The 1980s have been obsessed over in nostalgia probably since 1990. Everyone fondly pines for the days when they could wear leather and it wasn’t weird, when cinema was full of muscly men churning out bullets and dreadful dialogue and when songs like ‘Karma Chameleon’ and ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ were bestsellers. I was born in 1990, so to me the decade just seems unutterably naff. Except for Back To The Future and My Neighbour Totoro, that is. Curiously, however, it is a slightly anomalous period for Disney, and it is the 90s that is far more fondly remembered (that said, 90s nostalgia is becoming massive at the moment and it is equally horrible). The Disney films of the Obscure Eighties, as I shall name them because I like to periodise things, are The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, Basil: The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company. Although The Little Mermaid was 1989, I’m counting it as the start of the Second Golden Age. In terms of fame, the Obscure Eighties are for aficionados only, beloved by a few but, in the UK at least, not especially well known (especially relative to titans like The Lion King).
Part of the reason for this obscurity may be that none of the films were particularly famous even at the time of release. The Black Cauldron received attention for being very dark and scaring younger audiences (it was the first Disney animation to get a PG), but on the whole they were financially unsuccessful which prompted the studio’s introspection and renaissance that became their Second Golden Age. For whatever reason – perhaps I’ll find out as I watch them – Disney’s films in the eighties didn’t cut the mustard with audiences, and perhaps that’s the reason they aren’t as well known today. On the evidence of The Fox and the Hound, probably the most famous from the period, it’s perhaps unfair that this happened to them, as it is a moving, highly emotional story reminiscent of Bambi – although not quite as awe inspiring.
At least in Bambi the fawn is given some time with his Mum before she is offed by hunters. Here it is the opening scene when a tiny fox cub sees his ma run off over the hill and a gun shot rings out. BOOM. Straight away, maternal death and far too many emotions for most people to cope with. This establishes the tone for the rest of the film: every element within it is very precisely calculated to elicit extreme emotion. By opening the film up with death, Disney are guilty of something they are regularly accused of – emotional manipulation. It became a lot more prevalent in the 00s when, perhaps, the well of stories dried up a little bit so the studio relied on facile emotions and overtly ‘cute’ moments. The Fox and the Hound is unashamedly heart-tugging, starting with a first act where the titular animals are just cubs who meet each other and promise to be friends forever, through to the finale where one is hunting the other and they have to remember their early vow. It does everything but have the director face the audience and tell them they have to cry.
Yet The Fox and the Hound poses a question of whether emotional manipulation is really such a bad thing in cinema anyway. Yes, this very overtly jerks tears, and has no qualms about being so obvious about it, but all cinema is, in a way, manipulative and designed to tease out emotions from the audience. The degree of subtlety often affects a film’s success in doing so. When the main character in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru dies on a swing in the snow, singing to himself, Kurosawa and his astonishing lead actor Takashi Shimura have truly earned the moment through unfolding revelations about his life after he dies halfway through the film. Contrast this with something like Marley and Me, or anything by Nicholas Sparks, and you see why such films are so painfully blunt in the way they move audiences to tears. Yet people still cry at them nonetheless – many even watch the films anticipating overly emotional endings, seeking catharsis through cinema.
I’d argue that The Fox and the Hound is several levels above something like Marley and Me, although it displays similar traits of cutesy animals and upsetting deaths. The set up – a fox and a hound befriend each other before they grow apart due to biological determinism – is simple yet effective. Tod, a domesticated fox, and Copper, an irresponsible bloodhound puppy, don’t realise that they are meant to be enemies, and that one will grow up to hunt the other. Their oblivious friendship carries with it notes of menace, such as when Tod is spotted on the farmer’s land and is chased away to the sound of gun shots. First and foremost, this is a film about friendship, and although there is a romance for Tod, it’s only there to fuel the tension between the two companions. There isn’t really a villain, although at one point one of the two heroes becomes a villain, seeking to destroy the other. That’s a complex idea for young audiences to be dealing with. Seeing two friends torn apart by what they think is the inevitability of their genetics is heartbreaking, and packs a formidable emotional punch. It’s possibly the most upsetting film Disney have done since Dumbo.
To understand the power of this film, one scene stands as a masterclass in creating character and eliciting an emotional response from animated creations. Tod’s owner drives him out to the woods to leave him there, realising that he can no longer live in a human area. She recites in her head a short speech about how much joy the fox has brought her, a lonely old woman.
“We met it seems, such a short time ago. You looked at me, needing me so. Yet from your sadness, our happiness grew. Then I found out, I need you, too. I remember how we used to play. I recall those rainy days, the fires glowed, that kept us warm. And now I find, we’re both alone. Goodbye may seem forever, farewell is like the end. But in my heart’s a memory, and there you’ll always be.”
The strings soar, she leaves the poor fox sitting alone in the woods, confused and unable to understand what has happened. She looks back, a single tear running down her cheek. The wind blows, the rainclouds break and Tod realises he no longer has a roof to shelter him. It’s as subtle as a brick to the face and yet it is nigh on impossible not to be moved by it. Writing about it now, I’m still unsure quite how it manages to be so obvious, yet still work so well. If I was a cryer, I’d be bawling. The Fox and the Hound showcases Disney’s capability to emotionally ruin its audiences and yet still win them over at the same time. So although it comes from a period in the studio’s history that many have forgotten, it shows that even in their downtime they can still carry enormous power.
One other thing of note in The Fox and the Hound: Aladdin is often credited as being the film that set off the tradition of really famous actors doing voice roles in animations, but this stars Kurt Russell and Mickey Rooney! Kurt Russell pretty much was the 80s.