The Fox and the Hound (1981) | Animated and Underrated
For the little change of pace, I decided to watch something I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade today. It was Disney’s The Fox and the Hound.
Now you say, “but FilmmakerJ, that’s a Disney theatrical film. None of those are underrated.” Bull crap, I can think of plenty Disney films that were shown in theaters that are horribly underrated or nearly forgotten. Pete’s Dragon, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, the freaking Gnome Mobile; and definitely today’s topic The Fox and the Hound.
It’s true that a lot of you may have seen this film, but I’m sure a lot of you don’t really remember a lot about it. Nor do I think that a lot of its subtleties get noticed by those who do remember it. It’s a rather odd film.
To put it straight, the film isn’t very interesting story-wise, however it is rather interesting in every other respect.
To start with, the cast is full of surprising actors. There’s Pat Butram as Chief (the top hunting dog), Jack Albertson (who played Charlie’s Grandpa in Willy Wonka) as Amos Slade, Paul Winchell (the original and best voice of Tigger) as Boomer the woodpecker, Mickey Rooney as adult Tod, Kurt Russell as adult Copper, and a very very young Corey Feldman as young Copper. So a rather interesting lot.
Mickey Rooney as Tod is an interesting choice, because while you may know the late Mr. Rooney from a few of his roles in the late 80s and 90s like Mr. Cherrywood in The Carebears Movie, or Flip in Little Nemo; he has had one of the longest running careers in movie history, and was still in his 50s when he played Tod the fox; and Tod is meant to be a 20 year old if you compare him relatively to a human. And what’s interesting is that even though Mickey’s voice was already becoming gravely by the early 1980s, his voice didn’t make Tod sound old so much as it made him sound like raspy adolescent: which is a very unique and fitting voice for him.
Now, if I could just have a moment to compliment Miss Sandy Duncan on her beautifully charming voice as Vixey, I’d be most thankful. It’s a truly rare thing for someone to be born with a voice like hers, and it’s absolutely perfect for animation. And while her character in the film only comes in during the last fourth and doesn’t have much character development, I have seen worse; and Sandy’s special sound helps add to Vixey’s personality. The character would not stick in my mind as well without her performance.
And although you might think seeing Snake Plissken as a dog named Copper in a Disney movie is weird, you shouldn’t; because Walt Disney himself gave Kurt Russell his first acting job and proclaimed Kurt’s future fame just before his death. Kinda creepy, but Kurt did go on to have a pretty stable career for a while working with John Carpenter.
The rest of the cast is rather underwhelming, suffice it to say, but they are no means bad in their roles; and Pearl Bailey does a fine job as Big Mama, as much as you would expect.
So what else is interesting?
Well I think one of the first things that may strike some of you about this film is the absolutely GORGEOUS character animation.
I mean my God, these are some of the most adorable faces I have ever seen in my life. Those big eyes, the softness of the cheeks, the subtle movements of the lips and jaw, the way their ears react to everything they’re thinking. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen animated faces that you can read so well.
Look at any frame of this film, and it is astounding how much you can tell from their expressions; how much humanity and honesty; how much inner contemplation.
Here are some of my favorites:
It’s just… I can’t… there are no words I can think of that accurately describe how much I love the animation here. Whoever specifically worked on these characters should have gotten an Oscar.
Now I’m mostly speaking of Tod and Vixey, though, when I say how adorable their faces are; because Copper and Chief and the other characters have a very stiff or incredibly wrinkled face; so the same qualities can’t quite be said for them. However, the fluidity and careful attention to facial muscles and detail are exactly the same on all accounts. It is by FAR, the best facial animation in a hand-drawn film that I have ever seen. Hands freaking down.
Also, trust me when I say that these foxes here look much more attractive and well designed than these foxes from Robin Hood. Seriously, there’s no contest. Lol
So after that, you may start to notice the musical score: which at first sounds like your typical down-home country mix of violins and harmonicas sweeping across the calm and cool lush autumn forests and farm houses… But then it catches you off guard and decides to also throw in a synthesized organ and flute, a freaking harpsichord of all things, and a 1970s base guitar beat that sounds like it was ripped straight out of a chase scene from a Dirty Harry movie. It’s the kind of mix-and-match musical score that you would ONLY get out of the early 80s: approximately from 1978 to 1983, which is of course where films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TRON, Xanadu, and Rock & Rule were made. Makes the bizarreness of that period start to make a little bit more sense, eh? But you know what, I love all those movies, and this musical score. It might not seem the most cohesive, but it’s one of those a-typical elements of the period that gives the film part of its charm. And sometimes being dated is not a bad thing.
Now the actual songs on the other hand, are unfortunately rather dull, lack-luster, and forgettable. In fact, I don’t even think some of them are complete songs; they just kind of pop up from nowhere for no particular reason, and (albeit the very talented) Pearl Baily starts to sing, but then the orchestra doesn’t back her up. And then other times, it does back her up, but only for half the song. For instance, “Elimination, Lack of Education” has no visible tune. It’s almost like a song that tries to start, but fails miserably because the orchestra does this terrible explosion of country-western fiddling riffs that have no cohesion; until it just peters out half way through. And then one of the songs is a weird mix of spoken word poem with a backup chorus; that being “Goodbye May Seem Forever.” I’ll admit it’s probably one of the saddest songs I’ve heard in a Disney movie considering what’s going on during it, but it only adds to the bizarre choices as far as songs go.
I think this tendency for an inconsistent soundtrack list stems from the avant garde way in which the soundtracks were designed for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and Robin Hood. Because all three of these films approached their songs not like a musical number, as previous films had done; but they approached them like the characters themselves were literally choosing to sing within the realm of reality rather than act as if the movie jumped the shark and went into an alternate reality where the song holds no bearing on time or space. In other words, the characters don’t all start singing and dancing like they’ve been trained overnight by Gene Kelly; instead, either only one character sings with a very minimal accompaniment (ex. “Whistle-Stop” by Roger Miller in Robin Hood, “Trust in Me” by Sterling Holloway in The Jungle Book); or multiple characters all sing together and you can visibly see where at least some of the instrument sounds are coming from (ex. “The Phony King of England” in Robin Hood, “Everybody Wants to Be A Cat” in The Aristocats). And then of course The Rescuers really broke tradition by having the majority of its songs part of a 3rd party soundtrack where none of the characters sing, and all of the songs become part of an in-movie music video (ex. “The Journey,” “Tomorrow is Another Day,” and “Someone’s Waiting For You.”)
Something else that’s interesting (but not necessarily good or bad) is the fact that the opening of this movie has no song whatsoever. But that’s not what makes it strange. No, what makes it strange is that it is “Dead SILENT!”
Dead silent! Not a single solitary noise for an entire minute. Even the opening Buena Vista logo sits there as if frozen stiff for an unsettling amount of time. And after that first minute, all we get are the sounds of birds and bugs chirping and clicking until finally, after another unsettling two full minutes we actually get some music. Except the problem with that is that it’s extremely dark and foreboding music because we are watching as a young fox mother is running across the landscape, attempting to save her new baby fox from harm. And you thought the opening of The Brave Little Toaster was somber and off-putting, you ain’t seen NOTHIN’ till you’ve seen this!
I suppose that then leads me to one of the over-arching issues I have with this film. The whole thing is off-putting. Well, maybe not the whole thing. But let me see if I can explain it this way…
This is not the kind of movie you would go out of the way to see in a theater, and certainly not one that you would take your really young kids to see as a present or to keep them entertained. Because your kids are sure to be freaked out, then sad, then bored, then asleep, then annoyed, then sad again, then freaked out again; and then after all that, they’re sure to feel cheated because the film didn’t leave them wanting more. And that is all as true as the summer day is long. This movie is dry, unassuming, un-exciting and unfortunately unsatisfying. It feels like a Disney live-action film that just decided to animate the animals rather than try to dub over live animals like they did with the Homeward Bound movies. The ONLY saving grace it has is its impeccable character animation, which allows you to get a hell of a lot more emotional depth out of these characters than you would other-wise. But as far as the story goes, this movie is no more engaging or unique than maybe one of those Beethoven or Buddy movies. And it is very uneventful.
Does that then mean that the film is a bad film? Well no, it doesn’t. I would just say it just makes it a weak “Disney” film, because it ends up being one of their least Disney-ish. Like, if you want to have a “good time” watching a Disney movie, this is probably the last one you would decide to watch, other than maybe The Black Cauldron: but even that has some unique visuals. And the other thing I would say is that because it is the least Disney-ish, it just ends up being… a film; and a mature one at that. It doesn’t candy-coat things, it doesn’t try to jazz it up. It’s almost like what you’d get if Watership Down wasn’t so dark, grungy and creepy; and was about a fox and a hound. It’s the sort of film that, if you were so inclined, you’d want to sit down and watch “With” your kids as a family bonding moment, because this film does have some honest moments in it, and you will experience some “feels:” to use a recent expression.
Final note, experience it for yourself and see what you think of it. You may end up liking it more than me, or you might not. I leave it up to you. =)