The Fox and the Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition Review
After his mother is shot by a hunter, the young fox cub Tod is taken in by the kindly Widow Tweed, who has no idea of the trouble that this decision will bring for her. Nearby, the gruff hunter Amos Slade brings home a puppy by the name of Copper, and, unaware that they are supposed to be mortal enemies, he and Tod quickly become best friends. Their dynamic is altered forever, however, when, during the winter Slade takes Copper away on a hunting trip to teach him his true nature, and, when Copper returns home, a trained hunter, Tod is unable to believe that his best friend is now ready to kill him on sight. Their problems are just beginning, however, as Slade sets out to exact a personal vendetta against the fox...
By the late 1970s, the Walt Disney Company was in a state of disrepair. Following Disney's death at the end of 1966, the company had been controlled by his brother Roy and nephew Ron Miller. That period resulted in a culture of complacency and stinginess as, following the laying off of the bulk of the company's animation staff, a core team of less than 200 old-timers worked on low budget and increasingly unimaginative films. In 1973, they produced their most derivative effort yet - Robin Hood, a meandering, almost plotless affair that reused not only a considerable amount of animation from previous films but also an entire character, transplanting the design and voice of Baloo from The Jungle Book into that of Little John.
The decay was, to some extent, inevitable. By the mid-1970s, more or less the same crew that had worked on the Disney features since the very beginning was still active, but most of them were, by then, nearing retirement age, and the studio had seen a distinct lack of new blood coming in. 1977, therefore, marked something of a turning point with the release of The Rescuers, a film that suffered from many of the same flaws as its immediate predecessors, but, as the first film on which a new batch of artists worked, many of whom would go on to spearhead the renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s, hinted at a new beginning.
1981's The Fox and the Hound, however, can be seen as the true beginning of a new era for the Disney studio as, while on The Rescuers the new artists were working under the old guard, it was on this film that many of the new crowd moved into positions of leadership. Indeed, the film constitutes a great number of "lasts". It was the last film that any of the Nine Old Men were actively involved with (Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston served as supervising animators on the project, but they retired while it was still in production; Wolfgang Reitherman was the original director, but he too retired, passing the reigns over to the team of Art Stevens, Ted Berman and Richard Rich). It was the last film to feature all of its credits at the start of the film - a process that had gone out of fashion years before. If you want to get really technical, it was also the last Disney film to be recorded in mono, using the old RCA Photophone system. The film has also gained some notoriety due to the fact that, during its production, supervising animator Don Bluth and several other artists made the abrupt decision to leave and form their own studio, resulting in the film's release being delayed considerably.
In many ways, this is entirely appropriate for a film that is all about the inexorable reality of change, growing up and moving on. Indeed, the film is surprising in its unshakenly pragmatic outlook. Its outcome is happy only in the sense that no-one actually ends up dead, but otherwise it's an incredibly bleak ending for a Disney film, ultimately concluding that the gap that has grown between the two characters can never be reconciled. You certainly won't find any fanciful "happily ever after" messages here, and while this may not be the ending children and concerned parents are looking for, it's definitely a realistic one.
For all the change, though, this is still a very traditional Disney film, taking more than its fair share of cues from the much-loved Bambi. Like Bambi, it begins with a slow, ominous pan through a quiet forest, and like Bambi, it carries a strong anti-hunting message. Just as Bambi's mother is shot at that film's half-way point, Tod is orphaned by a hunter within the first few minutes of this one. The interaction between the young Tod and Copper is also highly reminiscent of Bambi and Thumper's frolics, and a number of the backgrounds even seem to mimic the earlier film's diffuse watercolour style.
Unfortunately, The Fox and the Hound, like the bulk of the films the studio produced during the period between Walt Disney's death and the second Golden Age that began with The Little Mermaid, is deeply flawed. In particular, the comedic moments clash quite poorly with the more serious moments, while the various musical numbers are so flat and unremarkable that you'll literally forget them as soon as you've heard them - no Howard Ashman/Alan Menken-level compositions here. Additionally, a cutesy subplot involving two birds attempting to catch a caterpillar, which continues to play out in the background throughout the film's 83-minute duration, seems to have been included only because the storymen thought that this was a required component of a Disney film rather than because it actually fulfils any narrative purpose (although, admittedly, its resolution does contribute to the themes of transformation and change). The vocal performances are also rather lacklustre, with the voices of the likes of Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell and Pearl Bailey never really seeming to be coming out of the mouths of the animated characters. Sandy Duncan's overly chirpy performance as Vixey, meanwhile, was apparently enough to convince a young Tim Burton (uncredited) to abandon the world of animation in favour of live action.
Ultimately, however, the biggest problem is that lengthy stretches of the film are quite simply rather boring, lacking the memorable characters and slick animaton that have made the studio's best-loved films so popular. This is a film that, at its best, manages to be incredibly powerful (the "Goodbye May Seem Forever" sequence and Copper's final brief reunion with Tod are among the most emotional moments I've ever come across in an animated feature), but at its worst is the sort of inoffensive kiddie fodder that parents can leave their children with for an hour and a half so they can put their feet up. Probably more interesting for its historical relevance than for the final product, The Fox and the Hound is flawed, but a key entry in the Disney studio's filmography.
Top: Frame from the DVD.
Bottom: The same frame, taken from a print source (image from IGN).
Note: the transfer review for this disc was written by DVD Times hardware reviewer David Mackenzie.
The Fox and the Hound is an oddity among Disney DVD releases in that it has had no "restoration" work done on it whatsoever. Although a film as recent as this shouldn't require much, if any, work of this sort, it should have had a new video master prepared for this 25th Anniversary Edition release, because the one included here, which dates back to the mid-90s, is completely inappropriate.
The transfer is sourced from the same master that was used on the previous American Gold Collection DVD from 2000, as well as the standard UK release from 2001 and the mid-90s VHS release. Sadly, this means that the film is not presented in its original aspect ratio but is instead cropped to 1.33:1. There has been some debate as to precisely what was this film's intended ratio, but one thing's for sure: a movie released in 1981 would not have been projected theatrically in the by then defunct Academy ratio. Some review sites have argued to the contrary, citing the various 1960s and 70s Disney films that were animated at 1.33:1 and then cropped theatrically as necessary, but the fact that The Rescuers, released four years before The Fox on the Hound, exists on DVD in a ratio of 1.66:1 casts considerable doubt on this theory. As does the fact that, on numerous occasions, the compositions on this DVD can clearly be seen to be too tight. Additionally, the IGN web site features a film scan which clearly shows more information at the sides than is visible on the DVD.
The video also suffers from Temporal Noise Reduction artefacts. These are not the same as what animation fans refer to as "DVNR artefacts": Temporal Noise Reduction instead analyses frames as a sequence and "blurs time", so to speak - thick outlines will occasionally leave trails (albeit light ones), textures on the painted backgrounds will blur up on movement, and any sequences with fog or mist suffer greatly. Considering that this film starts with slow panning shots in a foggy forest, you'd think that whoever prepared the transfer would have been more careful. One very likely explanation is that this noise reduction was possibly applied to the transfer when it was originally made years ago, when technology was less sophisticated and the end result was destined for VHS, where it would be far less noticeable. That said, the same artefacts were also to be found in the recent Platinum Edition release of The Little Mermaid, so it would appear that Disney have not yet learned their lesson.
Left: Red fringing (look at the right of Copper's muzzle, and right of the bear's teeth).
Right: Temporal Noise Reduction artefacts (look at the ghosted pencil outlines - shot slightly brightened for illustrative purposes).
The transfer also suffers from what appear to be limitations of older telecine technology. One of the last scenes features what seems to be some sort of chromatic aberration that appears as red fringing around characters that are positioned against the white background. The result is that the video presentation has a very dated look to it.
Although far from Disney's best, from a technical point of view, The Fox and the Hound deserves proper 21st century mastering treatment, which it has not received here. The most unacceptable point is that the entire film is not present on the disc due to the incorrect aspect ratio, which I imagine will make it difficult to avoid feeling short-changed.
Three audio tracks are provided: English, French and Spanish, all in 384 Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1. As you can probably guess, this is not the film's original mix: The Fox and the Hound was the last Disney film to be accompanied by a mono audio track, and, as such, this DVD constitutes a complete bastardisation of the intended audio levels. Rather than going back to the original music, dialogue and effects stems and creating a completely new audio master, Disney have simply taken the final mono track and used an automated upmixing process to fill all five audio channels. The result is that the sound is directionless and wonky, and while the relatively hands-off nature of the remix means that it's nothing like as destructive as some of the more heavily processed remixes I've heard (see, for example, many of Anchor Bay's efforts, or Media Blasters' work on A Lizard in a Woman's Skin), it is irritating nonetheless, especially given that it wouldn't have taken much effort to include the original mono mix.
Subtitles are provided in English for the film but not the extras.
One would be forgiven, given the "25th Anniversary Edition" tag on the cover, to expect something reasonably substantial in terms of extras. (Then again, one would also expect the film to be presented in its original aspect ratio and audio mix...) Therefore, the paltry selection of materials provided here is disappointing to say the least. In fact, barring a few teaser trailers, there is nothing here that wasn't already on the 2001 UK release. The most substantial (relatively speaking) features are a gallery of 52 images (mainly conceptual and behind the scenes, but with a few marketing and merchandise-related odds and ends thrown in too) and a 7-minute featurette entitled "Passing the Baton". The former is particularly interesting because, in one behind the scenes still, you can clearly see the film being projected in widescreen as composer Buddy Baker conducts the orchestra, while the latter, recorded at around the time of the production of Aladdin judging by the maquette of the Genie on display and the relative age of the participants, touches on some of the themes of the film, as well as its transitional nature given the departure of so many of the old guard during its production process.
Otherwise, there's really nothing here worth mentioning: a 2-minute sing-along song (in much worse condition than the film itself), a "forest friendship" game, a read-along storybook (the fact that such a feature is included at all shows the age of the materials on offer here), and two bonus shorts which can also be found in last year's Disney Rarities release. Therefore, unless you're absolutely desperate to see trailers for The Fox and the Hound 2 (which shows that yes, it really can get worse than Mulan 2) and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time (reported to be the final Disney cheapquel, thank Christ), there's really nothing to justify buying this release if you already own the previous one.
The 25th Anniversary Edition of The Fox and the Hound is comfortably the worst release Disney have put out in a long time, with the state of the film itself and the paltry extras suggesting that more thought was put into designing the packaging than the contents of the disc itself. As such, I can think of no reason for anyone to purchase this sorry excuse for a special edition - you'd be just as well waiting for it to show up on TV again, as it generally does every Christmas or Easter.