Animated movies have undergone a sea change since The Fox and the Hound was first released in 1981. Disney was on its last legs back then: wallowing through decades of ennui that wouldn’t end until The Little Mermaid in 1989. In a lot of ways, The Fox and the Hound is a perfect example of how that creative malaise affected the Disney brand. It’s simple, straightforward and earnest: focused solely on small children without worrying about whether their parents were entertained or not. Its story presents a lovely lesson about prejudice and growing up, married to threadbare particulars that complicate its noble intentions. The sparkling animation arose between a clash of old and new, with members of Disney’s famous “Nine Old Men” battling interminably with upstarts like Don Bluth and Tim Burton. Indeed, the history behind the film is far more interesting than the film itself: a decent piece of second-tier animation utterly eclipsed by the Golden Age that followed it. Hit the jump for the full review.
The new Blu-ray might have benefited from some behind-the-scenes docs explaining the tangled history of The Fox and the Hound’s production. Bluth quit Disney in the midst of production to start his own company, citing the company’s lack of creative vision and the tired nature of the project. Burton’s contributions as a rank-and-file animator are well known: drawing an endless array of fluffy animals while doodling hangmen and skeletons in the margins and wishing desperately for an escape from his own private hell. (Other animators, such as Glen Keane, stayed on at Disney and played pivotal roles in its Renaissance a few years later.) The impact of that dissatisfaction continues to be felt today, granting the film an interest level that its onscreen charms lack.
Which isn’t to say it lacks charm. The old school animation looks lovely (especially compared with the direct-to-video sequel included on the Blu-ray) and the story has no ambitions to unseemly hipness or spastic action. Indeed, its gentle message becomes the sole purpose of the exercise, delivered with a typical Disney array of cute characters and warm songs. It follows the adventures of an orphaned Fox named Tod (voiced by Keith Mitchell as a kit and Mickey Rooney as an adult) who befriends a hound dog named Copper (voiced by Corey Feldman as a puppy and Kurt Russell as an adult). They’re too innocent to know that they’re supposed to be enemies… a fact that changes when they grow older and the world forces them into a lethal confrontation.
The build-up is as slow as molasses, with a measured pace and a structure that advertises every single new development from miles away. Adults may find themselves reaching for ready distractions and even older kids will grow restless beneath the film’s deliberation. (The sole exception being the very exciting climax, which ranks among the best pieces of animation produced in that era.) But at the same time, it holds a great deal of self-respect. It doesn’t want to caper and dance for our amusement, but rather remind us of a period in life when things were much more carefree. Many of the plot points are nonsensical, and some of the supporting characters serve no purpose at all (though they provide a curtain call for many classic Disney voice actors), but the overall tone quiets those concerns with wisdom and serenity.
You can see how rarely those qualities appear these days with one look at the sequel, also included on the Blu-ray. It replaces animation artistry with CG drek, and soft-spoken lessons with a crass message about the perils of celebrity. The nostalgia factor may be lost on the film’s intended audience, but parents will recognize the difference immediately. It’s enough to make The Fox and the Hound an honorable (if decidedly minor) addition to the Disney canon. The formula had indeed grown stale by the time this arrived, but it drops the curtain with enough conviction to merit a look. It’s better if you’re younger, but the film doesn’t necessarily grow stale with age… something many ostensibly better movies can’t match.
The Blu-ray itself is fairly sparse, unfortunately. It contains both the original film and its sequel, as well as a short (and pointless) documentary about animals working together in the wild. The collection also includes DVDs of both the original and The Fox and the Hound II, slid together in a single holder that will doubtless scratch the discs up if they see any use. The Blu-ray transfer looks very good, but if Disney itself gives the film such short-thrift, it can hardly expect the audience to treat it any differently.