The next five weeks sees us navigating the hostile waters of the Walt Disney Company in the 1980s, which will eventually end with us entering the last golden age Disney’s had for a while. The Fox and the Hound continues the trend of downbeat stories we saw in The Rescuers, but adds in real-world prejudice that hits home. The animation is good, but nothing spectacular; no The Fox and the Hound lives and dies in the performances and screenwriting. Stripped of happy woodland critters, and catchy songs, The Fox and the Hound might be the most realistic Disney film we’ve seen.
Tod (voiced by Mickey Rooney as an adult, and Keith Coogan as a child) is an orphaned fox raised by a kindly widow. He meets hound dog Copper (voiced by Kurt Russell as an adult and Corey Feldman as a child), who is being trained to become a hunting dog. The two become friends, but come to realize that their owners have different paths for them, and after a harsh winter apart they return to face each other as enemies.
Let’s discuss where we are in Disney history because the 1980s was an unstable decade for the company, in terms of animation output. As a whole, the Company was doing great with the opening of Euro Disneyland (now Disneyland Paris), Epcot, and Tokyo Disneyland. In the animation sector, power was tenuous with Ron Miller – Walt’s son-in-law – wanting to appease the teen market with darker and grittier films which weren’t box-office successes. Animator Don Bluth led a walk-out around this time, delaying production of The Fox and the Hound by a year, taking key animators to start his own production company. Eventually, the Company would face a hostile takeover, Roy Disney voicing concerns over leadership, and the eventual removal of Ron Miller in favor of CEOs Michael Eisner and Frank Wells.
With all this conflict, it’s not surprising that the stories would reflect that antagonism. I haven’t seen The Fox and the Hound in a while, and I can see why; it makes Bambi look like Barney. If you aren’t a vegetarian, anti-fur, PETA supporter by now then this movie could change all that. The original book, written by Daniel P. Mannix is outright depressing involving mass deaths, so I thank Disney for keeping the body count to a minimum. You note the departure from past Disney classics right in the opening credits which are shown in total silence, with the occasional animal noise to punctuate the stillness. The sense of danger and unease rises till a little fox carrying her baby crashes through the foliage to the strains of baying hounds; this is our opening, folks! Of course, I mention Tod is an orphan so there’s no surprise that Tod’s mother ends up next to Bambi’s within the first ten minutes; this movie doesn’t waste time in killing off parents! Unfortunately, the movie breaks up this drama with levity, introducing the bird trio of Big Mama (voiced by Pearl Bailey), Dinky (voiced by Richard Bakalyan), and Boomer (voiced by Paul Winchell). It’s understandable that there needs to be some laughter to keep kids from losing their minds, but to introduce them with Dinky and Boomer breaking through a tree to eat a worm doesn’t gel. I applaud the voice casting, and Dinky and Boomer are throwbacks to the classic Chuck Jones style of comedy, but they belong in a different movie. The attempts at padding the runtime stand out in a big way, and they’re part of it.
The first half of the movie establishes the adorable, childhood friendship between Tod and Copper. The animation, combined with the vocal talents of young Keith Coogan (credited here as Keith Mitchell) and Corey Feldman, creates maximum cuteness. Baby animals in Disney films have always been adorable, but they’re removed entirely from existence in the past. You can believe that Tod and Copper are real in this film. They’re not overly expressive, and their movements are bound to reality. The animation on small things, like Copper’s nose when he sniffs the air, is genuine and wouldn’t catch your attention because all dogs look the same when sniffing. I apologize for offending anyone, in advance, but The Fox and the Hound definitely has some homoerotic subtext in the opening that cannot be ignored. You have two best friends whose friendship is considered unnatural (each being identified as predators in one form or another), and society eventually instills prejudice to poison their relationship and drive them apart. The first scenes with Tod and Copper lying around and playing with each other could easily be construed as a love relationship in the future. Outside of that, the movie’s moral message details the laws within nature and society as invoked by the duos masters. Tod and Copper are conditioned to be who they are through their biological make-up, as well as their masters. They’re continually at war with their inner feelings, which is conflict with all they understand. This is prominently seen in the character of Copper. Copper starts the movie as a puppy seeking love and companionship, and yet his owner, Amos Slade (voiced by Jack Albertson…ruined Willy Wonka for me now), plans to break Copper of that habit. In Amos’s mind, there’s no need for love in a dog trained to kill. Another sign of the times is the pronounced presence of guns in this movie. In Bambi, we didn’t see the hunter at all, but here we get several sequences where guns are pointed, aimed, and fired (although we never see anything shot and killed).
Amos Slade is a despicable Disney villain, probably the worst of the worst because he exists in the world. We see that not only is Amos bent on hunting, but he hates women, as evidenced by only referring to Widow Tweed (voiced by Jeanette Nolan) as “female” or “woman.” I can’t say that Disney does any good to women in this movie, as they’re all given generic female monikers; Big Mama for example, and even Tod calls Vixey (voiced by Sandy Duncan) “female” at one point. All the women are either mothers or sex objects. Vixey is where the movie gets lost. She’s the hot fox (get it?) who sounds dumb, and acts coy. The movie establishes her relationship with Tod, and forces the audience to diverge from the core narrative to see them fall in love. Keep in mind, at this point in the story, Tod’s life is being threatened by Amos and Copper. I have to wonder if this is the film’s attempt to present a heteronormative relationship so that weird audience members like me, who assume homosexuality, can be debunked.
The third act kind of skids off the rails for a bit, but makes up for it overall. We see Copper’s mentor Chief (voiced by Disney regular Pat Buttram) getting hit by a train and thus kicking off the climax with Copper declaring revenge on Tod. We pull a Scotty though, à la Lady and the Tramp, with Chief since he doesn’t die. The movie lets us believe Chief has been run over by a train – and really he should be dead – only to reveal he’s hurt his leg. It lessens the impact of Copper’s vow for revenge though because Chief lives on. The threads start to unravel after this with Widow Tweed “protecting” Tod by leaving him in a game preserve. Um, he’s a domesticated fox whose never been on his own before. Does that sound like a good idea? The idea of a domesticated fox learning life in the woods is a far longer story that gets truncated here, both padding out the story yet feeling rushed simultaneously. Also, Amos knows right away that Tweed has left Tod at the preserve. Tweed is well aware that Amos has no respect for the law, so does she expect Amos to give up on killing the animal? And furthermore, who the hell is patrolling that preserve that gunshots ring out and a fire happens?!
Overall, I applaud Disney for ending on a bittersweet note. There’s no resolution or pat ending where Tod and Copper are friends at the end. Society and nature have run their course, and the two friends are too different; too much has happened to make them forget the negatives and embrace the positives. Big Mama’s prophecy of time changing things is true. By the end, you’re left saddened, not that anyone has died, but that self-imposed differences have forced two creatures so far apart. It’s a “what could have been” ending. The Fox and the Hound is very bleak at times, the animation isn’t astounding, there’s filler, and the songs aren’t there (they’re more lyrical poems), but I appreciate this much more as an adult. It’s a tear-jerker with realistic expectations and no easy solutions. With the way our differences define us now, we’re all Tods and Coppers in our own way. The Fox and the Hound marks the start of a bleak time in the Disney company, but opens up a discussion on nature and society.
NEXT WEEK: We get to the film that almost sunk Disney animation entirely: The 1985 fantasy The Black Cauldron
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.