Disney has a long standing tradition of taking sad, depressing, otherwise soul crushing stories and “Disney-fying” them. Examples include The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and apparently The Fox and the Hound. I didn’t know that the film was based on a novel of the same name written by one Daniel P. Mannix before I looked at the film’s trivia page on IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082406/trivia). Apparently, the title is all that the two share in common because the original story ends with both Tod and Copper dead. Not exactly the kind of ending Disney is famous for.
But that’s the kind of story The Fox and the Hound is. Even in its animated, Disney state, The Fox and the Hound is a difficult film to watch. It’s probably one of the more straight up dramatic Disney animated films the studio has ever put out. There are some scenes of comic relief with the two birds pursuing the caterpillar but the mood of this film just cannot be leavened to save its life.
It’s one of the tensest openings I’ve ever seen in a Disney film. It’s so masterfully quiet but gradually the audience can make out some kind of distant noise that is impossible to identify at first. After an uncomfortable amount of time, a dog barking is clearly heard and a fox carrying something in her mouth is finally visible. The audience follows her running through the forest trying to evade the approaching dog and hunter, both of which are never seen only heard. Just after the mother fox drops her mouth bundle off in a safe place, and nuzzles it lovingly, she darts off only to be followed by two deafening gunshots. And the scene is quiet again. Basically, The Fox and the Hound kicks things off with Bambi’s mom’s murder scene.
How can anything be happy after something like that? The answer: it can’t. The Fox and the Hound’s flavor is most definitely not sweet, but it’s not exactly sour either. Most describe it as a bittersweet tale of prejudice and friendship and I would be inclined to agree.
Most Disney films play with no overt agenda, but this is not so with The Fox and the Hound. The film is an effective commentary about ignorance and prejudice and where both come from. It was the film that kicked off the 1980’s for the Disney studio and made a bold statement about what direction the company was going in for that decade. This new direction was due in no small part to the changes that were happening within the studio.
The Fox and the Hound served as the passing of the torch for the nine old men as this was the final film for Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Wolfgang Reitherman. They began production on The Fox and the Hound but the film was completed by the new generation of animators that they had been training. This film marked the first time that a handful of the animators responsible for the success of the Disney studios in the late eighties, early nineties had full creative control. Names that would become famous to Disney fans included Ron Clements, John Musker, and Glen Keane.
Glen Keane is a name that you’re going to be hearing quite a bit from my mouth from now on. Of the current generation of animators, he is my absolute favorite. It doesn’t matter what he is animating, it always manages to be what you remember the most about the film. In The Fox and the Hound, Keane animated the climactic final confrontation between Tod, Copper, and the bear.
Slade does the natural hunter reaction and tries to shoot the bear, but that only makes the animal angrier than it already was. Symbolically, Slade becomes caught in one of his own traps with his gun just out of reach. I say symbolically because if Slade had not tried to inflict his own will on this natural world then his life would not have been in danger and his beloved dog wouldn’t have had to put himself at risk, because Copper bravely attempts to take on the bear himself to draw it away from Slade. Copper doesn’t fare too well and is most definitely about to be killed until Tod joins the fight.
Keane talked about in an interview that he found the idea of this fox going against such insurmountable odds against a bear for a friend that had been attacking him only moments earlier extremely powerful. I’m inclined to agree. While Copper was the one who allowed himself to be influenced into thinking that Tod was his enemy, Tod never stopped thinking of Copper as his friend even after Copper attempted to kill him. The fight almost kills Tod.
I find it very difficult to simply write off Amos Slade as a villain because he isn’t really one. He’s a lot like Aunt Sarah from Lady and the Tramp; he’s ignorant and reacts irrationally to things that he doesn’t understand. I don’t exactly have sympathy for him, but I can’t really rank him as the villain of the film either. Jack Albertson, as in Grandpa Joe of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory fame, voiced him very convincingly.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Widow Tweed, voiced by Jeanette Nolan. If there was a character I became emotionally invested in, it was Widow Tweed. She was such a loving albeit lonely woman and yet she could still hold her own against someone like Slade. I loved it when she unloaded his rifle into his own radiator. The love that she and Tod had for each other was palpable. The only scene I found myself flat out bawling during was when she was taking Tod to live on the reserve. The emotions in the scene just rang so true that it was gut wrenching for me to watch.
On the hound side of the equation, we have the confused and conflicted Copper. He’s adorable to watch as a puppy, even managing to win over Chief. This is a really different take on a Disney dog. In Lady and the Tramp and One Hundred and One Dalmatians the dog characters are portrayed as incredibly intelligent and independent. Copper, though, is a more realistic take on a dog, because he becomes a product of his training and upbringing, much like a dog in real life. He also is owner to one infamous and one famous voice: Corey Feldman (yes, that Corey Feldman) voiced Copper as a puppy, while Disney favorite Kurt Russell voiced him as a fully-grown dog.
While watching the film, it’s impossible not to make comparisons to Bambi. They are both thematically tied to the season/life cycle that was so extensively used in the earlier film. Widow Tweed discovers Tod by her fence in summertime, the season of life thriving; Slade brings home Copper in the summertime. Copper and Tod meet and become friends in the fall of the year, the season of change. Copper goes off to learn how to be a hunting dog in the winter, the season of death, symbolizing the death of Tod and Copper’s friendship. Tod and Copper are reunited and turned against each other in springtime. During this time, Tod falls in love with Vixey, which makes sense because spring is associated with love. After a number of harrowing encounters, Tod and Copper are reminded of why their friendship was so wonderful and are both reborn into better versions of themselves, as spring is the symbolic period of rebirth. The film ends in the summer again, with both Tod and Copper and everyone they know and care about starting over with a new perspective.
To be honest, I came out of The Fox and the Hound with a new perspective too. This was one of the few films that I was not looking forward to watching because all I took away from it on previous viewings was how sad a story it was. After watching it now, it still is a sad story but it’s the kind of story everyone needs to hear. It’s the first Disney animated film of the 1980’s, a decade that would provide one of the worst and one of the best films that Disney has to offer.