The Great Disney Reel Rumble Retrospective rumbles onward through the Bronze Age of Disney. We enter a new decade this time, the 80s, which sees some of the longest gaps between releases in the studio’s history. Let’s dive on in!
Like so many Disney projects, there is a large gap in time between the inception and the release of the film. Disney purchased the rights to the The Fox and the Hound book back in 1967. Yet production would not begin until a decade later when, in 1977, Wolfgang Reitherman thought it might make a good animated film. He was partially inspired due to his son once owning a pet fox.
Reitherman was the original co-director alongside Art Stevens, but a power struggle broke out between the two as well as producer Ron Miller. One of these battles was over whether the character of Chief would die, as he did in the novel. The younger partner, Stevens, stated that killing a character in a Disney film had never happened and he didn’t want to start now; he modified already-animated scenes to make sure the audience knew that Chief lived. Many of the animators protested and thought it was a terrible choice, but the upper management backed Stevens.
A second battle occurred when Reitherman thought the film lacked a decent second act and inserted a sequence that featured singing cranes. A whole song was written with lines recorded, but Stevens thought the sequence was entirely out of place, and he won that battle as well. These conflicts wore down Reitherman, who reportedly came to Stevens near the end of production complaining that animation had become a young man’s game. He would die in a car accident a short time later in 1985, a sad and tragic end for a Disney giant.
The generational battles also played out in the animation room, as this was the last project to feature Disney’s Nine Old Men in the animation department. A new generation of animators took over, including John Lasseter, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Henry Selick, and more, many of whom would go on to play a key role in the Disney Renaissance of the 90s. Others also went on to notable solo careers. However, before this happened, many of the animators walked out, feeling that Reitherman’s old guard ideas were hampering the film. This delayed the film’s original 1980 release as a new group of animators had to be rushed in, supervised by older assistant animators.
The voice cast also marked a change of guard, with Kurt Russell, Corey Feldman, and Keith Mitchell landing parts. Of course, there were also Disney standards such as Pat Buttram playing roles, as well as Mickey Rooney, who had appeared in a handful of Disney projects over the decades.
After many years of strife, The Fox and the Hound released on July 10, 1981. On a budget of $12 million, it grossed $43 million, becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time to that point. Needless to say, this made it a hit, though the critical reviews were a mixed bag. The animation received praise for the first time in a few films, but the story was criticized as flat and lacking creativity.
Some, however, including Roger Ebert, found it intelligent and a good commentary on society. These critics would turn out to be a portent of things to come, as the film has undergone a significant critical turnaround in the decades since. Most now recognize it as a touching story and a leap forward for the studio, which had become rather static at the time. Though it’s not quite a major Disney property, it did receive a bizarre and horrible direct-to-DVD sequel, a rite of passage for any great Disney film.
The Black Cauldron’s inception dates back a decade as well, though not quite as far back as The Fox and the Found. Based on a novel series, which was in turn based on Welsh mythology, the rights were purchased back in the early 70s. Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, a pair also involved in directing The Fox and the Hound, it had a far longer production time. Early supporters of it within Disney felt it could rival Snow White if done right.
Early animation occurred throughout the 70s, as all of the older projects that Walt himself started were being released. However, there was trouble making the animation live up to expectations. To try to keep production on track, veteran artist Vance Gerry created extensive storyboards to plan out the major beats of the film, and also developed the look of several main characters. Following the release of The Fox and the Hound, the band of directors on that film got involved with The Black Cauldron, but it was quickly apparent that there were too many cooks in the kitchen, so the staff was whittled down to Berman and Rich who began production proper in 1980.
Earlier artwork attempted to mirror the look of Sleeping Beauty, but most of this work was tossed out by producer Joe Hale, including creepy character designs from Tim Burton. Hale also heavily revised the film’s story, resulting in more animator walkouts. Notable animators John Musker and Ron Clements were annoyed and left to work on The Great Mouse Detective instead. Hale’s evisceration process continued as he next tossed out many of Vance Gerry’s storyboards and designs, including the design for the main villain, the Horned King.
Despite this process, when test screenings began, the dark content still terrified children with many leaving the theater unable to finish. New studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenburg demanded that scenes be cut, but now producer Hale was objecting to cuts. In response, Katzenburg came down and personally edited the film himself to cut the offending sequences. Disney CEO Michael Eisner then stepped in on Katzenburg to stop him from editing the film. Though Katzenburg ultimately acquiesced, he still got many of his desired changes, resulting in 12 minutes being cut. Lots of re-animation had to be done for continuity, and this delayed the film’s release to 1985.
Although there was an extensive editing process, The Black Cauldron is innovative in the Disney canon. It is the first Disney film to use CGI imagery. It also featured a new animation technique called animation photo transfer process, or APT, which enhanced the means by which animation was transferred to celluloid. Computers quickly made the entire process obsolete, but the innovator at least won an Oscar for his troubles. This is also the first Disney release to feature the now-iconic Disney castle opening title credit and the Disney fanfare, marking a new era in the studio’s branding. It was also the first Disney film to receive a PG rating, and the first Disney film to have a Dolby Stereo surround sound audio track.
Despite all of these firsts, the extensive editing process, and the great animation upgrades, The Black Cauldron was a disaster for Disney. Its dark tone alienated much of the audience familiar with Disney. Releasing on July 24, 1985, its $44 million budget made it the most expensive animated film made at the time. It earned a mere $21.3 million domestically, resulting in a giant loss for Disney that nearly ended the animation studio. It would be the last film made at the original studio in Burbank, as corporate restructuring following its failure resulted in the animation wing of Disney being moved.
Some foreign audiences were more receptive to the film, with the French in particular providing one of the bigger box office audiences. That said, critics were mixed upon release and remained mixed to this day. While Roger Ebert was very positive, many other critics felt it lacked the magic and wonder of other Disney productions and was weighed down by an overly dark tone and lack of interesting characters. Critics continue to debate the merits of this one, though many now consider Elmer Bernstein’s score for the film one of his very best. That said, its place in the Disney canon is relatively minor, with only a few characters appearing at theme parks and little to no inclusion in other crossover material.
What starts as a relatively simplistic story of a young fox and hound becoming friends evolves into a nuanced take on how society forces us into roles, including ones that pit us against our former friends. The true heart of The Fox and the Hound lies in this conflict. Despite being friends as young animals, as they grow up the fox and the hound grow apart due to hounds being used to hunt foxes and the human owner of the hound not caring for his neighbor owning a fox.
This results in some touching drama, brought to life through the strong voice performances. This is exemplified in a rather brutal showdown between the Hound and Fox, which is one of the high points of the film’s drama. Whether or not the pair can reconcile or will part forever makes for a touching conclusion that draws you in.
The Black Cauldron aims for fantasy adventure and succeeds, somewhat. The central arc is our protagonist’s desire to be a great hero, yet when thrown into the fray of true danger from a dark lord’s desire to accumulate power, he learns that running around with a sword isn’t all its cracked up to be. This is a unique and different take on the hero arc, and a welcome one. There is an entertaining side character in the form of Gurgi, a small creature with a curiously Gollum-sounding voice.
John Hurt‘s villainous character is also suitably imposing. Still, The Black Cauldron has narrative issues. It drags in the middle until they get around to finding the titular object. While the darker tone isn’t an issue in and of itself, it does create an odd tonal clash between the movie’s more typically Disney elements.
The Fox and the Hound‘s touching story will take the advantage here. The Black Cauldron isn’t as bad as its reputation, but the soulful heart at the center of The Fox and the Hound can’t be beaten.
Winner: The Fox and the Hound
The Fox and the Hound‘s songs aren’t quite classics in the Disney canon. They fall into the same style that characterizes other Disney films from this era: a bland, somewhat poppy sound. The great singer Pearl Bailey does most of them, which makes it a shame that they aren’t more memorable. “Best of Friends” is the clear standout, with a light, breezy feeling introducing you to the main idea of the film.
On the other hand, The Black Cauldron is one of the few Disney films that doesn’t have any songs. Instead, the only music to discuss is the score by Elmer Bernstein. It’s full of moody and distinct themes, and there are some truly ominous bits.
The Black Cauldron‘s score will win this category, despite the lack of songs. The Fox and the Hound‘s songs just don’t quite stand on their own, while the score of The Black Cauldron is one of its strongest assets.
Winner: The Black Cauldron
The Fox and the Hound is the beginning of a transition to more quality animation for Disney. While the Xerox method is still in use, the battle between the old and young generations did result in a move forward. In particular, the face-off between the hound and the fox is excellent. The depiction of the snarling teeth, the anger in the eyes of each animal, and the level of detail is quite well done.
The backgrounds of this one aren’t as richly detailed as some other Disney works, but solid character designs make up for it. Humans move with a new fluidity, and there’s a great use of design to convey characteristics.
All of the new animation techniques present in The Black Cauldron are a major boon for it. It is a richly animated feature with excellent character design. From the slinking terror of the Horned King to the three nefarious witches and the cuddly Gurgi, the characters in this stand out. Our protagonist is depicted with a youthful exuberance as well.
The Black Cauldron suffers from too many hands stirring the pot, though. Its troubled production resulted in an oddly-paced film that doesn’t stick to a tone. It’s light and adventuresome in some scenes, and surprisingly quite dark in others. It sort of meanders along to its conclusion, which is truncated.
Ultimately though, The Black Cauldron‘s animation will be enough to take this category. Despite its editorial and directorial flaws, this is a next step forward for Disney as it moved beyond the Xerox look that dominated its films for nearly two decades.
Winner: The Black Cauldron
Though The Black Cauldron took two categories, on the whole, the winner is The Fox and the Hound. Its story and characters ultimately are more charming and nuanced than anything in The Black Cauldron. The Black Cauldron‘s score and animation make it more noteworthy than its dim reputation, and there are interesting ideas throughout. Yet the ambition was overwhelmed by the miss-mash of editing choices that hampered the story. Neither are major parts of the Disney canon, but The Fox and the Hound has justifiably attracted several generations of fans.
The Fox and the Hound
- Ranked #2,578 globally
- Wins 38% of matchups
- 13,155 users have ranked it 113,416 times
- 8 have it as their #1 film
- Ranked 31/66 in the Walt Disney Animation Studios filter
The Black Cauldron
- Ranked #4,019 globally
- Wins 36% of matchups
- 3,168 users have ranked it 35,258 times
- 0 have it as their #1 film
- Ranked 44/66 in the Walt Disney Animation Studios filter
- Bambi (1942)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Cinderella (1950)
- Fantasia (1940)
- Peter Pan (1953)
- The Fox and the Hound (1981)
- The Jungle Book (1967)
- Robin Hood (1973)
- Alice in Wonderland (1951)
- Pinocchio (1940)
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
- One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
- Lady and the Tramp (1955)
- The Rescuers (1977)
- The Aristocats (1970)
- The Black Cauldron (1985)
- Dumbo (1941)
- Sleeping Beauty (1959)
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
- The Three Caballeros (1944)
- The Sword in the Stone (1963)
- Melody Time (1948)
- Saludos Amigos (1942)
- Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
- Make Mine Music (1946)