One of the oldest talking-animal fables, as opposed to short parables such as Aesop’s tale of the frogs that wanted a king (a.k.a. King Log and King Stork), is the Medieval folk tale of Reynard the Fox. Three of the earliest written versions known are Ysengrimus, a.k.a. Reinardus Vulpes, by the Flemish poet Nivardus in Latin around 1150, Le Roman de Renart by Pierre St. Cloud in Old French around 1170, and Reinhard Fuchs by Heinrich der Glïchezäre in Old German around 1180; but all are acknowledged to be based on then-well-known peasants’ folk tales. William Caxton’s English translation of 1481 is one of the earliest printed English books.
According to WikiFur, “The stories are among the little political satire from the Middle ages that still survives. The various animals were represented as various members of the aristocracy and the clergy. Human characters were often peasants.” The tale was doubtlessly so popular with commoners because it was a savage burlesque of the courts and politics of the nobility. It was also earthy; modern linguists study the manuscripts for their documentation of 12th century insults, swearing, and scatology. At this time, Europe was divided among a series of kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, bishoprics, free cities, and others of shifting borders, with generally weak monarchs and strong nobles who were always jockeying among themselves for power. The portrayal of these proud and haughty dukes, lords, bishops, and cardinals as animals, constantly being tricked by Baron Reynard the fox, was amusing for centuries. There are carvings of the Reynard cast in Medieval churches and town halls. In France, ‘reynard’ replaced the older word for fox, ‘goupil’.
The fox’s name varies between Reynard, Renard, Renart, Reinard, Reinecke, Reinhardus, Reynardt, and Reynaerde. Other characters, the nobility at the court of King Leo the lion (in some versions King Nobel), include Isengrim the wolf, Bruin the bear, Chanticleer the rooster, Tybalt the cat (satirized by Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet), Baldwin the donkey, Grymbart the badger, Courtoys the hound, Cuwart the hare, Tyselyn the raven, Bellen the ram, Reynard’s wife Hermeline, and many others. Some of these became “fixed” in their own right, such as Bruin for a bear and Chanticleer for a rooster.
The Reynard legend has been written many times over the centuries, and almost always illustrated. One of the earliest library books that I read, when I was six or seven years old, was Andre Norton’s Rogue Reynard; Being a tale of the Fortunes and Misfortunes and divers Misdeeds of that great Villain, Baron Reynard, the Fox, and how he was Served with King Lion’s justice, illustrated by Laura Bannon (Houghton Mifflin, 1947).
It has been a natural for animation even before there was animation. One of the earliest efforts to show the Reynard tale in animated form was as a series of twelve Victorian lantern slides. Someone has just put these up on YouTube.
The length of the Reynard tale has made it more natural for features than for short films. In April 1937 Le Roman de Renard (a.k.a. The Tale of the Fox), a 67-minute stop-motion film by Ladislas and Irène Starevich, was finished in Germany. The animation had been completed in Paris in 1929 to 1930, but the Stareviches had considerable trouble getting the sound track made. This has been claimed as the world’s third to sixth animated feature film, depending on how you consider earlier animated feature films; at any rate, it was released in Germany eight months before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The film is presented as “the oldest and most beautiful story known to us animals”, as narrated by an elderly monkey dressed as a Medieval scholar. The scenario is credited to Irène Starevich, but it is essentially Le Roman de Renart as finalized in literary form by the Renaissance, especially in Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1794 Reineke Fuchs epic poem. By the 1920s almost every standard edition of Goethe’s poem had the 1840s illustrations by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, and the Starevich’s stop-motion models look very similar to these.
The French release, with a French soundtrack, was in 1941; this is the most common version today. But any version is better-known in Europe than in America.
An anti-Semitic cartoon-animated “sequel”, About Reynaerde the Fox (Van den vos Reynaerde) was made from 1941 to 1943 in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. This was written in 1937 by Robert van Genechten, a member of the NSB, the Dutch equivalent of the German Nazi party. He intended it to be “New Literature for the New Order”, full of Nazi doctrine. King Nobel has died, and the Animal Kingdom is under a regency led by Baldwin the Ass. A tribe of wandering rhinoceros merchants led by Jodocus enters the kingdom. The film makes blatant comparisons between the rhinos’ nose-horns and the Nazi caricatures of big-nosed Jews, and the “Jod” of Jodocus is pronounced like the Dutch word for Jew. Jodocus flatters Baldwin, who is vain and foolish and easily tricked, and he appoints the rhinos to be the kingdom’s tax collectors. The rhinos preach that a royal aristocracy is awfully old-fashioned; animals today are all for democracy and equality, where all are equal. All of the aristocratic animals intermarry, and their cat-chicken, bear-duck, and similar children are ugly and stupid, illustrating the Nazi doctrine of Racial Purity. Reynard, who has been quietly observing all this, realizes that the rhinos’ goal is to weaken the animals’ society so they can take it over. Reynard leads the aroused national socialist animal commoners to drive the rhinos into the sea and drown, and the kingdom is saved.
Ironically for van Genechten in 1937, the German literary censors rejected the novel, so it was only published in the Netherlands. The censors ruled that while van Genechten may have meant well, the International Jewish Menace and Racial Purity were too serious for parody; and that Reynard the fox was too well-established as a thief, trickster, and murderer to make a good Nazi role-model. But when Germany conquered the Netherlands in 1940, the Nazis needed reliable Dutch collaborators to fill the occupation government. Van Genechten volunteered and became the new Procurator-General. In 1941 the Germans set up a new movie studio, Nederland Film, to make live and animated propaganda films. Van Genechten used his influence to see that the studio filmed his About Reynaerde the Fox, directed by Egbert van Putten, as well as to get his story published as a novel.
This was publicized as the Netherlands’ first animated feature film, although it was only about 13 minutes long. Production was completed in April 1943, and a prestigious screening was held for NSB dignitaries and the film crew on April 25, 1943 at the Hague’s Ufa-theater, Asta. However, the film was never released. The German authorities, who controlled film distribution during the war, had the negative brought to Berlin, where it became lost during the fall of Berlin. However, the film components were found in bits & pieces during the 1990s and 2000s, and the completed film was first shown at the Holland Animation Film Festival in Utrecht in November 2006 for an academic audience. The reviews were that it was very well-made, but very anti-Semitic. There were several changes from the novel; the major one being that the illustrations in the novel showed the cast as natural, unclothed, four-legged forest animals, while the animated cartoon has them as bipedal, medieval-clothes-wearing funny-animals.
No reason was ever given for the non-distribution during World War II. My own opinion is that the Dutch public’s passive resistance to the German occupiers had increased so much by 1943 that the Germans felt that there would be a massive boycott of About Reynaerde the Fox, and that it would not be worth the critically-limited film stock to have prints made.
Walt Disney seriously considered for decades making a feature based on the Medieval folk tale, but with a difference. It was to be based on, not Le Roman de Reynard, but Edmond Rostand’s 1910 French play Chantecler, a satire on current French social pretension starring the vain rooster who believes that his crowing in the morning makes the sun come up. Reynard does not appear in the play at all.
Chantecleer went through two periods of serious consideration at Disney. The first was just after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in December 1937-early 1938, when Disney was considering ideas for his second feature. He liked the idea of a barnyard comedy with a cast of pretentious roosters and chickens in fancy feathers, but nobody could develop a feature-length plot; and the foolishly arrogant Chanticleer was not a sympathetic character. Disney himself then suggested adding Reynard as a con-man fox to the plot to create more conflict, but the rooster still seemed too unsympathetic and the plot would not jell. Disney dusted off the project and gave it another try in 1941, 1945, and 1947, but with no further progress.
In 1961, after the success of 101 Dalmations, due largely to the work of Ken Anderson and Marc Davis (the designer and animator of Cruella deVil), they were looking for a new animation feature project. Davis became enthusiastic about reviving Chanticleer and turning it into a Broadway-style musical, as the studio did almost thirty years later with The Little Mermaid, using song and dance sequences to fill out the running time. Disney approved the idea, and for about six months Chanticleer was going to become an animated feature, with Reynard the fox as the manager of a dishonest traveling carnival. Then Disney confronted the fact that his theme park development in Florida was so expensive that he would have to cut his animation production expenses sharply. His studio had two features in full production, The Jungle Book and Chanticleer, but one would have to go. Disney chose to continue The Jungle Book. Reportedly some of the animal character designs, especially of Reynard, were used in the 1973 Disney funny-animal feature Robin Hood.
Over twenty-five years later, Don Bluth, a defector from the Disney studio, made his own version of Chanticleer, Rock-A-Doodle. It was even further removed from the Reynard legend, and did not feature any foxes. But Charles Solomon has written a book about Disney’s unfinished features, The Disney That Never Was; The Stories and Art from Five Decades of Unproduced Animation (Hyperion, December 1995), which contains many drawings from the studio’s Animation Research Library of the never-finished Chanticleer (below).
In September 1986, Moi Renart (I, Reynard) debuted on French TV; 26 half-hour episodes directed by Jean Cubaud and animated at I.D.D.H. Angoulème (International Droits et Divers Holding) and Hanho Heung Up in Seoul. This modernization of the fable stars Renart as a young 20ish fox who comes from the countryside with his pet white monkey, Marmouset, to present-day Paris to live with his uncle Isengrim, an upper-class car salesman, and who falls in love with Hermeline, a vixen journalist. Renart is a bit of a rogue who creates a dummy business, l’Agence Renart, to carry out robberies; though he often steals from the seriously evil thieves. He becomes the adversary of Police Chief Chanticleer and Officer Tybalt. The art design by Pascale Moreaux is overly realistic; the characters look more like animal-headed humans rather than anthropomorphized animals. The series contains ingroup references to Japanese animated TV series imported into France by I.D.D.H., notably Candy Candy, although Moi Renart is aimed for adults as well as children (at least in the plots, not the poor animation).
In August 2005 a CGI animated feature, Le Roman de Renart, directed by Thierry Schiel and produced by Oniria Pictures in Luxembourg, was released in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg; other European countries later. This was rich visually, but the story was strictly for children. This was one of those theatrical features in Europe that try to get an American release, as Renart the Fox, but become a direct-to-video kiddie DVD in America, retitled The Adventures of Renny the Fox. Watch with your mind turned off.