THE FOX AND THE HOUND
***½/**** Image C- Sound B Extras C
uncredited screenplay, based on the novel by Daniel P. Mannix
directed by Art Stevens, Ted Berman, Richard Rich
THE LITTLE MERMAID
*½/**** Image B- Sound C Extras A
written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. With The Fox and the Hound and The Little Mermaid bookending an especially turbulent decade for a studio mortally locked in a struggle to reconcile its animation pedigree with its crass commercial instincts, the former has come to be regarded in the Disney mythology as the Good Friday to the latter's Easter Sunday. It's therefore fitting that the two films they most emulate are 1942's Bambi and 1950's Cinderella, respectively, as the Forties marked the last time the Mouse House was on the brink of foreclosure. (The Fox and the Hound goes so far as to recycle cels from Bambi.) Much like The Little Mermaid represented a somewhat cynical reboot of the fairytale default, so, too, was Cinderella a glorified salvage operation following the money-/audience-hemorrhaging pro bono work Uncle Walt did on behalf of FDR's Good Neighbor policy. Alas, the Good Friday and Easter Sunday analogy applies to not just Disney's phoenix-like resurrection but also the tonal and moral disparity between the two pictures: one is the sad truth; the other is wishful thinking.
The Fox and the Hound begins with an unnervingly tranquil montage of rural foliage that would appear to have influenced the prologue of the following year's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. As Buddy Baker's unfortunately hackneyed score creeps in, the camera gazes into the light percolating through, pointedly, a spiderweb; considering the mishmash of dialects and the climactic grizzly bear attack, I can't say for certain whether The Fox and the Hound takes place in the South, but it is most definitely a southern gothic--and a damn good one at that. What follows is the Bambi-esque orphaning of a baby fox, although the film uses this familiar trope less in that manipulative Disney way than to baptize viewers by fire to the fatalistic undertow of the piece. Thanks to the intervention of omniscient owl Big Mama (voiced by Pearl Bailey), the kindly Widow Tweed (Jeanette Nolan) takes the infant in and names him Tod, short for toddler. Tod (Keith Coogan as a child, Mickey Rooney as an adult) proceeds to befriend Copper (Corey Feldman; Kurt Russell), the new puppy next door, oblivious to the fact that Copper's master, Amos Slade (Jack Albertson), likely killed Tod's mother. Despite a mutual vow to be "best friends forever," they're not exempt from institutionalized antagonism: When Copper returns from a winter furlough with Amos, he's cold towards Tod. A significant amount of brainwashing has obviously taken place, and after Tod, trying too hard, accidentally causes injury to Copper's canine superior Boomer (Paul Winchell), Copper and Amos vow to, yes, whack Tod. The rest of the film unfolds not unlike the recent Apocalypto, with the Widow Tweed exiling Tod1, who must subsequently fend off his pursuers whilst ensuring the safety of newfound ladylove Vixey (Sandy Duncan).
The animation--overseen by the surviving Nine Old Men but carried out by the first wave of CalArts graduates, including one Tim Burton--isn't meticulous and neither is the attention to animal customs, though this latter point proves to be no mere devolution from the artistic indulgences of Bambi. While the anthropomorphization is sometimes gratuitous (a snapshot of Tod blowing out candles on a birthday cake is especially groan-inducing), the film is manifestly an allegory in Watership Down mode: Copper and Tod are archetypal opposites, and the movie's oneiric cant goes a long way towards offsetting the perversity of insisting on the primacy of nurture over nature in a natural setting. Too, The Fox and the Hound is unique among Disney films in that it isn't Pollyannaish in its wilful stupidity, for these creatures are humanized as opposed to romanticized--one might say the movie honours their essential 'animalness' by segregating them into two groups: predator and prey. So methodically does the picture lay out its thesis on the perils of indoctrination that Tod is nonplussed when a mother hen goes berserk over him frolicking with her chicks. Obviously Tod's mother died before she could teach him the pecking order, so to speak.
In the spirit of passing torches, The Fox and the Hound casts off the misplaced affection for patriarchal values that dooms its progenitors to exalting the ruling class. Amos Slade's dogmatic training of Copper, no pun intended, stands in stark contrast to the positive reinforcement Tod receives from a pair of female authority figures2, while these titular varmints--themselves a far cry from the majestic fauna of Bambi--co-exist in a ramshackle wood on a different plane from the traditional fairytale kingdom and its suburban/pastoral analogue/s: It's a story that doesn't and can't possibly end in a victory tableau of opulent domesticity. (As terrific as The Fox and the Hound's similarly derelict immediate predecessor The Rescuers is, it strangled itself to make sure its Annie wound up with Daddy and Mrs. Warbucks.) Personifying this ideological ripening, for lack of a better word, is Russell, returning to the studio as an adult in a role that capitalizes on the John Carpenter-assisted makeover of his Dexter Reilly image. The Fox and the Hound is, in other words, the Grant Wood corrective to Norman Rockwell. If a certain technical refinement goes out the window along with the nostalgia, then so be it: The golden-age Disney films are so formally sophisticated as to be positively Riefenstahlian in their obfuscating power. One might say the perfunctory quality of the animation alerts us to a certain integrity.
While The Uses of Enchantment author Bruno Bettelheim would probably think the movie's parable talks down to children by having no symbolic weight (he felt that cautionary tales were inferior to fairytales because they processed everything for children in advance), a bittersweet coda acknowledges that the damage done to Tod and Copper's relationship is ultimately irreversible, divesting the proceedings of any lingering condescension and instantly changing the tenor of the piece from moralistic to melancholy. (It's the rare instance of that cheesy late-'70s technique of replaying a key line of dialogue--in this case, the one about being "best friends forever"--on reverb over serene lap dissolves actually having its intended goosebump-inducing effect, perhaps because it's normally used to convey a subjective pang whereas here it serves as grim, semi-ironic commentary.) Today's youth may be a little too savvy, a little too entrenched in Middle America's self-congratulatory melting pot, for the film's Norman Lear-style didacticism to have its effect, but childhood is always going to leave battle scars and watching The Fox and the Hound is a relatively painless way to fortify a kid's psyche against whatever disillusionment inevitably awaits.
Although The Fox and the Hound was not the financial flop it's purported to be (it took in over $43M, which is around $98M--or roughly double the gross of Home on the Range--in today's economy), it continued a downward trend in the bottom line, effectively ensuring that nothing like it would ever be attempted again during the studio's reconstruction era. To be fair, by the time it came out, the picture was something of an anachronism, the political fog of the '70s having lifted to reveal a Bizarro version of the '50s and thus serving as an invitation for The Little Mermaid, which single-handedly brought Disney's animation division back from the brink eight years later by desperately harking back to the revered Eisenhower period. Indeed, The Little Mermaid is like an absentee parent in that regard, heedlessly spoiling the children rotten to make up for lost time. Seventeen years ago, it pulled the wool over everybody's eyes (mine included), one suspects out of misplaced nostalgia and hyperbolic enthusiasm for Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's infectious show tunes. But The Little Mermaid was a mirage, not an oasis.
Sixteen-year-old Ariel (voice of Jodi Benson), the titular lady in the water, incurs the wrath of her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), by continually surfacing and bringing back souvenirs she stashes inside a sunken ship. Royal aide Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), a French crab in the Maurice Chevalier mold, tries to rein in her obsession with all things topside using song, specifically a calypso number (the Oscar-winning "Under the Sea") that, before dissipating into nonsensical bebop about musically-inclined fish ("De carp play de harp," "de ray he can play," and so on), puts a maritime spin on an age-old truism. ("The seaweed is always greener in somebody else's lake," natch.) Ariel's a pathological ingrate, though, and after she saves handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) from drowning, Dad throws down the gauntlet and destroys her shrine to landlubbers. In retaliation, she strikes a Faustian bargain with tentacled witch Ursula (Pat Carroll), trading her hallowed voice for a pair of legs with which to chase after Eric. The catch? If the prince doesn't kiss her within three days, she becomes Ursula's slave.
While I'm inclined to agree with Eric Henderson's typically hypersexual reading of the film ("[Ariel's] hoarding materialism resonates as Disney's prepubescent form of masturbation"), I fear a Freudian interpretation of the text only threatens to legitimize some very dubious material. Tellingly, the Hans Christian Andersen folktale escaped radical revisionism except where the ending is concerned: Originally Ariel, consumed with regret over having sacrificed everything she had on an adolescent whim, returned to the water in human form, damning her to 300 years of purgatory as sentient seafoam. The filmmakers' reluctance to follow through on the suicidal angle is self-explanatory, but their version of Ariel is so completely without shame--any crises of conscience are funnelled into a golem (Ursula) for easy, visceral eradication--that it sends a clear message of entitlement. Where the movie's spurious conflation of matrimony with liberty can at least be chalked up to a tenacious genre convention, this innovation retroactively renders The Little Mermaid a veritable pilot for MTV's "My Super Sweet 16". Look at it this way: coming of age in the decade that brought us Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty didn't actively discourage boomer women from mobilizing to rekindle the dormant feminist movement; the generation weaned on The Little Mermaid grew up to take pride in the pejorative "diva." That's a gross oversimplification, of course, but I feel confident in saying there's a fine line between escapism and instant-gratification porn, and The Little Mermaid somehow crosses it.3
The Fox and the Hound 2
ZERO STARS/**** Image A- Sound A
screenplay by Rich Burns, Roger S.H. Schulman
directed by Jim Kammerud
As atrocious as the first film is endearing, The Fox and the Hound 2 rides its predecessor's coattails to the next-gen market in a double-feature Blu-ray I will hereon think of as a Special Edition of The Fox and the Hound supplemented by one long deleted scene. As another of Disney's patented "mid-quels," that's basically what The Fox and the Hound 2 is, anyway, returning to the nascence of Tod and Copper's friendship for a side story about the pair wandering off to the county fair, where Copper is inducted into a musical group called The Singing Strays. Sulking because there's no room for him in either this all-dog act or Copper's ostensible new life, Tod teams up with Copper's jealous rival Dixie (hatefully voiced by Reba McEntire; the late Patrick Swayze meanwhile slums as bandleader Cash) to stop a talent agent from scouting Copper, et al, leading to yet another painfully protracted Rube Goldberg set-piece--a staple of contemporary kiddie flicks--that had to be more fun to animate than it is to watch, this one involving a runaway Ferris wheel that cuts a path of destruction through the fairground. I longed for the Seth MacFarlane version, which would acknowledge, if exaggerate, the amount of carnage this would bring.
Copper's pissed, and then he isn't; the band and Dixie reconcile; and a kind of status quo is restored to the forest, although the parting image of Amos Slade hanging out with the Widow Tweed and being totally cool with his hound frolicking with her fox feels revisionist, to say the least. It's a slightly modified take on a tableau that closes out the first film--the major difference is that The Fox and the Hound had to earn it. There's an episode of "Friends" in which the end of Old Yeller catches Phoebe by surprise and she comes to realize that her mother used to censor the sad parts of books and movies. The Fox and the Hound 2 was not only made for that type of parent, it was also, evidence suggests, made by a Phoebe denied access to the dark places the first film goes. Putting the title characters into such canned conflict over things that won't mean anything (to the grim future they face, to a young audience I suspect won't know what to make of the arcane moral dilemmas Tod and Copper face here any more than I did) is both stupid and irreverent in a useless way, and a bunch of crappy songs don't help.
To commemorate the film's silver anniversary, Disney unleashes (har har) The Fox and the Hound on DVD again, rather controversially in fullscreen. Aspect ratio issues aside (and yes, this should be in 1.66:1), this is a disappointing transfer clearly mastered from a very old source à la the unsoiled editions of the Star Wars OT that came out on the format last fall. Significant digital filtering further strains sharpness from the image while introducing motion artifacts galore. I wish I had the previous "Gold Collection" release for comparison, but as rumour has it that The Fox and the Hound hasn't been run through a telecine since 1994 (the year it debuted on VHS and LaserDisc), I can't imagine it looking much worse. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is relatively inoffensive, albeit habitually placid.
A meagre helping of extras begins with a bouncing-ball rendition of "The Best of Friends" and two de rigueur Games & Activities: a set-top hide-and-seek "Forest Friendship Game" and a DVD read-along storybook loosely based on the opening act of the film, "New Best Friends." Under Backstage Disney, a 7-minute retrospective featurette ("Passing the Baton") finds stalwart interviewee Ollie Johnston reflecting all-too-briefly on the parallel between the Copper/Chief subplot and the then-impending retirement of the Nine Old Men; a stills gallery showcasing Mel Shaw's beautiful development pastels closes out this section. Two 1951 Disney cartoons--the engaging gloss on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Lambert the Sheepish Lion and the prototypically uninspired Mickey & Pluto misadventure Lend a Paw--join "sneak peeks" at Enchanted Tales: The Kingdom of Kindness, Meet the Robinsons, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, Cars, AirBuddies, "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody", The Fox and the Hound 2, the Peter Pan Special Edition, and "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" in rounding out the platter.
Disney reissues The Little Mermaid on DVD under their coveted Platinum Edition banner. Sadly, I think it's fair to say that the 1.81:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation falls well short of definitive: For starters, the film's palette just doesn't 'pop' as prescribed, yet somehow, the red of Ariel's hair often appears oversaturated. Meanwhile, the company apparently cut corners by having Technicolor supervise the transfer instead of Lowry Digital, yielding a consistently soft, dank-looking image that robs The Little Mermaid of precious fine detail. The audio is similarly problematic: Disney has unwisely left off the film's theatrical soundtrack, giving the new DD 5.1 "Enhanced Home Theater Mix" a wide berth at the expense of purists and casual fans alike. I'm inclined to agree with HOME THEATER FORUM's David Boulet that the DEHT sounds processed and unnatural, like an MP3 of the lush six-track soundtrack I remember from my 70MM viewing of the film. Also on the first platter of this two-disc set is a tediously low-key group commentary with co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements and composer Alan Menken that at least manages to avoid crossover with the remaining supplements. The appalling video for corporate puppet Ashley Tisdale's appalling cover of "Kiss the Girl" (forget lesbian overtones--she sings it as a telepathic projection to the boy of her dreams), a song selection menu, a "musical sneak peek" at The Little Mermaid III, and trailers for Meet the Robinsons, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, Cars, and The Fox and the Hound round out Disc One.
So genuine is the sense of accomplishment among the folks interviewed for the surprisingly modest collection of featurettes on Disc Two that the film's detractors will start to feel like something of a curmudgeon. And having beaten tremendous odds, they've earned it: As we discover in the six-part "Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid" (45 mins. in toto), creative personnel were working out of storage facilities erected in a parking lot (these were the lean years) under a new, impatient regime, all too aware that the future of Disney animation hinged on the success of The Little Mermaid. Former President of Production Jeffrey Katzenberg (the "K" in DreamWorks SKG) finally surfaces on one of these DVDs now that his old nemesis, Michael Eisner, is out of the picture; surprisingly charismatic and self-effacing, Katzenberg nicely balances out the effusive praise he and fellow suits Eisner, Frank Wells, and Roy E. Disney receive from former employees for resuscitating the company with anecdotal evidence of his potentially-destructive naiveté going into the project. The late lyricist Howard Ashman--to whom Katzenberg refers as "the genie"--is once again feted in one of these things, this time with assists from Frank Oz, Nora Ephron, Ashman's life partner Bill Lauch, and, yes, John Waters, who confirms that drag icon Divine served as the model for Ursula. Gay-friendly and forthright about commerce's dominion over artistry, this documentary lives up to the early promise that the Platinum Editions would sufficiently contextualize the highest-profile titles in the Disney canon in the interest of posterity.
"Storm Warning: The Little Mermaid Special Effects Unit" (9 mins.) reunites the unsung heroes of the titular unit: Randy Fullmer, Mark Dindal, Dorse Lamphier, and Ted Kierscey. "The character animators are the rock stars and we're the blue collar workers," says Fullmer--a fascinating insight into how class asserts itself on a production when there are no above-the-line players per se, although the real elephant in the room is that these guys crafted spectacles like the shipwreck sequence (a combined homage to "Song of the Roustabouts" from Dumbo and the whale climax of Pinocchio) without the aid of CGI. Moving on, "The Story Behind the Story" (12 mins.) alternates a biographical sketch of Hans Christian Andersen (courtesy gentle-voiced Andersen museum curator Ejnar Stig Askgaard) with detailed summaries (courtesy Musker and Clements) of The Little Mermaid's deviation from both the highly-personal source material and Walt Disney's own discarded plans for a Fantasia-style adaptation, which got as far as a treatment and some imposing conceptual sketches by Kay Nielsen. Amazingly, the Disney incarnation was the darkest by far, having ended with the heroine's death minus her transformative fate. Though Clements argues that his and Musker's ending honours Andersen's in spirit, I don't buy it: Parting may be sweet sorrow for King Triton, but, homage to the famous Copenhagen sculpture or not, Ariel has her back to him the whole time. The conscience of Andersen's Ariel, the author's avatar, soon outgrew her covetousness.
Intended for theatrical release but eventually distributed as a viral video, Roger Allers' 2-D The Little Matchgirl (7 mins.; 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced, DD 5.1) is here for its basis in another well-known Andersen story. It's a lovely if prosaic short, better than anything Allers, late of Open Season, has done in features, but I kind of resented the cowardly pan up from the Dr. Zhivago/McCabe & Mrs. Miller money shot (especially with Allers' teary 30-second intro preparing us for worse), and for pure schadenfreude, you still can't beat the TV version where Rudy Huxtable freezes to death. (A/V quality, for what it's worth, is excellent.) Capping the Backstage Disney ephemera: six art galleries (Visual Development, Kay Nielsen Art, Character Design, Storyboard Art, Backgrounds, Production Photos); an "early presentation reel" (3 mins.) in which a demo version of "Under the Sea" accompanies a slideshow of thumbnails; and The Little Mermaid's paradigmatic theatrical trailer. Next comes a 26-minute batch of deleted/alternate scenes (really storyboards with scratch tracks underneath) with alternating video introductions from Clements and Musker that's for Ashman completists only, as these elisions are of note chiefly for the scraps of dialogue Ashman wrote or voiced. Finishing off the set is an unusually gratifying section of Games & Activities featuring a multi-angle virtual tour of and 6-minute featurette lamenting Disneyland's The Little Mermaid attraction, a.k.a. "The Ride That Never Was." Optional commentary from "imagineer" Tony Baxter during the ride itself is pithy and informative. A "DisneyPedia" entry on "Life Under the Sea" finishes off this sub-menu as well as the package proper. Originally published: January 10, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
To appreciate how pretty The Fox and the Hound is on Blu-ray, you have to appreciate how ugly it is on that 2006 DVD. Pillarboxed at 1.66:1, the film has been restored to the limits of its imperfections, which is to say that artistic and photographic inconsistencies are in evidence, if not abundance. Colours fluctuate, drop-shadows are occasionally obvious beneath cels, and a low-level flicker comes and goes. Still, the dupiness of the DVD is replaced by a beautiful filmic quality, with the print-sourced 1080p transfer revealing in its lack of particulate matter (light grain and optical debris notwithstanding) that quality-control standards were pretty high even during this dark period for the studio. Though 2-D-animated, the sequel's aesthetic is a soulless, computer-based imitation of the original's and looks it in its 1.78:1, 1080p presentation. Giving The Fox and the Hound 2 its own platter probably would've eliminated the compression artifacts that crop up now and again, but it'd take a lot more than a bit of banding to kill its Stepford vibe.
Both films sport 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks, and again the first flick is best evaluated through the prism of the flat-sounding DVD. If The Fox and the Hound 2 boasts a comparatively state-of-the-art mix (a surprisingly dizzying one, at that, for a dtv feature), the near-Vitaphone-style audio of its predecessor is a perfect complement to the organic-feeling image. The only extra on this BD is a featurette, "Unlikely Friends" (7 mins., HD), that touches on some unusual pairings in the animal kingdom, including a hippo and a turtle who found each other after the former was orphaned. (Awww--and I mean it.) Optional previews for The Lion King, Spooky Buddies, and Dumbo cue up on startup, while additional sneak peeks at Bambi II, two more Tinkerbell movies, and Mars Needs Moms round out the disc. Stacked awkwardly on a single spindle inside the keepcase are dedicated DVDs containing the two films plus additional bonus material. Originally published: August 22, 2011.
1. Did Spielberg watch the shit out of The Fox and the Hound? His A.I. repeats this sequence of the Widow Tweed dropping Tod off for good at a game preserve almost shot-for-shot. return
2. I suppose the film is reductive in that respect--the old 'If women were in power, we'd have butterflies coming out of our ass' debate. (Two words: Margaret Thatcher.) But the Widow Tweed's advanced age somehow takes the onus off this being a gender issue, and it's a progressive attitude for a studio that usually pits charming princes against wicked matriarchs, however fallacious. return
3. According to the DVD commentary, Ashman saw Ariel as a disabled girl yearning to walk, which is insulting to say the least: Ariel's indiginous world accommodates her in ways that would be enough for any disabled person. Leaving aside its myriad transgressions, Mrs. Doubtfire earns a measure of respect for not having Robin Williams reconcile with his wife at the end of the picture. Now compare this to the awful All I Want for Christmas, in which two brats scheme to reunite their estranged mother and father--and succeed. You see where I'm going with this: If you were a divorced parent, wouldn't you prefer to expose your children to Mrs. Doubtfire? That way you don't risk fostering false hope in them. While it no doubt creates monsters out of the already-privileged, I suspect The Little Mermaid simply leads the physically or socially disadvantaged down the primrose path. return