Disney's extravagant approach to storytelling has spanned the quality banner from the textured and sublime to the distasteful and gag-inducing, yet their output has sometimes proven superior when they step away from this kind of showmanship to something approaching subtlety. Lilo & Stitch is the most recent example of this trend, its earthy color scheme and simple art design allowing for greater poignancy and sincerity. Perhaps the ultimate high-water mark of Disney's softer side is 1981's The Fox and the Hound, notable in the canon for being the transition point between the original animators (of 24 feature films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) to the new generation, still at work today. One can readily see how the results culled the best qualities of both groups. The infamous "nine old men" ended their careers by establishing the characters and relationships of the story—which are exquisite, family film or not—while the up-and-coming were left to finish the bulk of the animation. The result is a work of both learned, assured poise and triumphant freshman determination, not far away (in style or quality) from other benchmark-status works, like the aforementioned Snow White or Pixar's Toy Story.
Ultimately, it may even surpass them. The beats of the film always feel natural and are nearly perfect from first to last, while its economy of storytelling (like life, it moves faster than you think) instills its morals and character archetypes with an unprecedented sincerity; lesser hands would have easily rendered them cloying or obtuse. Two fresh lives coincide when an orphaned fox is adopted (and named Tod) by a caring widow and a pup named Copper is bought by a neighboring recluse to be raised into his next hunting partner. An accidental meeting between the two—in the forest, away from society—forges bonds both deep and pure. Expectedly, but no less wrenchingly, it isn't but a few months before the demands and indoctrinations of the world have thrown a wrench between the two, suggesting readings of racism or classicism, but really reflecting anything that might tell us we should follow anything but the voices of our own hearts. When the grown-up Copper and Todd (now voiced by Kurt Russell and Mickey Rooney, respectively) first reunite (briefly, before senseless tragedy strikes), Copper tells him "those days are over, I'm a hunting dog now," and there's something about his face and eyes that suggests he doesn't truly believe his own words. And so The Fox and the Hound addresses our sacrifices to normalcy and the betrayals many commit on their own person. If you're heart isn't breaking within the hour mark, I'd worry that something is missing inside.
The stripped-down simplicity of the story (freely adapted from the 1967 novel by Daniel P. Mannix) is appropriate for its true-to-life bleakness, which isn't to say it's a film without hope (ultimately, it saves the day, or rather, salvages it), but that archetypal singularity is fitting when a story boils down to so many singular acts with permanent, often tragic consequences. Stones cast ripples than cannot be retracted, and sometimes goodbye does mean forever. The complex connections of life are evoked tenderly via a small but rich cast of supporting characters, from nurturers (the human widow Tweed, the owl Big Mama) and instigators (the aging hunter dog Chief, or a grumpy forest badger, the local Tea Party representative) to pacifists (Squeeks the caterpillar) and the necessary comic relief (the caterpillar-hungry birds Dinky and Boomer). A permeating quotidian sensibility is reinforced via numerous asides and vignettes that add texture beyond the immediate plot, easily justifying the fable-esque narrative pull; this may be the closest any Disney film comes to being Altmanesque. And when terror comes, it's of the unyielding, mortal kind ("Education, or elimination!"), be it the maw of the food chain of the barrel of a gun. Children's films have often been more unsettling, but few, if any, exceed The Fox and the Hound for quietly bitter honesty. Its modesty is unsurpassed, and thanks to it, we've been spared its inclusion in the theme-park side of Disney culture. Maybe it's best that the film has been somewhat forgotten; it can shine even brighter out the limelight.
Then there's the abomination that shares disc space with this sublime gem. From its blatant recycling of significant portions of the original film, to its tissue paper-thin narrative (a seemingly stretched-out 69 minutes), to its consistently half-assed and base efforts to whip up energy amid entirely lifeless elements, it's not hard to see this 2006 midquel as a betrayal of everything the 1981 original stood for. Unlike the gimmicky The Lion King 1½, the retroactively inventive (I use that word hesitantly) storyline here fails to mesh with its predecessor on any substantial level (Shrek co-writer Roger S.H. Schulman penned the screenplay, ensuring low quality), so it's best to imagine the whole thing as existing in some unfortunate parallel universe. Offensively low on charm and organic feeling, the plot of this shat-onto-home-video cash-in makes less and less sense the more one thinks about it, and I for one can't wait until I've forgotten it entirely. What was once raw and truthful is now a manufactured, laminated smorgasbord of distractions—not just from genuine meaning, but from the lack of serious creative desire put forth in making it. The basic truths herein (friends > fame) might be of some moral worth to the youngest of tykes, but they'll probably be more drawn in by the basic colors and shapes than the shapeless, uninspired platitudes. Ultimately, The Fox and the Hound 2 is the Hyde to The Fox and the Hound's Jekyll. Fans of the original can save themselves some time and run lemon juice over their next paper cut for a comparable experience.
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The transfer quality is roughly equal across both films: colors are vibrant, and every detail—hand-drawn or otherwise—is sharply rendered. Sound is similarly top-notch. Dialogue and music are carefully balanced amid the rest of the minimalist sound design of the original; great care has been taken to maintain the personality of the audio even in the digital format. The unnecessarily noisy 2006 film is an entirely different story. Music tends toward the rear speakers, while the bouncing around of effects from channel to channel reinforces everything asinine about the film. It sounds good despite not being worth listening to.
Very few. The Blu-ray disc, which holds both films, has a bunch of previews and an advert for Disney's line of 3D discs that's "hosted" by The Lion King's Timon and Pumba. The recycling of animation is both obvious and shameless, and I'm sure I'd have disliked it even when I was eight and actually enamored with that film. The only other extra here is the featurette "Unlikely Friends," which looks at other unexpected relationship between animals, but mostly serves to include as many different Disney clips as possible. DVD copies of each film are available, with their own meager offerings in the extras department. On The Fox and the Hound, you'll find the recycled but worthwhile "Passing the Baton," which interviews several animators present during the tumultuous production, and a karaoke video for the song "Best of Friends." The Fox and the Hound 2 has a music video and a doc on the production of music for the film.
A top-heavy double feature that provides an excellent representation of one of Disney's most underrated works, while simultaneously illustrating the best and worst of the problematic studio's tendencies.