Disney/Pixar Rankings: 5-2

The landing page, with rationale and links to other posts in this series, can be found here.

#5
The Fox and the Hound

1981, directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich, and Art Stevens

Before we start, a little inside baseball about my process. I like the research angle of these big ol’ lists I do. There’s a lot of watching and rewatching, and maybe even more time poring through the work that other people have done in reviewing movies or in compiling lists like these. It was an absolutely huge part of my top 100 American movies list from two summers ago and a fairy important step in the top 100 movies of the British Isles list that I’ve put down for fifteen minutes while I try to finish this project. However, it’s different when one is making a list where all the movies involved are already chosen for you. The watching and rewatching still matters, but it’s no longer as essential to figure out what the world around you is saying. Enter last summer’s ranking of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture winners, which required a lot of screenings and almost no time spent finding out how other people ranked those movies. And when I made this list, I didn’t do any research about what other people had done in this field before.

A couple weeks ago, just on a lark, I checked out the lists from Buzzfeed (Louis Peitzman), Screenrant (Becky Fuller), Collider (Drew Taylor), Cinemablend (Dirk Libbey), and Time Out. (Those lists limit themselves, perhaps wisely, to the fifty-seven Disney movies made as of right now. The last two were published before Ralph Breaks the Internet was released and thus have just the fifty-six entries.) I’ve got Fox and the Hound as the third-best Disney movie. Of those three, I’m closest to Time Out: they’ve got it thirty-second. Buzzfeed places it fiftieth, Cinemablend has it fifty-third, and Collider has it second-to-last. (Amusingly, Drew Taylor and I have the same last place movie. So close!) In any event, I’m used to explaining why I think The Fox and the Hound is better than everyone else thinks it is. For the sake of brevity, we’ll keep it to three basic objections.

This is not a “cute animal movie.”

“It’s a movie starring cute animals, and that’s not nothing, but it’s hardly enough.”
— Cinemablend

Whenever I see this critique it makes me wonder how long it’s been since the person making it has seen the movie. The part where Tod and Copper are cute animals is way less than half the movie. Most of it takes place when they are the equivalent of human teenagers or early twenty-somethings. Tod has this stupid whisker thing that is not unlike the stupid mustache thing that a lot of guys do just to prove they can, and there’s probably as much Vixey content as there is puppy Copper content in this movie. What people are reacting to is probably the image on Netflix for Fox and the Hound 2, or “The Best of Friends,” or that they haven’t sat down to watch this since they were kids, and kids tend to focus on cute little animals. Surely the problem isn’t that it has animals in it, because no one’s leading critique of The Lion King or Finding Nemo or even Lady and the Tramp is that those are “cute animal movies.” You’re looking for Snow Buddies.

The main characters are distinct individuals with conflicting motivations.

“The characters, however cute they look are at best underdeveloped and at worst unlikable.” — Buzzfeed

I’m going to be petty and engage the “unlikable” thing, which, who cares. The fact that there isn’t a sympathetic character in the whole of Raging Bull doesn’t stop that from being a masterpiece. “Unlikable” here is synonymous with “I wanted to turn my brain off and enjoy something,” and it’s not a process I can get behind. Above all the criticisms I’ve seen of Fox and the Hound, the one that the characters are underdeveloped is the one that makes the least sense to me. As a kit, before we even hear him talk, it’s clear that Tod is playful, uncomplicated, and curious to a fault. He makes havoc in Widow Tweed’s barn, running around like mad and spilling milk everywhere. It’s also clear that the companionship of the animals just outside the farm, like Dinky and Boomer, isn’t enough for him. Dinky and Boomer provide all the slapstick the movie needs, and Tod cannot understand how they even get into these situations. Boomer is on the ground trying to get his beak back into shape, Dinky is yelling at him about losing him their breakfast, and Tod is stuck on the food part. You guys eat worms? he asks, and then he proceeds to immediately lose interest and chase a butterfly. Our first real look at Copper once he starts talking gives us a glimpse at his temperament. He smells something he’s never smelled before, and he’s going to find out what it is. Chief lifts his nose into the air and reports that Slade is cooking breakfast (“grits and fatback”), but Copper knows that’s not it. He continues to walk on to try to figure out this new smell, and Chief warns him that Slade won’t like it if he goes off by himself. Copper does it anyway. Twice in less than a minute, Copper decides to go his own way.

The film sends Tod and Copper in different directions—location is a key element in making someone who they are—and over a winter apart they grow physically and are further indoctrinated. Despite the clear lesson he gets from the birds about what Copper’s ultimate job will be, and the even clearer visual aids of animal pelts that they show him, Tod still stares longingly at Copper’s barrel, waiting for his buddy to come back. Meanwhile, Copper spends a winter getting bigger, stronger, and closer to Slade. He becomes an excellent hunting dog, better than Chief (whose nose is probably going a little with age), and on the way home grabs the coveted front seat in Slade’s ancient truck. Tod’s transformation is played for laughs in springtime. Everyone comes out of hibernation or their cozy houses or their winter migration at the same time, and Dinky and Boomer almost immediately zero in on how big Tod is and, of course, how bushy his tail is. Their interactions are as goofy and harmless as they have ever been, but Copper comes home at the head of a bed of dead animals he’s helped to track. Tod understands Copper has changed, but he refuses to believe that Copper can have changed so much that they might not be friends anymore. When they do meet in that heartbreaking first reunion, it’s clear that Tod’s imagination has failed him. Their faces are so expressive in that scene, especially Copper’s, for he has the wrinkly forehead and the deep-set eyes that make all of his emotions come through instantly. We can watch his training take over in that scene. At first he is glad to see Tod. And then we can see his concern play over his face, and the things he’s learned in that long winter are voiced. You should leave before Chief wakes up. You shouldn’t come over here anymore. I’m a hunting dog now. It takes a surprisingly short amount of time for Tod’s quick evacuation of the scene to lead to Chief falling off a railroad trestle, but Copper’s reaction to Chief’s plight shows that he has been changed. Indoctrination—nothing so fancy as Manchurian Candidate stuff—has taught him that he has a distinct role, and that if he has such a role, then Tod must have his own. The movie is wise about how little it can take to really turn someone’s character: a little time away, some positive reinforcement, being good at something. Copper’s mind has been changed about Tod, but it hasn’t made him any less amiable with the right company. The only way to find out that he’s been altered is to put the scent in front of his nose.

Slade takes Copper onto the wildlife refuge in order to find Tod and exact revenge; what they don’t know is that Tod has become radicalized in some sense as well. He’s fallen in love and now has a reason to fight. Thus their first meeting as enemies is shocking. Tod bares his teeth—we’ve never seen his teeth like that before—and Copper bares his. They circle one another. Copper lunges, his mouth nearly enveloping the camera. Tod dodges him, bites him in the shoulder, and runs. The battle tears across the refuge until Tod and Vixey cross a waterfall, their scent hidden by the water. They’ve won. But a bear (a bear that was frankly a little too scary for me as a little person) appears out a little wooded area near the falls, and a different battle is joined. Copper protects Slade as long as he can before he is beaten. Hearing the whimper, Tod stops in his tracks and turns around. Vixey calls to him. He tears downhill anyway, and grabs the bear’s ear with his teeth before it can lay the killing blow on Copper. It’s a moment which, despite everything else that has happened, makes sense. It was one thing when Copper was hunting him; it is quite another when Copper is being hunted, and Tod’s formative memory of the friendship is too deep in him to let it go.

Ultimately it brings us to this moment:

Copper has learned the lessons of the hunting dog, but he also has a personality trait that we haven’t seen for a long time: something in his nature makes him independent. When he stands over Tod’s body, knowing that he stands no chance against Slade and his gun, he refuses to budge. Maybe he knows it’s wrong to shoot Tod, or more likely, given that last half-smile he gives Tod, that love he’s buried has come out again to play for a few moments. But what I admire most about this movie is the fact that these two don’t practice their friendship after this. There is no joyous reunion at the end of the movie, no confession that Copper makes that he was wrong, no sense that these two will overcome the differences in their positions and tumble and frolic again. Copper takes a nap in his barrel. Tod and Vixey look down on the place Tod can never come home to. The pledge of friendship that two children made to each other plays in voiceover, and this movie ends on a note of deepest regret and bitterness. It’s the right choice! These characters can’t ever be more than that grudging appreciation between them again. But it is so sad.

It’s only boring if you need loud noises and quippy supporting characters to be entertained by a Disney movie.

“Dear lord this movie is boring.” — Collider

Not to be one of those “She should have campaigned in Wisconsin” people, but is it possible that the extremely Appalachian setting of this movie adds to people’s disinterest in it? The movie doesn’t assume that “Appalachian” means “dumb” or “inbred” or “doomed to a life of sitting in their own filth,” and so we lose the audience who would flock to it because of Deliverance or Hillbilly Elegy. I think we’re too quick to dismiss stories that take places in land like this because we think we know our own American forests, which of course is laughable. We certainly don’t know forests like this one, which is just beautifully animated. These are forests of shadows, water that ripples until it crashes into indistinguishable foam. I might be reading too deeply into this, but I’m afraid I’m not.

Everyone has their own qualifications for boring, but once again, this feels like a critique of the movie that’s based in the pretty idyllic twenty minutes where Tod is a kit and Copper is a puppy. The movie begins with a fox hiding her baby before being shot; those opening credits are genuinely haunting. The back half of this movie features a dog dodging death on a railroad track, having to jump to avoid being obliterated by a train—an extended hunt for a fox in which a man tries to either burn him alive or smoke him out so he can be shot—a demonic bear popping out of nowhere who tries to kill both of our protagonists—a moment of profound loyalty. If all of that is dull, then I would direct you to the deep sadness in this movie. The Widow Tweed has cared for Tod like a baby since she found him (not without some laundry-related assistance) helpless and alone. She does not appear to have many human connections short of that to her neighbor, Slade, who barges in on her one night to tell her that if he sees her pet fox again he’ll kill it. She drives Tod out to the refuge. They leave the car. He tries to follow her back to the car, but she stops him. She drives away. I mean, I feel bad when I leave my cat in my apartment for a weekend by himself. This is something entirely different: she must know that she could well be leaving him to die a slow death, missing his comforts and his meals, missing her, and never fully understanding why she’s done this to him. If neither the action nor the emotion works on you, then I dunno, man.

#4
Bambi

1942, directed by David Hand

The Incredibles lost ground in these rankings for not being attractive enough; Bambi climbs as high as it does because it is exceptionally beautiful, and because I cannot imagine another animated movie ever being as visually breathtaking as this one. Too much has changed in the way that studios do animation; cel animation has been dead at Disney longer than Lucille Ball has been dead in real life. Although there have been animated movies which are photorealistic and animated movies which sort of pretend they aren’t by having Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez do stuff in their own bodies and animated movies which do a hundred beautiful things, none of them have ever compared on a frame by frame basis. Bambi just does everything correctly. There is an abstract fight between Bambi and a challenger for Faline towards the end of the movie which suggests the shadowed bodies of stags while outlining them in electric colors. This movie does just as well with frames so muted in gray or blue that they almost appear glazed. Bambi finds a way to show each season of the year in the colors we associate with them, and of them all winter gets the kindest addition of a bright blue for ice. The animals are cute and also much more like animals than we’ve ever seen them before in a Disney movie. Even the dinosaurs of The Rite of Spring lack the verisimilitude we find in the grace of adult deer, or the pheasant running with her infinitesimally small chicks in a rain storm. I love that “Little April Shower” sequence. In one moment it is darker than nighttime, and then in a single second the sun begins to peak through a cloud, and four seconds later the sky is the color of a Dreamsicle and five bluebirds sit peacefully on tree branches. This is what Malick, who was born the year after this movie was released, would have made of Felix Salten’s novel.

The only animated character who made either of AFI’s fifty-deep Heroes and Villains lists is from Bambi: it’s Man, who places twentieth on the Villains list. It’s worth noting that Man is not even seen in this movie. When Man is in the forest, it’s understood by every animal of some experience that they need to run, hide, escape. When Man opens fire and kills Bambi’s mother, we do not see anything except the fallout. Bambi looks around the thicket which he knows to be safe and finds that his mother is not there with him. Later, the Great Prince of the Forest has to tell his son what the result of Man’s presence in their happy forest was. Man continues to be a threat, always faceless, increasingly bellicose. The conflagration that caps the picture is one that has been set by Man. Further and further into the forest the deer and their fellows must retreat, harried at every step by some devilry that humans have created. Bambi is not as profound or disturbing as many of the great environmentalist non-fiction books that follow it, but it understands something about heedless human consumption which is not frequently in American popular culture before it. The death of Bambi’s mother is read as something more like murder, and our despair at seeing Bambi alone without her reminds me of what Aldo Leopold wrote about the “fierce green fire” in the eyes of a wolf he and his friends had shot:

I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Bambi comes as close as any Disney movie can to thinking like a mountain, with the possible exception of a Pixar release I’ll mention below. It recognizes that Nature works in a cycle of renewal and growth, but the movie keeps us cognizant that those happy buzzwords come at a cost.

#3
Beauty and the Beast

1991, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

Just remember, someone is on your side…Someone else is not.

While we’re seeing our side,

Maybe we forgot,

They are not alone.

No one is alone.

Beauty and the Beast finds the truth in Sondheim’s lyrics. Just because Gaston (a man who is monstrous inside) cannot see past his lust for victory, it doesn’t mean that the Beast (a monster who is a man inside) has to be run down by him. And just because Gaston’s choices are clearly evil, it doesn’t mean that they are incomprehensible. He has always been able to get what he wants. No bird is safe from his blunderbuss. No girl is safe from his cleft chin and hairy chest. No village sycophant is safe from his feats of strength. When Belle tells him she won’t marry him, and then refuses to be browbeaten into marrying him when he brings the wedding ceremony to her doorstep, these may well be the first two times anyone has said no to him. It rattles him. He tries to get to Belle through darker means, and he finds that he cannot weasel his way into her affections or, in the end, beat her into submission. All this is to say that Gaston is not the first man to raise a lynch mob out of envy. But if he were able to see beyond his side, he would be a different man. The triumph of Beauty and the Beast is that two of these people learn to see another person’s side, and their loneliness goes away in a stream of colored lights. Belle’s perception is initially blinded by her not unjustifiable prejudice towards the creature who imprisoned her father and now imprisons her. The Beast’s callous treatment of Belle is understandable if we can see her as he sees her. She may be the most beautiful woman he’s seen since he met the Enchantress; she is certainly the one with the greatest store of self-sacrifice and virtue. Belle is someone who could spark love at first sight; by the same token she is the great reminder to the Beast that he is dangerously close to being locked in this monstrous body because he could never win the heart of someone like her. But neither one is Gaston, or even Maurice or the other townspeople: they find each other, and they are not alone.

Jordan Baker isn’t wrong when she tells Nick that there’s more privacy at a big party than there is at intimate gathering, but Jordan Baker never saw Beauty and the Beast, either. She couldn’t know that a splendid ballroom, polished to within an inch of its life, could host a dance like the one that Belle and the Beast do with one another. She couldn’t know that a little coterie of should-be inanimate objects—a teapot, a candelabra, a clock—is watching this dance, as enraptured by the possibility it holds for themselves as it holds for the dancers. And even though those two are spied on by the ceiling itself, eyed by cherubim, they are totally alone. It doesn’t matter how many eyes fall on them, because as far as they can tell they are alone together. Beauty and the Beast as a Disney property is a landmine. In Cocteau’s film, as it is in the original fairytale, taboo and danger are key elements. It’s not impossible to imagine a love affair between these two, as strange as it sounds, because it’s a romance defined by this sort of ability to be alone together. After weeks, months, they have figured each other out. She has found the dearness in her jailor, seen his bravery firsthand, unraveled how far he has retreated into his own despair. He broken through her crust, learned to value what she values. This is what married couples can spend years trying to find in each other. This dance, the smiles they share, the way they pull each other closer, the broad grin the Beast aims at his audience: it’s all proof that they can be companions, and we can all believe in the companionship that anchors such a romance for a century. Only another seventy-two years to go.

#2
WALL-E

2008, directed by Andrew Stanton

The blueprint for WALL-E is not all that different than the blueprint for Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Exaggerate his features, make him move funny, give him a heart of gold, put him in potentially heartrending situations, allow to set for twenty minutes, and serve to a delighted audience. WALL-E tries to recover a little plant in a shoe with the kind of energy that the Tramp spends on keeping a child or helping a girl with a cruel father or supporting a blind girl and her mother. The pratfalls are not quite as good, but there are a number of them that have the same goofy energy. WALL-E makes a little statue of EVE that he hopes will impress her and get her attention. It doesn’t. Dejected, our little friend kicks a stack of pipes and finds that pipes roll pretty darn fast when you move ’em like that. Earlier he spied on EVE in the ghost of a grocery store and got caught: to put it simply, WALL-E is to Mufasa as shopping carts are to wildebeest. When she’s gone catatonic after seeing the plant for the first time—WALL-E is not sophisticated enough to understand why it happens, and he is horrified by the change—he takes her outside in the hopes of stimulating her back to life. He squeezes his hand, such as it is, underneath her wing. His hand gets clamped in there pretty good and he has to fight to get it out again. It’s hard not to fall for the little fella. He makes cute wheezy noises, has big round eyes, and struggles like the rest of us in trying to figure out exactly what a spork is in the Platonic sense. Over and over again he suffers little indignities, small pains, and it’s not until we watch him nearly martyr himself for the good of the tubs of lard aboard the Axiom that we realize how quietly he’s made himself into a hero. He has put in centuries of work making little cubes of trash from which to make skyscrapers of refuse. He stores the plant that is proof that the Earth is somehow fertile again. He refuses to let it be jettisoned into space. And he reminds the people on the Axiom, from its captain to its bland passengers, that being human is more than just filling a certain kind of physical shape.

One of the popular strands of science-fiction thought is that as humans give more and more of themselves over to technology, the technology is what will become more human and emotional, where people will become less than themselves. This is at the heart of Blade Runner, the reason why that “Tears in Rain” speech packs such a wallop. The most demonstrative character this side of Moonwatcher in 2001 is HAL, who fears for his life, goes a little crazy, and murders. WALL-E manages to get to this conclusion without quite as much violence and, interestingly, far less talking. Roy Batty and HAL have an awful lot to say, even to the point of eloquence. WALL-E and EVE don’t often say things short of each other’s names (unless it’s “Directive,” which is not bunches more interesting). WALL-E relies on us to read their humanity in their appearance, in the way WALL-E’s inventors gave him eyebrows for surprise, that EVE’s digital eyes narrow one way for mirth and another for anger. When she replaces WALL-E’s destroyed motherboard at the end of the movie in an effort to save the little garbage man she cares so much about, she unknowingly replaces his personality as well. We can see it in his face, his posture, his physical apartness. It’s only an extremely human gesture that brings him back, that must do something lovely and borderline magical in his circuits: they hold hands.

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