Filmmaker Adam Zanzie Hunts Down the Story Behind the Film
“Unsung” is a terms that fits Walt Disney Studio‘s The Fox and the Hound, in more ways than one. Not only is it not a conventional musical the way so many other Disney animated features typically are, amid the towering legacy of Snow Whites, Little Mermaids and Lion Kings, it’s simply not terribly well regarded. Telling the heartrending tale of a wild fox called Tod and a hunting dog named Copper, playmates in their youth but adversaries in their adulthood, The Fox and the Hound was never an easy film, though it remains a beautiful and compelling one.
Hailing from the dog days of Disney Animation and based upon an even more unrelentingly dismal book by Daniel P. Mannix, the 1981 film is often noted as a forgettable footnote in the history of the company if it is remembered at all. Disney itself in this time is commonly and reductively viewed as rudderless and flailing in the dark immediate post-Walt years; devoid of vision, direction, and spark.
Yet, the era is also primarily known for inadvertently launching the likes of Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Don Bluth, and so many other notables onto respective greater directions. The Fox and the Hound, as directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich and Art Stevens, itself painstakingly created smack in the middle of this rough phase, remains undeniable in it’s power to move viewers of all ages. “It’s that special sort of Disney classic which is perhaps more serious than the others, and it has an emotional effect on the viewer that is both devastating and transformative”, says filmmaker Adam Zanzie.
Zanzie is an avowed fan and admirer of the film, though he was surprised to learn that his feelings for it were largely anomalous. Not content to let his appreciation lie in silence, he created a short video essay on the misunderstood importance and history of Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. The video is freely available here:
“People used to ask me, ‘Why The Fox and the Hound?’, because they didn’t understand what makes the film so relevant.”, says Zanzie. “Hopefully after watching the video, they won’t have to ask that question anymore.” Perhaps apropos to the material, Zanzie’s own journey to realizing the video essay hasn’t been an easy one, professionally nor emotionally. “In early 2016, I was in a deep depression after my plans to shoot a documentary about Jonathan Livingston Seagull abruptly and painfully fell through. Eager to find some other film project which I could sink my teeth into, I then considered shooting a feature-length documentary about The Fox and the Hound.”
Observing recent trends in movies about movies, Zanzie formulated his own spin for the project. “I figured that since there are so many documentaries being shot these days about films that weren’t ever made (Burton’s Superman Lives, Jordorowsky’s Dune, Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, etc.), how amazing would it be to shoot an independent documentary about a great film that did get made? Since Disney has never really told the whole story of how The Fox and the Hound got made, I wanted to take a crack at it myself.”
His plans for a feature length documentary were, unfortunately, soon dashed. “I succeeded in speaking with a handful of people who worked on the film, but I was unable to directly communicate with some of the more famous celebrity filmmakers involved (Burton, Lasseter, Bird, etc.), and I knew that without interviews with them, I could never sell such a documentary.” Undeterred, an alternate course of action took shape. “Finally, when Disney presented me with a hugely expensive price just to use footage from the film, I realized that a video essay would be a better way to tell the story, since video essays are an example of Fair Use. As long as one uses their own commentary all throughout a video — and only uses footage from the film in order to make certain arguments — one doesn’t have to pay anything to use copyrighted material. It may not be a feature-length documentary, but I see video essays as an alternative way of spreading word-of-mouth about a subject I’m passionate for.”
Armed with a solid film education and practical experience, Zanzie has taken his talents out West. “I’ve wanted to make movies since I was eight years old. I graduated from Webster University’s Film Production program in St. Louis, Missouri in 2014, then went off and got my Master’s degree at David Lynch’s film school in 2015. After that, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my dreams as a writer/director.”
Though he cites Pinocchio and Dumbo as other Disney films which he deeply cares for, Zanzie does not consider himself a Disney animation aficionado, per se. “My favorite genres are typically thrillers, historical epics and literary adaptations. If I were to narrow down my Top ten favorite filmmakers, it would probably go something like: Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma, Kubrick, Altman, Peckinpah, David Lean, Fred Zinnemann and Robert Mulligan.” Seeing how Zanzie is interested creating more videos about older films he loves, perhaps one of those names will inspire his next such project. In the meantime, he’s still holding out hope for that extended delve into The Fox and the Hound:
“If someone high up at Disney ever happened to watch this video essay, I certainly hope that it would convince their Home Video department to shoot a feature-length documentary about Fox and the Hound while all of the remaining principal filmmakers are still alive. My biggest regret is that I was never able to find out why the late Woolie Reitherman wanted to adapt such a bleak novel into a Disney animated feature in the first place. Maybe there’s someone I haven’t talked to yet who knows. Anyone out there know anything?”
In any case, the amount of care, heart and storytelling expertise Zanzie has poured into this existing project is plenty evident. His goal has been refreshingly straightforward: “My hope is that people have a better understanding of why The Fox and the Hound is such an important film in the history of animation.”
With one short video essay, itself a labor of love to a film so much in need of it, Adam Zanzie is finally singing the praises of a fine, delicate and deserving work.