The Fox and the Hound

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“Darlin’, forever is a long, long time. And time has a way of changing things.”

Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) was the first motion picture I ever successfully watched in a movie theater. It promptly became my first Favorite Movie and it held that title for many years to come.

This was before the days of home video, at least in my home, so for nearly a decade, my only memories of the film itself were the vague fragments of that first and only theatrical viewing. Thankfully, someone gave me the read-along storybook/record combo pictured below. I was too young to read but I listened to the record incessantly, flipping through the book to follow along with the pictures.

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photo via eBay user benfounditforme

I’ve often wondered why I became so transfixed with this story at such a young age. It certainly isn’t a magical adventure like so many other Disney films. In fact, one of the things people remember most about it is how sad it is.

“Sad” doesn’t begin to cover it, actually. The theme running through this movie is that when you love someone, you think it will last forever, but it won’t. It’s about the process of learning this truth, and how after you learn it you just have to carry on living, knowing that Time will erase everything you hold dear.

What the hell, Disney?!

No matter how many times I listened to that record, I always cried at the part where Widow Tweed says goodbye to Tod, her pet fox. The two meet at the beginning of the story after Tod’s mother is killed. Widow Tweed and Tod have both lost someone close to them, but now they have each other. The Widow says, “I don’t think I’ll be so lonesome anymore.” Then later in the movie it becomes clear that she has to return Tod to the wild, and as she’s driving him out to the forest, she drops a spoken word poem, “Goodbye May Seem Forever,” that encapsulates the gut-wrenching emptiness you feel when you have to say goodbye to someone you love.

And yet, I continued to put on that record and taste those tears, time and again. I don’t think I was just a bottomless well of sadness as a child. This movie tapped into a feeling of insecurity that was buried in my subconscious. Not about myself, but about my world.

In the early 1980s, I had what I thought was a happy little life. I had two parents who loved me, my sister, a best friend, lots of cousins, aunts and uncles, my grandparents. I had birthday parties and Christmases and a troupe of stuffed animals. But when I went to bed at night, I would hear my parents fighting, their voices twisted in anger, almost unrecognizable. I’d hear crashes and my heart would race. I think I must have known, on some level, that my world was on the verge of breaking down.

Then along came this movie.

I think I related to Tod at the beginning when he first meets Copper, a hound dog puppy. They play together, they wrestle, they go swimming. They vow to be best friends forever. They have a happy little world.

But Copper belongs to a hunter, Amos Slade, and a friendship between a fox and a hunting dog can’t last forever. Tod’s friends keep telling him this. They show him the dead bodies that Amos has hung up like trophies. They warn him that Copper will eventually turn into “a real killer.”

Tod can’t fathom it. He says, “Not my friend Copper. He won’t ever change.”

When you’re a little kid and your life has only ever been one way, you can’t imagine it being any different. That’s how I felt, and that’s how Tod felt. By the end of the movie though, Tod has grown up, he’s been exiled to the wilderness, and Copper has become just as bloodthirsty as his master. As a little kid watching it, you get a glimpse of what it looks like when a happy childhood turns into a depressing nightmare.

I wonder, did they sell Happy Meal toys for this?

The character Big Mama, the wise old owl voiced by Pearl Bailey, delivers the movie’s thesis statement: “Time has a way of changing things.” Somehow, I knew that she wasn’t just talking about Copper and Tod. This concept applied to me.

In the film’s climax, Tod saves Copper and Amos from a bear, prompting Copper’s redemption moment where he steps in front of Amos’s gun and saves Tod’s life. In the end, everything is reversed; Copper and Tod have been separated but they’re happy in their respective homes, and Widow Tweed and Amos have a budding playful friendship. Even the caterpillar character, Squeeks, changes into a butterfly.

“The Fox and the Hound” tells us, yes, everything will change, and some of it will feel awful, but some of it will be unexpectedly beautiful. And you’ll be okay in the end.

That may just be the reason I wore out that record.



Notice the clever way they marketed this movie to look like normal family entertainment. And below, some lovely person recorded the actual read-along book from my childhood. The Internet has everything…

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The AristoCats

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I recently watched Disney’s twentieth animated feature film “The AristoCats” (1970) and, strangely, I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about it. I hadn’t seen it in at least twenty years and a couple things stuck out to me right away: 1) the unpolished, I daresay sloppy, animation style, and 2) the way it wasted all of the dramatic and comedic possibilities of its premise.

For those who aren’t familiar, “The AristoCats” is about an elegant Parisian house cat (Duchess) and her three pampered kittens who get catnapped by an evil butler and deposited in the French countryside where they meet an alley cat (Thomas) who helps them find their way back to Paris. You can imagine the conflict already between a snobbish Duchess and a streetwise Thomas. Unfortunately for the story, Duchess is not a snob. She’s not bothered by meeting an alley cat. She not even really bothered by their predicament. It’s as if the writers were more interested in making Duchess likable, and making the story seem safe and happy, than in creating memorable characters with dramatic conflict.

The story could have played out like “It Happened One Night” with cats. In that movie, the rich, spoiled brat has to make her way to New York City without being caught by the agents of her wealthy father. She lacks all common sense and would either be captured or starved to death if not for the aid of the street-savvy newspaperman, whom she, of course, initially detests. Imagine the relationship between Duchess and Thomas starting out like this:

  • When they meet, Duchess is disgusted by Thomas’s smelly fur and coarse behavior. She insults him and he leaves after getting in a few insults of his own.
  • The kittens get in some kind of danger, Duchess calls for help, and Thomas returns, saving the kittens. Duchess realizes she needs help if they’re going to get home safe.
  • She tries to hire him as a guide, promising him, say, a lifetime supply of milk when they reach their home in Paris. Thomas is re-offended, tells her she could have just asked for help (this is straight out of “It Happened One Night”), but he’s hungry enough to accept the terms.
  • Now you have a slob and a snob, forced by circumstances to be together. This establishes a conflict, a potential for character growth, and is a natural set-up for a comedic love story.
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Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, “It Happened One Night” (1934)

Giving the main characters some personality flaws also makes it easier to laugh at them. In the actual film, Duchess and Thomas are blandly likable and unfunny. If she were a snob, then it would be humorous to see how she would react to, say, falling into a muddy lake, having a flea jump on her, or having to sleep on the ground. And you can imagine a running joke about Thomas’s aroma, and how the kittens, especially the imperious Marie, might react to it. I’m imagining a remake with the youngest kitten, Berlioz, voiced by Anthony Quintal, giving Thomas tips on his appearance. But since the characters are lacking, the humor in the film has to come from other sources, like a dog biting a man on the butt.

The forgettable story and characters could have been mitigated by some beautiful animation that captured the elegance of Paris and the rustic beauty of the countryside. Sadly, the animation in “The AristoCats” is messy. It needs to be put in context though. We have to go back to 1959 when Disney released “Sleeping Beauty.” When you watch “Sleeping Beauty” you notice how crisp and sharp it looks. It resembles contemporary animation much more than the Disney features that followed it in the next two decades. This clean look is achieved by taking the animator’s rough sketches and painstakingly tracing them onto new sheets of paper, minus all of the animator’s stray marks. Those pages were then overlaid with animation cels and another artist would trace the cleaned-up drawings onto the cel using ink.

That attention to detail was tremendously expensive though. In the 1960s and 70s, Disney learned it could save time and money by using some technical trickery (xerography) to transfer the animators’ rough sketches directly onto animation cels. While this innovation saved the Disney animation studio (it likely would have been shut down otherwise), the resulting animation is riddled with stray marks and fuzzy edges. It looks unfinished. And cheap.

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Some say this is intentional, that it reflects the flazéda attitude of the 60s and 70s, as well as the thematic material in Disney’s films of that era. This is not a bad argument. Consider “The Sword in the Stone” (1963). It shares the Medieval setting of “Sleeping Beauty,” but their worlds are seen from starkly different perspectives. “Sleeping Beauty” tells the story of a beautiful princess and a handsome prince whose perfect lives are upheaved by an evil fairy. The crisp and clean look of the film emphasizes the perfection of the characters and their kingdom. “The Sword in the Stone” is about an awkward orphan boy, nicknamed Wart, who thinks his only talent is for screwing things up until he meets a wizard who teaches him to see his own value. Wart’s world isn’t perfect, and neither is he, and the rougher animation style seems to fit his hardscrabble existence.

I’d also agree that the xerographed animation could be appropriate in films like “The Jungle Book” (1967) and “Robin Hood” (1973), which are both essentially about a bunch of hippies who live in the wilderness. A rough and scrappy visual style is appropriate for their stories too.

Now consider “The AristoCats.” Here, the rough, and at times downright sloppy, xerographed animation doesn’t fit so well. The whole point is that these characters are aristocrats who live a perfect, glamorous life. For Pete’s sake, Maurice Chevalier was hauled out of retirement to sing their theme song. Their home in Paris and all the characters there should look every bit as crisp and clean as Sleeping Beauty’s castle, establishing a contrast between the beautiful world they come from and the harsh reality they’re exiled to.

Instead, the unfinished animation, with its errant marks and scribbled lines, makes all the characters look dirty and scruffy. If the film were called “The AlleyCats” and focused on Thomas and his gang, instead of Duchess and her kittens, then the animation style might work. But as it is, it makes you question not only the level of care put into this film, but whether the xerography in past films was truly intentional or just a lazy shortcut.

So, here is a film with a great premise that was never realized to its full potential, dramatically or artistically. Since everything in the world is getting remade and rebooted, I suggest upgrading “The AristoCats” since it’s one that could actually benefit from a retelling.