August 4, 2013 posted by

“Reynard the Fox” in Animation

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.

starewicz_reynardThe 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.


  • Hell of an article.

    • That’s why we come here!

    • I suppose that Marc Davis can’t be blamed for wanting to put all of his work in developing “Chanticleer” out where the public could see it, but the review is correct; there is a big difference between a collection of storyboard art with text, and a true children’s picture book. Davis and the author of the text would have done better to write/illustrate a new, genuine children’s book.

      Another Disney animation veteran, Bill Peet, had a very successful second career as a children’s book author & illustrator after he retired/stormed out from Disney in the 1960s.

    • At least the artwork got released publicly at all.

  • I thought that Don Bluth’s “Rock-a-Doodle” made perfect sense, if you just consider Edmund to have been either brain-damaged or feeble-minded. After all, how many children, growing up on a farm, would be afraid that the owl in the barn was a serious menace to a grown pig, goat, horse, or cow?

    • Glad I didn’t have to see it 20 years ago.

  • Actually, there is a fox on “Rock-A-Doodle”. Chanticleer’s Colonel Parker-type manager plays the Reynard role. It’s easy to forget that he’s a fox because he’s drawn as fat, which foxes are usually not depicted as such.

    • It kept reminding me of the Sheriff of Nottingham from Disney’s Robin Hood personally. 😛

  • Yhere is yet another adaptation of Reynard the Fox, a German-Chinese feature from 1989, “Reineke Fuchs”. I saw this on TV some years ago and the quality level is rather poor in terms of both script and animation. Here you can se the DVD cover and some stills:

  • While Marc’s “Chanticleer” project didn’t happened, he did ended up recycling the designs for Disneyland’s “America Sings” attraction.

  • Great article! I have written extensively about the troubled production of the Disney version and “The Tale of the Fox” on my blog. It’s such a shame that Starevich is generally overlooked in the West.

  • Recently I got ahold of the 1945 “Modern American Edition” from Harry J. Owens with illustrations by Keith Ward, merely to familiarize myself with the tale since I hadn’t know too much about it before. I think I’m set! (loved those illustrations)

    About Moi Renart…
    “The art design by Pascale Moreaux is overly realistic; the characters look more like animal-headed humans rather than anthropomorphized animals.”

    I get the impression Pascale probably saw “Sherlock Hound” and merely went with that.

    “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).”

    I can’t blame IDDH for trying, they could’ve stuck with dubbing Japanese cartoons like they had, but I guess they felt they had enough clout to go the next step with an original production despite using Korea’s Hanho Heung-up rather than a noted Japanese outfit.

    The 2005 animated feature film, (for something obviously aimed at kids) wasn’t too bad I thought, though first seeing this, I almost got confused with it resembling cut scenes to a video game of that era!

  • Last year, Van Eaton Galleries put up a bunch of Bill Peet concept art for Reynard (erroneously labeled as being from Robin Hood):

    Ironically, according to Peet, Disney passed over Marc Davis’ Chanticleer/Reynard project and chose to put The Sword in the Stone into production instead. (I’ve never heard about it being up for consideration instead of The Jungle Book.)

    These Peet concept drawings must have been done either prior to or after The Sword in the Stone. Note that the rhinoceros guards seem to be direct ancestors of those in Robin Hood – Ken Anderson gets most of the credit for that film’s designs, but could the rhino guards have been based directly on Peet’s designs? Or was Peet maybe working off someone else’s designs?

  • STAREVICH is a GENIUS. Seriously, watch that whole thing through. Decades before Phil Tippett, he was moving the figure during exposure for motion blur. His animals are zoologically inspired and move in such alluring and subtle fashion. His staging is bar none, allowing easy views for the camera and access to his hands in all tableaux.

    I actually did a ton of research on this subject for a project I was working on using the characters – – what was basically the Tim Burton “Alice in Wonderland” version. All of them in the future from the events of the cycle and Rostrand play, having grown more insane and vindictive with romance, age, philoprogenitiveness, and thanatophobia. So I did look up most of these –

    HALLELUJAH for the uncovering of “Van den vos Reynearde.” I’ve been searching for that for years, and just assumed it was lost. (As one fascinated with Nazi parabilia, I can affirm the film stock shortage, but also? It wasn’t widely released because two years after production began and they finally finished it, the vast majority of Jews in my patria Netherlands had already been sent east for gassing. (Aside from some plucky, diary-writing stragglers and her like…) It was no longer useful as the propaganda film it was designed to be, because the presence of Jews was no longer an expected thing.

    >Fred Patten – Ironically, “Chantecler” was in pitch stages at the same time as “The Sword in the Stone.” In one corner, you had Ken Anderson, Marc Davis, Walt Peregoy, and countless geniuses drafting “Chantecler,” and Bill Peet in the corner by himself working on his own pitch for “The Sword in the Stone.”
    The board voted that you couldn’t make a personality out of a chicken, and Walt Disney gravitated towards the project that closely resembled his new favorite musical – Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.” (Same show that inspired him to hire Julie Andrews as the Magic Nanny.) It never got made.
    Never heard of it going against “The Jungle Book.” That came later.
    So Bill Peet, out of all the Disney workers, would be the least likely to write a book about the project, even though he was probably the most aesthetically qualified. Fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis.

    Rock-A-Doodle is more interesting as a style study of early 1990s renaissance revival/post eighties/cozy kitchen school of Children’s media art than it is as a film. Though entertaining, it’s better appreciated with a great deal of Alcohol. And the “Pinky” character did function as a conniving Reynard, but more of an evil Tom Parker type.

    • I knew about Walt choosing The Sword in the Stone over Chanticleer. You’re right that it’s ironic, because Peet himself did a couple dozen concept sketches for an earlier version of the project during the 50s (where Reynard seems to be the protagonist, with no Chanticleer in sight).

      I can understand why Mike Van Eaton mistakenly labeled them as being from Robin Hood – they really do look like a missing link between Reynard and Disney’s Robin Hood, complete with the palace guards being rhinoceroses.

  • As an update, I see there was a Russian-produced version of Reynard the Fox that was released as a TV series 7-8 years ago, several episodes can be seen on YouTube though unsubtled.

    • My mistake, it’s Ukrainian.

    • I admit that I’ve only watched the first 15 minutes of the first episode so far, and I don’t understand Ukrainian, but this seems to be very tenuously related to the Reynard the Fox legend. The fox’s name is Mykyta, not Reynard, and while it does seem inspired by the Reynard legend — the fox is a scheming trickster; he lives in an animal kingdom ruled by a royal lion; the other animals complain to King Lion about Mykyta’s crimes — there do not seem to be any of the supporting characters from the Reynard legend (other than the victimized animals including a wolf, a cat, a rabbit, etc.); his crimes are different; and the victims do not seem to be re-tricked by him.

      Of course, the Walt Disney/Edmond Rostand “Chanticleer”, the Don Bluth “Rock-a-Doodle”, and the French “Moi Renart” are just as tenuously related to the Reynard legend, but in those cases, the use of the Reynard names make the inspiration evident.

    • While I’m nearly 4 years later to this comment, I will say thanks for clarifying that with me. At least I try. I notice quite a lot of blog posts now on Disney’s Robin Hood that often mention Reynard and whatever they could get their hands on info-wise and it just reminded me of this article again! Someone always discovers something they didn’t know before.

  • Excuse me guys, but I have a request. I have seen the entire series of the French cartoon “Moi Renart” on YouTube under the YouTube channel “Le French Fry” (you have to search “moi renart” to find the episodes and his channel). I have asked him to put English subtitles or at least proper subtitles in the videos because the ones he currently has only has the automatic audio subtitles and those are unreliable. However, he has blatantly refused and has been rude and won’t put any proper subtitles in the “subtitles/closed captions” part of the YouTube video, because he says the episodes come from a VHS tape and no subtitles are provided and he won’t get anything out of it even if he does provide proper subtitles.

    I would like to ask/request ANYONE’S help in either convincing “Le French Fry” to put proper subtitles on the videos (they don’t even have to be English, they can be French and people can set them to automatically translate the language they speak) or to upload the episodes on their channel and provide English subtitles so non-French speaking people can enjoy the series.

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