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Disney Sundays: The Fox and the Hound (1981)

          There were actually some interesting behind-the-scenes developments concerning The Fox and the Hound at Disney. It was meant to be a starting point for a new breed of young animators at the studio including the likes of John Lasseter, Ron Clements & John Musker, Henry Selick, Tim Burton, and Brad Bird. But it also faced severe production problems when Don Bluth and a bunch of other animators left the studio to form their own ...and to go on to make the best animated films of the 1980’s! Did that mass exodus and conflict of visions between old and new generations effect the final product?
          Well it might have resulted in The Fox and the Hound being one of the more depressing Disney films. It’s pretty melodramatic and there are almost no laughs to be had, making for a bit of a downer to watch. But it does get across some poignant ideas and important if harsh life lessons. Like The Rescuers before it, there are some dark elements to this film, especially in the second half. But it’s a fascinating movie for Disney with a specific tone that they haven’t really revisited since. There is only one Fox and the Hound (unless you count the book of course).
          The story is about an orphaned fox called Tod who’s raised by a farmer Widow Tweed, and Copper, a hound dog bought as a puppy by fanatic hunter Amos Slade. Living as neighbours, Tod and Copper become close friends when they’re little, only to be separated when Slade takes Copper as well as his older dog Chief on a long hunting trip over many months to train Copper to be a proper hunting dog. When they return, Copper’s full grown and Tod tries to preserve their friendship despite their natural instincts to be enemies.
          The style of this film reminds me a lot of the novel Where the Red Fern Grows. Maybe it’s just the hunting focus and significant dog characters, because it belongs to that same family of twentieth century country drama that also encompasses Charlotte’s Web and Old Yeller. And like those stories there are important themes you don’t quite pick up on as a kid. The social stigmas surrounding Tod and Copper’s relationship and the identities they’re supposed to have amounts to a commentary on prejudice which I find interesting. In part because another Disney film that recently came out, Zootopia, also addressed themes of prejudice in this manner, and also starred a fox though inverted as the predator instead of prey. But I also find it interesting because it’s dealt strictly from a social structure standpoint. The supporting characters stress that dogs hunt foxes in this world so the relationship between the two characters is doomed. Though it’s not a romance it has that same forbidden association that you find in Romeo and Juliet. Tod and Copper are forced to live in a world where they’re taught it’s their instinct to be enemies and the conflict that arises from this is illuminating. I also like how the film addresses ideas of friends growing apart and doesn’t sugar-coat it. Not all friendships last and this film emphasizes that to a brutal degree for kids. And the way they choose to end it is one of my favourites in Disney. It’s neither happy nor sad, but it does come off as very honest.
          The relationship between Tod and Copper is the cornerstone of this movie and it is put to the test. Part of the reason this is such a depressing film is because we have to see the pair when they’re little and cute being best friends, and then watch as they’re forced into conflict. And it gets real. They are characters worth getting invested in. Throughout their lives Tod is a fun-loving optimist, and Copper a conservative anxious type though somewhat in the shadow of Chief. Mickey Rooney voices Tod and is okay, though a younger actor may have been better; Kurt Russell is good as Copper (young Copper as it were is voiced by former Goonie Corey Feldman). The drama between the two is more interesting than either of them individually though. Their owners aren’t bad and actually have a great dynamic. Jeanette Nolan brings a compassionate but ruthless temper to Widow Tweed, while Jack Albertson from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays Amos Slade as more than an idiot hunter villain.  While at times Slade is just the typical evil hunter, he does show humanity. It would have been easy to give him no redeeming qualities or have him care only about hunting, but he shows genuine affection for his dogs Copper and Chief. Pat Buttram gets to shine as Chief, easily his best Disney character even if how the film handled him is one of its biggest problems.
          I do have to go into spoilers for a bit here if for nothing else but to vent about a development that really holds the film back. Just skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled. After coming back from their hunting trip, Chief and Copper give chase to Tod but since Tod is a friend, Copper lets him go. Chief however corners him on  a railroad track and is hit by a train. The biggest mistake by far in The Fox and the Hound is that they didn’t kill off Chief in this scene. Even as a kid I was perplexed he survived. Like Trusty and Baloo before him, it’s a death cop out, but in this case it really damages the narrative. Not only does the character die in the book (which in general is a lot more grim), but the death of his mentor seemingly at the hands of his former friend whom he let get away provides Copper with a believable emotional reason to turn on Tod. And when they do confront each other again with Copper fuelled by vengeance over such a loss, the stakes would be incredibly high. As is, it just seems to be Copper overreacting to an accident. It doesn’t allow for near as much drama and though the climax is thrilling, it could have been much more so. Come on, they killed Tod’s mum in the beginning, they could kill Chief! (Though of course Disney has it out for mothers)
          There are other problems with the movie. There’s eventually a romance with a female fox called Vixey (creative Disney...) voiced by Sandy Duncan which tried to add some levity. But I don’t know, I feel like they either should have given us more in general of Tod adjusting to life in the wild or just eliminated it in favour of more scenes of Tod and Copper bonding as children. Most of the minor characters are forgettable. A pair of birds, one voiced by Paul Winchell (Tigger) are meant to be comic relief, but aren’t funny; them and their subplot about catching a worm is one of the most forced in Disney. Piglet’s in this too as John Fiedler voices a porcupine, while John McIntire voices a very Don Bluth looking badger. As for Big Mama, she feels too gimmicky. Pearl Bailey’s alright, but the character’s just trying to latch on to the popularity of Aretha Franklin and similar artists of the time. Her songs don’t leave an impression, with the exception of “The Best of Friends” which does compliment the film’s theme of fleetingness. In terms of the songs as well as the romance and comic relief side characters, I think this film would have been better off going full drama. It’s an area where I think being Disney hurts the execution overall.
          I like the score though. It’s surprisingly really unique for Disney coming at a time when they didn’t really know what to do musically between the Sherman Brothers and Alan Menken. It establishes the tone thoroughly and builds tension really well. This is seen nowhere better than in the opening credits which seem to promise a much more eerie movie than The Fox and the Hound looked like it’d be (the distant dog barks are a great touch). The pace of the music is slow and soft and again really settles you into this gloomy environment. Though it can be upbeat it also feels foreboding, and it adds to a number of scenes. One sequence between Tweed and Tod is nothing much on its own (hell the attention it gets is even a little distracting considering the relationship the film should be focussed on); but the use of the music and animation makes it heart-wrenching. Just another sad scene in a very sad movie.
          The Fox and the Hound is way too downtrodden to be one of Disney’s best, but it’s certainly one of Disney’s most interesting and unique films. It’s held back to some degree by trying to be a typical Disney movie which conflicts with the rest of the story and tone, and there is one major plot problem, but overall it’s very good. Even if I never came out of it happy, I’m glad I watched it as a kid as there are definitely some important themes and lessons to get out of it. I’d say it’s one of the more underrated Disney films and certainly one worth checking out and thinking about.

Next Week: The Black Cauldron (1985)

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