Breaking Down Disney’s “Dark Age”: Part 2

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In the last part, I took a look at the first films that entered production after Walt Disney’s passing in 1966, The Aristocats and Robin Hood. These were two very compromised films, the filmmakers behind them had to be very budget-conscious all the while delivering fun films that would get The Jungle Book‘s success, and bring in the whole audience, all the demographics. Even in a world where movies with material that was inappropriate for young children were compelling teenagers and adults…

The Aristocats and Robin Hood, reviews be darned, were box office successes that convinced the brass to let the studio continue making feature-length animated films. When Robin Hood was being released, the animated feature game had been changed, notably on American soil by an auteur named Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi’s first feature, the X-rated Fritz the Cat, shocked the public since many Americans weren’t ready for an animated film of its caliber. Fritz also changed the game because it had something to say, and had tied into early 70s American politics and the times. His next feature, Heavy Traffic, also garnered an X rating and was only for adults. Outside of Bakshi, there was 1968’s Yellow Submarine, a visually exciting musical odyssey inspired by the music of The Beatles that showed how limitless animation is, as did imports like Rene Laloux’s abstract sci-fi tale Fantastic Planet.

Compared to these films, The Aristocats and Robin Hood weren’t quite impressive, but again… The animators and crew had little to work with, and had to cut corners to keep the studio alive. Many new and young animators were hired by the studio when Robin Hood was in production, many of them wanting to do something really cool with animation. Problem was, Robin Hood and its requirements didn’t quite allow that. That frustrated both the new crew and even some of the veterans. Milt Kahl, for instance, was very vocal about his opposition to the re-use of animation in Robin Hood.

The new crew then found themselves working on the third Winnie the Pooh featurette, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! Another delightful entry in the series, though perhaps not as strong as the previous two shorts, it was a serviceable effort and a job well done. Disney then took the three shorts, had the crew animate additional footage, and strung it all together into what they passed off as a new feature-length film: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Released in spring 1977, Disney to this day keeps saying that Walt always wanted it done that way. That’s actually untrue.

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Walt abandoned the feature-length Winnie the Pooh film in the early 1960s, realizing that A. A. Milne’s bedtime stories couldn’t be stretched to a roughly 75-minute film, so he opted to make shorts, he never had any intentions to make three shorts and then combine them into a feature later on down the road. The first featurette – Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree – was completed and released ten months before his passing. Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day was started when Walt was still alive so it has his touch, and it was completed and released in 1968. Tigger Too! didn’t appear until 1974, and was conceived long after 1968.

Anyways, it was a good way to get some extra money before the completion of the next big animated feature…

The Rescuers

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Walt Disney and his crew had looked into adapting Marjory Sharp’s mice stories Miss Bianca and The Rescuers in the early 1960s, but Walt ultimately dropped the project because of the political overtones that the totalitarian story – adapted from the first, more adult-oriented book – came with. In the early 1970s, the project came back and instead the studio would work off of the sequel books. Like many a Disney animated project, it had changed directions over the course of its four-year journey to the big screen. Don Bluth would come to spearhead a lot of the project, which was being turned into a return to form. A return to the bigger budget, bigger scale picture that Disney Animation couldn’t bring with the scaled-down Aristocats and Robin Hood.

By the mid-1970s, when the film was inching into production, ambitious projects began to pop up at the studio. A sci-fi story called Spacecraft One, intergalactic adventure The Hero from Otherwere, and an adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s high fantasy novel series The Chronicles of Prydain.When The Rescuers was entering its final lap in early 1977, Disney began working on an adaptation of the Daniel P. Mannix novel The Fox and the Hound. It seemed like things were turning around on S.S. Walt Disney Productions.

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The Rescuers brought back two elements that were missing from Disney’s animation in the years without Walt. The first was the scale and size, the picture had cost $7.5 million – far more than what the previous two films cost. Wolfgang Reitherman, according to story man Steve Hulett’s account of where Disney was in the 70s and 80s, had actually complained about the film costing too much! Second, they brought back some of the bite that made Walt Disney’s best animated features so effective and so rich. The Rescuers is not the fun-and-games of The Aristocats and Robin Hood.

It’s a pretty gloomy-looking film, with a sometimes murky tone that matches its swampy Florida Everglades setting. The art direction on the swamps really bring out that mysterious and at times lonely atmosphere. It suits the story, a orphan girl named Penny is kidnapped by a wicked pawn shopper owner who is trying to get a rare diamond that’s inside a pirate cave that only Penny can fit into. The problem is, the tides eventually rise, which could drown the girl if she isn’t lifted out in time. Medusa flies down to Florida after her right-hand man – the comical Snoops – isn’t forceful enough with Penny, and intends to make Penny go into that cave – no ifs, ands, or buts.

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That’s where our mice heroes are called in. The Rescue Aid Society is always there to help someone in need, and Penny’s message in a bottle miraculously makes it to New York City mostly unscathed. Adventurous Hungarian mouse Bianca (voiced by an on-point Eva Gabor) takes the job, cowardly janitor Bernard (voiced by an equally great Bob Newhart) is roped into joining her. The two work off of each other wonderfully, and this film would end up being a swan song for many of the veteran animators, so they gave it their all. Several other animal characters are fun too, from Orville the pilot albatross (voiced by a very funny Jim Jordan, best known for his Fibber McGee radio character) to a band of swamp critters who help the mice on their mission.

The film, since it’s mostly set in the bayous, actually justifies the use of Southern and country-and-western actors for once. (The ones that performed for The Aristocats and Robin Hood sounded kind of out-of-place given the settings of those films.) Pat Buttram appears yet again as a moonshine-guzzling muskrat named Luke, George Lindsey’s back as a rabbit named Deadeye, and Gunsmoke‘s Dub Taylor plays a mole named Digger. (Who, appropriately, wears a hard hat complete a flashlight!) Another standout character is Penny’s feline friend from the orphanage, the elderly Rufus (voiced by John McIntire), whose design is modeled after Ollie Johnston himself.

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The villainous Madame Medusa is outrageous and flamboyant in both design and behavior, brought to life wonderfully by an on-his-way-out Milt Kahl, and Geraldine Page’s tip-top performance. At the same time she’s one of Disney’s cruelest villains. Kidnapping and forcing poor Penny to go into a dangerous cave wasn’t bad enough, she outright verbally abuses the orphan and worsens her previously-established insecurities. (“What makes you think anyone would want a homely little girl like you?”)

Yes, The Rescuers brought back the darker side of Disney’s animation. Perhaps Don Bluth’s major involvement in the project was a contributor, though the Nine Old Men probably wanted to go back to that kind of story themselves. Bluth admittedly felt a lot was missing from Walt Disney Productions’ animated output, and wanted to reinvent the studio or perhaps become that generation’s Walt. The Rescuers contains, I feel, lots of little things that would come to characterize Don Bluth’s efforts, from the darker tone to the setting to a kid protagonist facing a lot of danger and harshness.

The Rescuers is no stroll, either. The film, unlike the meandering string of romps that came before it, actually hauls. The first act goes by at an even pace, the flight down to Devil’s Bayou and the subsequent ride to Medusa’s abandoned steamboat have energy and oomph that’s not in many of those aforementioned 60s and early 70s features. It does tend to sag in the middle, but once it picks back up, it really picks back up. So not only was The Rescuers a return to the rougher side of Disney, it was also a return to more straightforward and focused storytelling. Not that an episodic story is bad, The Jungle Book is certainly a very good example of this, but this was a tale that called for an on-the-move pace. It was essentially the next 101 Dalmatians. Mystery, action, go-go-go pacing…

Not to mention Cruella de Vil *almost* being the villain of this picture at one point in development!

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Going the Bambi route, most of The Rescuers‘ songs are sung offscreen. ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’ is pretty contemporary-sounding pop, but it’s nice-sounding. ‘Rescue Aid Society’ is the rare onscreen musical number in the movie, and it’s a cute, fun little ditty. ‘Someone’s Waiting for You’ easily and obviously tops everything else, a great melancholic dirge that follows the heartbreaking scene where Medusa belittles Penny. Equally tear-jerking is the opening credits song ‘The Journey’, set to paintings of the bottle’s voyage from the bayou to New York. Certainly not the “cut and paste animation from the movie itself” credits of the last two features!

The Rescuers was it. The return to form. The one that had it all. There was comedy, good music, it was a good-sized adventure, it was a rare modern day Disney animated picture, the characters were great, the animation and art direction was top-notch, and the story wasn’t innocuous fluff. It was something for the whole family, like a better Disney film. The picture was a pretty big hit when it was released in the summer of 1977, garnering the highest gross for an animated movie on its initial release. As animation historian Charles Solomon always pointed out, the film actually outdid Star Wars (!) in France and Germany. Critical reception was mostly very positive, it seemed as if Disney had made their best post-Walt effort yet, and that a Renaissance was on the horizon…

Long before the Disney animated smashes of the 90s lead to people commonly using such a word for the studio’s animation…

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Would the hope last? By the time The Rescuers was completed, the studio was already hard at work on the next event: The Fox and the Hound. They had a young, ambitious team that seemed like it was going to take over while the veterans slowly retired. In the mean time, work on Pete’s Dragon was winding down, a live-action/animated hybrid that seemed like another attempt to recapture the Mary Poppins magic. When released at the end of 1977, the reception was mostly mixed and it seemed like the animation was the only good thing about the film, some may think it’s an overlooked gem. Bedknobs and Broomsticks remained the best post-Poppins hybrid.

A live-action/animated hybrid wouldn’t be attempted again after this. Not for a long, long while.

Creative differences had already plagued the fox picture from the start, with long-time director Wolfgang Reitherman ending up getting ousted from the project. The other director, Art Stevens, was instrumental in making that happen. The new directors at his side were veteran Ted Bermann and newcomer Richard Rich. By 1978, many of the young animators found themselves struggling. The picture in the works was another talking animals film that would have a very conservative look to it, other projects included shorts like The Small One and Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

Most of those animators found themselves working on Don Bluth’s side project Banjo the Woodpile Cat, in his garage. Things had come to a head in September 1979 when Don Bluth sparked a mass exodus, he left Disney and 13 young turks went with him. It made the headlines, it was panic for Walt Disney Productions. Or was it? While new animators were hired fresh out of CalArts (and really big names, if you know a thing or two), The Fox and the Hound had to be pushed back from Christmas 1980 to the summer of 1981. The remaining veterans would make this their last…

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The Fox and the Hound was perhaps not an appropriate story for Disney to adapt, especially Card Walker/Ron Miller-era Disney. Not a fairy tale or fantasy story, the 1967 novel was quite dark and more in the Plague Dogs wheelhouse than anything. Why Disney chose to go forward with this film and not some of the other in-development projects is puzzling, though I get the sense this one was picked because of the animal cast and the potential drama.

The adaptation focuses heavily on the friendship of Tod and Copper, and how their backgrounds force them to change and ultimately become enemies, a story that mirrored real-life prejudice and society conditioning people into having biases. With a strong core like that, it was set to be the next Rescuers. With a new ambitious team on hand, it seemed like it would be a logical step forward, no?

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Sadly, The Fox and the Hound tends to be held back, as if it’s on a leash. Some early 70s Aristocats/Robin Hood-isms tend to rear their heads into the melancholic story. The comic relief birds Dinky and Boomer are one example, adding little to the film and mostly jarring with everything else, rather than naturally blending in with the narrative. Some woodland creatures Tod meets when he’s left in the forest by his owner fare better, such as a grumpy badger (voiced by a returning John McIntire) and a friendly porcupine (voiced by Piglet himself, Jon Fiedler), but not much time is really spent with them, nor do we see other woodland animals.

Luckily, Tod and Copper’s friendship is well-handled. The early portions of the film evoke the childhood half of Bambi, though without that film’s artistry and beauty. The Fox and the Hound, despite costing a then-record $12 million to make, has very plain art direction. No elaborate effects here, no dazzling imagery there. The character animation on the other hand soars, and some of the young animators show what they’re made of in several key sequences. (We’ll get to those!) While its depiction of the rural South is nice to look at, it does not “wow”.

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The film’s story strengths are in the first and final thirds. Again, young Tod and Copper (voiced by Keith Coogan and Corey Feldman, respectively) are very believable characters and by the time they have to fight, you really don’t want that to happen. While the birds are more annoying than funny, there is some good comic relief here and there not involving them. Elder dog chief pursuing Tod through Amos Slade’s farm has some good comic energy, and there’s other fun stuff such as Tod causing mischief in his owner’s farm. Outside of the comedy, they mostly nail the drama. The songs? I can do without them for the most part, for the first time it feels as if the songs were put into the film for the sake of having them. ‘Best of Friends’ is passable, but ‘Education or Elimination’ is barely a musical number, and ‘I’m a Hunting Man’ – pleasant country thumpin’ – lasts only a few seconds.

So it starts off just fine… Would the film stick the landing and be the next Rescuers? Unfortunately, this would not be the case. The Fox and the Hound‘s main message and its moodier, less friendly second half are pierced in the heart by a decision made from the brass upstairs. Director Art Stevens, Ron Miller, and the rest of the executives didn’t want Chief to die in the middle of the picture. Adult Tod (voiced well by Mickey Rooney), while visiting Copper (played very well by Kurt Russell) for the first time since they were kids, awakens the older hunting dog after learning that their friendship has to end. Amos and Chief chase Tod into the woods, Copper involuntarily accompanies the two. Copper finds Tod and tells him he’ll let him go this one time, which inadvertently leads to Chief getting hit by a speeding freight train and falling into the ravine below.

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Now, from the get-go, the intention was to have Chief die. It made sense, logically, there’s no way Chief could feasibly survive such a blow. Second, it would give Copper more than a good reason to turn against his best friend. But Stevens, Miller and the higher-ups demanded that Chief live, much to the chagrin of the young animators and story team. There was nothing they could do to make the higher-ups see sense, the top men wanted relatively squeaky-clean family fare, not the next Bambi. To me, their boneheaded decision seriously hurts the rest of the film. Copper’s lust for revenge isn’t quite justified, as Chief is mostly unscathed, with a little cast on his hind leg. It’s also bizarre because Tod’s mother, even though she never speaks, is gunned down during the opening credits.

The decision goes against a lot of what the film sets out to do, while also sending a message that Disney Animation was no longer going to be this bold art form that Walt strove to create and advance. You can easily see why this grated on the young’un animators, but many of them sucked it up and did their jobs, and played the second half straight – which is undeniably impressive. The only other issue here is the middle.

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The middle feels very undercooked, and just an ongoing prelude to an awesome climax. Now the sequence where Widow Tweed has to let the fully grown Tod go – wisely set to a song that’s sung off screen, ‘Goodbye May Seem Forever’ – is definitely the film’s most despondent moment, but not much is done with his new life in the woods. The first night mostly recycles from Bambi‘s ‘Little April Shower’ sequence, the mood is right but the scene just kind of goes by. He meets a few faces, like a grumpy badger (voiced by a returning John McIntire) and a friendly porcupine (voiced by Piglet himself, Jon Fiedler), but little else. Even weaker is his forced romance with VIxey (voiced by a seemingly-bored Sandy Duncan), made worse by an awkward love song ‘Appreciate the Lady’. ‘Bella Notte’ it’s not! Actually, prior to leaving, Wolfgang Reitherman suggested boosting the middle with a disco musical number sung by Phil Harris and Charro playing two cranes! Suffice to say, that didn’t last long either, and rightfully so.

As that all goes on, Amos and Copper plot their revenge on Tod, knowing the Widow dropped him off at the game preserve. We get a comical scene of Chief hobbling around in the cast and enjoying being down for the count, further negating what’s to come. The two then invade the preserve, which leads up to a terrifically intense climax, one that’s dialed up to eleven when a ferocious grizzly bear is disturbed by Amos. The bear scene was made possible by an ambitious, already-at-the-top-of-his-game Glen Keane. Every second of it is raw, unhinged action and in terms of scale, scope, and staging… It’s the best portion of the whole film, making the rest of it and most of 70s Disney seem even tamer. This was Walt-era level danger right here, not too far from Monstro’s pursuit of Pinocchio and his family, or Tramp’s fight with the rat. Climaxing the movie – even if the whole ending is not supported by the fact that Chief survived the fall – on a bang, Tod and Copper’s goodbye to each other may not be the dour ending of the book, but it’s a fittingly bittersweet end to this tale.

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The Fox and the Hound is definitely a victim of the power struggle between the old timers and the young “punks”, though its attempts to be a more mature, Bambi-esque drama are indeed admirable. With budget restraints, the animators and crew couldn’t do too much with what they had. There were good intentions behind the show, but it needed more of that spunk, the Walt-ian spark that made The Rescuers a high point. That spark was flaring at Don Bluth’s production house, as their debut feature – 1982’s The Secret of NIMH – was a bigger budgeted visual knockout, was much darker, and was right in line with the rough, PG-rated fantasy adventures of the era.

Consequently, The Fox and the Hound was met with more mixed reception while The Secret of NIMH won critical praise. Many critics however, when reviewing Fox and the Hound, were surprised to see an animated family film commenting on deeper, social, and political issues, perhaps forgetting that Walt Disney’s work had already done similar things. It didn’t matter whether the critics adored the film or not, The Fox and the Hound was yet another box office smash for Disney, though it was no blockbuster. Feature animation hadn’t enjoyed that kind of success in a long, long while…

With The Fox and the Hound completed, pre-production began on something that was stalling for years, something with a lot of promise, but did they deliver on it?

Continued in Part 3, my review of The Black Cauldron for Rotoscopers…

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3 thoughts on “Breaking Down Disney’s “Dark Age”: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Breaking Down Disney’s “Dark Age”: Part 1 | Kyle Loves Animation and More…

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