the mentality at the Disney Studios, which to his mind had drifted much too far from the spirit in which Walt Disney had released his first Mickey Mouse shorts; Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller certainly wasn't doing anything to discourage the culture of cheapness and sickly-sweet kiddie-movie stuff that had made most of the previous decade such an ignoble time for Walt Disney Productions, and so Bluth finally had a breakdown in 1979. I do not know if there was a final straw that sent Bluth over the edge; if there was, I expect it had to do with The Black Cauldron, a film that was in story development throughout the decade and around the time of Bluth's epiphany would have just been comfortably established as the bitch of adaptation difficulties that would shortly bloom into the most ungodly awful nightmare of production in Disney animation history.

Long story short: Bluth left Disney, declaring that the company had lost its way, and he set off to found his own animation studio, which would be more in the spirit of Walt's great classics from the 1940s and '50s. This sounded pretty good to some of his colleagues, and so Bluth and eleven other Disney animators jumped ship - some especially good ones, like John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman. This loss of a fairly massive portion of the animation staff working on The Fox and the Hound crippled the film's production, and delayed its release.

For his tiny part in driving away one of the studio's finest artists, Ron Miller was promoted in 1980, to become the president of Walt Disney Productions. Work on the film continued, but it was not a happy place to be: people like Tim Burton and Brad Bird drifted onto the animation staff just long enough to find that Disney was not at all the place of the dreams, and drifted right back out (though Burton hung around long enough to make a couple of idiosyncratic shorts and discover that The Black Cauldron was enough to make The Fox and the Hound look like parade of delights). Finally, the thing came out in July, 1981, to pleasantly bored critical notices and a fair amount of box-office success; it more than tripled its budget and landed in the top 15 box office hits of the year (well out-grossing that year's re-release, Cinderella). If it wasn't an artistic slam dunk, at least it hadn't managed to endanger the very life of the studio.

As fate would have it, most of the initial reviews of the film land it squarely in the realm of one of my all-time greatest pet peeves: the criminal relaxing of standards that accompanies anything called "children's entertainment". Take a peek at the 1981 notices, and you'll see the same sentiments cropping up: not ambitious, but the kids will like it. A bit syrupy, but the kids will like it. Feels pretty familiar, but the kids will like it. Dull as watching paint drying in ditchwater, but the kids will like it. To hell with that I say: kids deserve entertainment that's actually entertaining, in 1981 as much as 2009 (and I do not only say this because I was myself an embryonic not-yet-kid at the time of this film's original release), and The Fox and the Hound does not cut any mustard whatever in this field. It is a miserably mawkish, feverishly deterministic story that advances the brave theme "you can't ever overcome your nature to be friends with people who aren't like you, so don't bother trying" without even apparently noticing how freakishly reactionary the plot is. It is a nominal buddy tragedy that blithely casts Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell as opposite sides of a homosocial pairing gone wrong; for only in animation could the combination of those two men ever make even the slightest whisper of sense. Frankly, of the 24 films that have so far come up in our little retrospective, it's the first one that I distinctly hate, rather than just find boring and disposable like Robin Hood or The Aristocats; though it represents such an improvement in animation over the both of them that I can't quite find it within me to call it "the worst" Disney feature (such qualms will not continue to apply in the future).

The plot, based loosely on a naturalist novel by Daniel P. Mannix, concerns two young canids: one a fox kit abandoned by his mother, who senses that her life is about to come to an end in the jaws of a nasty hunting dog; he is taken in by a kindly widow (Jeanette Nolan, the voice of Norman Bates's mama, in her second Disney feature) and named Tod - short for "toddler" - short for "gag me with a spoon dipped in saccharine" - who is presently voiced by Keith Coogan, going in those days by Keith Mitchell. The other is a hound puppy of some not entirely certain breed, who has been adopted by an ill-tempered hunter (Jack Albertson) to train along side that very same nasty hunting dog, Chief (Pat Buttram); this puppy is named Copper, and he is played by Corey Feldman, before everybody figured out how insanely terrifying he was as a boy and early adolescent. Tod and Copper become best of friends; then Copper has to go learn to be a hunting dog, something that neither he nor the fox understands at all, but the Magical Negro Owl Big Mama (Pearl Bailey) certainly knows what's going to happen when Copper comes back the next spring, all grown up.

And the next spring, he hates all foxes and is prepared to destroy Tod; except for one small act of mercy which leads indirectly to Chief's maiming when he is knocked off a bridge by a train, in a scene that loses nearly all of its power and impact thanks to the child-friendly decision to keep the older dog alive, contra the book and everything that would permit the rest of the story to make emotional sense. The hunter and Copper swear vengeance, and the widow takes Tod out to a game preserve, in a scene that is tremendously sad and full of woman and fox constantly almost breaking out into tears; a scene that so dramatically devastated my then eight-year-old cousin (she won't mind me mentioning her, because I'm almost certain she doesn't read this blog. But just in case: Hi, Erica!) that as recently as four or five years ago, it was still not okay to say The Fox and the Hound in her presence.

Luckily, Tod's emotional trauma only lasts about twelve hours, ending when Big Mama introduces him to a girl fox, Vixey (Sandy Duncan), because sex really does solve everything when you are a young adult male. They go off to make a little fox home for themselves, closely followed by Copper and his owner: both of them hot for revenge and Copper particularly anxious to rip Tod apart himself. A few failed attempts to burn their enemy alive later, the hunter and the hound find themselves on the wrong end of an absurdly large black bear, who is only stopped when the fox jumps in to save the friend that he never truly stopped loving. In return, Copper stands between Tod and the hunter's gun, but it is quite clear that this will be the last these two former bosom companions will ever see one another again.

Thank God for that bear. Thank GOD for that bear. If that bear wasn't in the movie, I genuinely don't know that I'd have a single thing nice to say about this whole movie, which isn't just boring and sappy - it's boring and sappy and full of the worst kind of messages about how we can't all get along, so if we're lucky, we'll have the luxury of just plain ignoring each other. The animation is strictly par, though it is worth recalling that The Rescuers raised the value of "par" up a whole lot of notches so, as I mentioned somewhere up there, at least it's a handsome movie. The backgrounds, it must be said, have the unmistakable look of a compulsive rip-off of Bambi, but let's be fair: if you were the Disney background artists, and you were making a film set in a woodland full of semi-realistic animals, you'd probably look to Bambi for inspiration too. You might even, if you were the directors, pillage the "April shower" sequence in that film for animation of animals escaping from the rain (some material making its third appearance in a Disney feature: it was also used in the "Trees" segment of 1948's Make Mine Music). I do not know why you would also steal a shot of the Wart as a squirrel from The Sword in the Stone, but hey: you got squirrel footage, you use squirrel footage, amiright? Never mind if the design of Wart-squirrel's face doesn't really match the look of the other animals in the picture, he's only on-screen for a second and a half.

As far as the animation actually created for the movie, both the widow Tweed and Amos Slade, the hunter, are actually very strong examples of human motion captured in no small realistic detail, married to appealing, cartoonish design (it's worth mentioning that the small amount of animation that Don Bluth completed involved Tweed). Even Chief looks pretty much exactly the way you'd want a dog who speaks with Pat Buttram's voice to look.

Tod and Copper are a bit difficult to get a handle on, especially in their adult forms. This is no longer Lady and the Tramp, nor One Hundred and One Dalmatians: the animators are plainly not in the business of capturing the movement of dogs and dog-like animals with rigorous precision. But that being said, both animals are drawn with something like reasonable musculature and the correct amount of furriness and fleshiness, and they have some proper weight to them. They're also a bit ugly, like the designers couldn't decide exactly what the right combination of realism and cartooniness was.

All in all, this is entirely workaday stuff for the Disney crew, so once again, THANK GOD FOR THAT BEAR. Supervised by Glen Keane, whose swift promotion was no doubt related to Bluth's defection, the bear is a masterpiece of fantasy monstrosity that honestly doesn't fit into the movie much at all, but who cares when the results are that great: a massive pile of fur and claws and angry red eyes, the sheer primeval terror of all things that cannot be controlled in the natural world assembled into one package. The bear is onscreen for at most, five minutes; probably closer to three. But those minutes dominate and overwhelm the rest of the film, for ever last detail of that bear and his movement is full of raw, uncut emotion that the rest of the movie sees fit to deliver with too much wuffly charm and not enough honest-to-God art, in either the animation or the narrative.

I understand that some people really do have no small affection for The Fox and the Hound, and I have not probably convinced them what is so worthy of hate: but every now and then there's just a movie that really puts you in a foul mood, and you just want to tear it apart. It's not my least favorite Disney movie, not of the ones we've already seen, and certainly not out of the ones to come: but damned if it's not the one that leaves me in the most peevish state, disgusted by its sledgehammer emotional theatrics and thin characters driven by a programmatic narrative. Those who like it are welcome to it; you'll convince me no more than I'll convince you.

Meanwhile, what of Don Bluth? Well, it's a curious thing. See, he didn't end up proving himself the heir to the spirit and style of Walt Disney exactly, but he certainly did manage to show up his old colleagues. His cheap and fast first feature turned out to be something special and pretty darn magical, and it heralded the arrival of the first serious challenge to Disney's stranglehold on American animation since almost the time of Mickey himself. Curiously, it too was based upon the adventures of a plucky mouse...

14 comments:

Rebecca said...

Do I sense a Don Bluth retrospective coming next? I actually just recently re-watched The Secret of NIMH, and was amazed at how violent it was, knowing some of Don Bluth's Disney complaints. Didn't remember that from when we watched it in class after reading the book in whatever grade that was.

I also have been eagerly awaiting your take on The Black Cauldron, the one Disney movie I refuse to ever see (based on when I saw the first five minutes and shut the thing off in anger over how it was ruining my most favoritest book series in the history of time).

Aye-K said...

Hey Tim, I'm a long time reader of your blog and I immensely enjoy your reviews and respect your opinions.

Having said that, I gotta ask: what's up with all the Disney animations?
Are you planning on reviewing them ALL?

Tim said...

Rebecca - I assume your Bluth question is answered.

Aye-K - every last damn one of them, but I'm hoping that effective Monday, it doesn't take so much away from my regular reviewing as it did this past week.

Aye-K said...

No no you misread me, I don't mind them at all. It's actually pretty cool.
I had a childhood too. Once...

It's just that there are countless of them. There's the classics, the shitty direct-to-DVD sequels, the crappy new-age cartoons/movies and then the live action movies...

Tim said...

Oh, I get it. No, god no. The DTV sequels are an abortion, and I wouldn't touch them with anything. I'm only looking at 45 of the 49 "Canon" films - not the CGI ones.

Aye-K said...

Haha, that's good.
That, that actually makes me breath a little easier.
I wouldn't wanna wish Lion King 2,3, 4?, 5? on anyone. Ever.

javi75 said...

I don't remember this movie well enough to defend it but I'm shocked at your disgust, even if we have very different tastes.
I think when I watched this movie I imagined the dog and the fox were actually a gay couple, and then the fox goes with the foxy gal pressured by society (Grandma), so he marries a beard, so to speak, but at the end when his old love needs help, he sticks his neck out for him.

I actually like some of the DTV sequels... This movie has one too, and it has nothing to do with the original, it's a musical, sort of star is born with dogs.

Tom said...

Tim, have you ever considered writing a book with these commentaries? Seriously, I think it would make a great book-you have a wealth of knowledge and research on all of these films. I would certainly purchase a copy myself and keep for reference and enjoyment. Some of these I have have never seen.

javi75 said...

Yesterday I had the time to watch this, and also "The sword in the stone" and "Robin Hood", another two I remembered too little of.

About "The fox and the hound", I'm a little surprised now if critics considered it another one in the 70's kiddie's movies trend. I think the movie tries hard to separate itself from them: the story is darker, quite sad at heart, and the visuals are darker too. This is no Aristocats or Robin Hood.
You mention "Bambi" as an influence for the backgrounds, and I believe it was more than that. The movie starts with the mother dying, and I think that's a clue of where the filmmakers wanted to go with the project.
And the ending, God, without doubt it must be the saddest ending in all the Disney canon: the dog is daydreaming about his childhood, and the fox is looking at him from a mile away. You can only think he must be longing for their friendship, which is sad.
So I understand now whay you call it reactionary.
About the gay subtext thing, in my previous comment I explained it terribly bad due to my bad memory of the mechanics of the plot, but I still believe the movie lends itself to it and it's fun to watch it like that. Like the lyrics of the first song. Or, for example, the scene after the winter where the fox wants to reunite with the dog, and the dog rejects him by saying "Those days are over". It's a typical line of most gay romances, where sooner or later the closet-case type lover (the dog) always shuns the more out-of-the-closet lover (the fox), it reminded me of the equivalent scene in Brokeback mountain, haha. So the pressures of society are too much even for Grandma, and the fox is abandoned in the woods, so he hooks-up for the night with the weird little animal, and next morning he has the typical next-morning-freak-out. So then he finds himself at an all-time-low state of mind, and he meets the welcoming vixen (this is when Jack in Brokeback meets the Anne Hathaway character, haha). And well, I won't go on. ;)

tom said...

"The Fox and the Hound" is a timeless classic, ambiguously evoking great amounts of joy, sadness, and triumph throughout. Within the delightful narrative reside themes of friendship and betrayal, and of intolerance and true acceptance. The shooting of Tod's mother, Copper's betrayal of Tod, and Tod's heart-wrenching separation from the old widow all point toward the realization that this is no ordinary Disney Tale. This dark, real subject matter teaches children that intolerance does exist in the world, as does adversity. But, more importantly, it teaches that they can both be overcome. Tod saves Copper from the bear, then, in turn, Copper saves Tod from the hunter, his master. Their friendship prevails far beyond their indoctrinated intolerance, suggesting that prejudice can be overcome.
The universal themes, the charming backdrops, and the raw emotion that it evokes all point towards the conclusion that "The Fox and the Hound" is a wonderful story of an enduring friendship between a fox and a hunting dog; a pair deemed by society as taboo. Anyone who can actually be disgusted by such an innocent story is tragically skewed. Pompous critics must be reminded that those who judge the creations of others, do so only because they cannot create things themselves. Perhaps, instead of shooting down a simply wonderful childhood story, said critics should turn their discerning eyes upon themselves and analyze their own meager, pathetic lives.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Um...wow. That would almost be convincing if I weren't actually familiar with the movie, but do you really think gratuitous insults are going to help you case? Especially ones directed against someone who is manifestly NOT involved in some sort of shadow anti-childhood-story conspiracy?

KayMartha12 said...

Tim, I'm studying many classic animated films, and I appreciate your archive of Disney reviews. Like this line below:

"...Chief's maiming when he is knocked off a bridge by a train, in a scene that loses nearly all of its power and impact thanks to the child-friendly decision to keep the older dog alive, contra the book and EVERYTHING THAT WOULD PERMIT THE REST OF THE STORY TO MAKE EMOTIONAL SENSE (emphasis mine)."

Thank you for nailing why this film was not my favorite of the Disney classics. But I still very much appreciate this film, and that final standoff between Copper and his owner - I cannot name any animated films today that have such quiet emotional heft.

Jesse said...

At the risk of sounding like a complete and utter pedantic asshole: the "Trees" segment you reference, as one of the instances where "April shower" footage is reused, is actually from "Melody Time" and not "Make Mine Music."

I wouldn't even bring this up if I weren't convinced that you take your Disney shots with a chaser of accuracy.

Pan Miluś said...

I'm honestly puzzle when people find this a weaker Disney film. I've seen this for the first time when I was 15 or 16 and it made me cry like a little girl!

Screw Bambis mom, screw Simba's dad! This is the stor that's get's to me! I love the atmosphere, the modd and the colors (the opening is wonderfull BTW)

Thank God for the bear but thank God for the rest of the story as well :)