This past week "The Fox and the Hound" arrived on a Blu-ray combo pack that includes "The Fox and the Hound II"--a pairing that's about as mismatched as the two friends from the title.
"The Fox and the Hound" (1981)
This Disney film probably doesn't get as much credit as it deserves, partly because it was produced near the middle of what can only be called a 30-year spell between Golden Ages. Between "Sleeping Beauty" (1959) and "The Little Mermaid" (1989), the studio produced 10 animated feature films that won't make too many Top-10 lists. From this group, though, "The Fox and the Hound" is arguably one of the best. The hand-drawn animation and storyline are reminiscent of "Bambi|," and it's one of the last features to benefit from the talents of animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney's "Nine Old Men."
"The Fox and the Hound" is a story about the power of friendship, a fable that has an orphaned fox kit forming a lifelong bond with a hunting dog pup. Shades of Bambi's mother, the little guy loses his in the opening sequence and is taken in by the kindly Widow Tweed (Jeanette Nolan|), who just happens to live next to a curmudgeonly hunter named Amos (Jack Albertson). Her little fox (named Tod, short for "toddler") and Amos's new hunting pup, Copper, discover each other and play together the way that children of different races and economic backgrounds will when there's no thought of the social hierarchies that tend to ruin things. Not surprisingly, as both animals get older, they develop natural instincts that threaten their friendship. The hunter, of course, continues to be the main external threat. He gets so riled when he sees a fox that he'll shoot at it even when the little critter is riding in the back of his owner's truck. But that's nothing compared to the ferocious bear that puts everyone to the test in the film's climax.
After working on Disney live-action films during his teens, Kurt Russell returns to give voice to the adult Copper, while Mickey Rooney is Tod. Pearl Bailey plays Big Mama, the wise old owl who takes Tod under her wing, while veteran character actor Pat Buttram gives voice to Chief, the old hunting dog who teaches Copper but then resents the canine competition. Sandy Duncan also appears as Vixey, the young fox who stirs Tod and provides a damsel-in-distress opportunity.
It's slow moving in spots (especially during a sappy scene where the widow releases Tod in the forest) and the music isn't noteworthy, but the animation is lovely and the story has a good message. There are enough incidents of peril to provide tension, but also plenty of scenes that allow Disney animators to do what they do best: give their animal characters expressive faces that illustrate their emotional state. You can see the surprise in Chief's eyes when the hound-dog pup is first laid at his feet, the resentment that precedes a swat that sends the little guy tumbling, and an acceptance that begins when Copper curls up on the big guy's paw and goes to sleep. Typical of Disney there's also comic relief to balance things out, provided by two birds on a never-ending quest to get the same worm over the course of two seasons.
"The Fox and the Hound II" (2006)
Small children and country music fans may like "The Fox and the Hound II," but that's about all. Though it has the same basic characters, this direct-to-DVD "midquel" bears no resemblance to the original theatrical release.
For a Disney production, it simply lacks the magic we've come to expect. The animation and plot are Saturday morning specials, with the budget for this venture reportedly around $24 million. You can certainly tell the difference. Except for opening and closing sequences that recall the beautiful watercolor backgrounds of the original, the animation lacks the richness of design and character nuances of the better theatrical releases. The plot is equally thin.
Rather than picking up where "The Fox and the Hound" left off, with Copper a proven hunting dog and Tod a grown fox with a mate, this one takes us back to when they were kids together--a period set somewhere in the middle of the original film. The sequel features all new voices, with Tod played by Jonah Bobo and Copper voiced by Harrison Fahn, a veteran of many Disney animation sequels. These unlikely friends scamper off to see a traveling carnival, though no human seems to notice that a wild fox is walking among them, or that the two of them ride on a merry-go-round. The duo falls in with a country group called The Singin' Strays after a dog diva (country singer Reba McEntire) goes on strike and little Copper steps up to fill the bill. Will he leave his best friend for a howlingly good musical time on the road?
Of course not, but that's the entire plot, and it's set up by a simplistic refrain: what's Copper good at? Though the Widow Tweed, Amos the hunter, and old Chief appear again, it's mostly token. This show belongs to the Strays: Dixie, Cash (Patrick Swayze), Granny (Vicki Lawrence), Waylon, and Floyd (both voiced by Jim Cummings). Jeff Foxworthy also appears as Lyle. Seven full-length original songs are performed during the course of this short, 69-minute film (does that even qualify it as "feature-length"?), which means that there's much more attention paid to the music than to the plot or characters. McEntire sings one, as does country star Tricia Yearwood, Lucas Grabeel, Josh Gralin, One Flew South, and those Singin' Strays.
If you're a country fan, the music is decent--especially "Blue Beyond," by Gordon Kennedy and Blair Matters, and "We're in Harmony"--but non-country music lovers may feel as if they just spent a long afternoon at Disney World's Country Bear Jamboree. Everything is just a little over-the-top, with not nearly the complexity or heart of the original.
There are almost as many home-spun aphorisms as there are tunes in this film, with Cash forever spouting such things as "I'm feelin' like a farmer with one hoe and two snakes." Well, watching this and thinking how by-the-numbers it seemed, I couldn't help but think of something a man once told me in Barbados: If all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Not all Disney sequels are created equal, and director Jim Kammerud presided over two of them that had stronger narratives and more depth: "Little Mermaid II" and "101 Dalmatians II." But in fairness, this one is still better than "The Lion King 1 ½" or "The Return of Jaffar," which remain the Fool's Gold standard for direct-to-video follow-ups.
"The Fox and the Hound" is a solid 7 out of 10, but "The Fox and the Hound II" is a 5. Unless you consider the second film a bonus feature, that averages out to a 6 for the set.
Both films are contained on a single 50GB Blu-ray disc, transferred via an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. "The Fox and the Hound" is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen and ghosting is noticeable in at least four scenes. Sometimes the line drawings have indistinct edges, but this is different. There's an obvious halo effect that's slightly blurred. From frame to frame the image quality can also vary, with superb detail, color and black levels in one shot and a soft-looking image in another. Some of this unevenness may be the result of a print that didn't receive a major restoration. All this said, the Blu-ray is still better, visually, than the DVD version.
The same can be said of "The Fox and the Hound II," which is visually more consistent than the first film. An occasional artifact still pops up, and you might quarrel with the color palette--which looks cheap and TV-esque compared to the original film, and not nearly as saturated--but "Fox II" came out of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer pretty well. It's presented in 1.78:1 widescreen.
The audio is better for both titles, with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack that's free of distortion, which you can see when the opening credits roll for the original film and you hear nothing but the slightest ambient sounds of the forest, which gradually grow louder and are joined by crescendoing music after barking is heard in the distance. Throughout the film there are quiet sounds that come from the rear speakers to add depth to the sound field, and the dialogue and music and nicely mixed so that neither stands out as wanting.
The second film isn't nearly as nuanced, with a brassy, flatter sound that, again, is typical of Saturday morning cartoons. The songs have a concert quality, though, and music is the showcase in the second film.
In this set, the Blu-ray containing both films is housed on a right-side plastic holder, while two DVDs containing both films and bonus features are housed one on top of the other on the left-side plastic holder. What's on the DVDs? Not much.
Two featurettes deal with the film's development and production: "Passing the Baton," a seven-minute 2006 making-of extra that offers brief interviews from new guys like Glen Keane and Randy Cartwright and old timers like Frank Thomas and Ollile Johnson. Another 2006 feature that's 10 minutes long focuses on the music of the second film. It aired as a Backstage Disney segment on the Disney Channel. The only other bonus features are a seven-minute "Unlikely Friends" segment about relationships in the animal kingdom (strictly for the kids), nine sneak peaks (including one for the upcoming Tinker Bell film), a "Best of Friends" karaoke, and a Lucas Grabeel music video ("You Know I Will."
The bad news is that one near-classic film is bundled with a mediocre one. The good news is that it's priced at $39.99--same as Disney's latest release, "Mars Needs Moms"--so it's tempting to consider "The Fox and the Hound II" a throw-in.