Kelli Weston on The Fox and the Hound
The Fox and the Hound, loosely adapted from Daniel P. Mannix’s 1967 novel, may be Disney’s least forever-minded film. Within the studio’s sprawling catalogue, where feelings and bonds endure (implicitly or otherwise) against all manner of mythical odds, and furthermore into perpetuity, comes a charming, flagrantly sentimental tale with a healthy respect for the certainty of endings.
The year before Mannix’s book was published, Walt Disney had died and left behind a notably patulous, still young empire, which would be just shy of 60 years old by the time the 1981 film was released. But in the wake of his death, his successors struggled to emulate the peculiar alchemy he had once so effortlessly conjured.
For its part, The Fox & the Hound promises all the requisite fixtures of a classic Disney production: the motherless hero; sage guardians; the wise-cracking or else bumbling dyad of comic relief; a host of celebrity voice talent (auguring trends to come), in this case Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell, the legendary Pearl Bailey, and child star Corey Feldman. Directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich, and Art Stevens, the fable proceeds as straightforwardly as the title suggests: a lonely widow (Jeanette Nolan) takes in an orphaned fox, whom she calls Tod (voiced as a kit by Keith Coogan and as an adult by Rooney), while her churlish neighbor—a hunter (Jack Albertson), no less—brings home a bloodhound called Copper (voiced as a puppy by Feldman, and Russell as an adult). The fox and hound become unlikely friends, unaware that they are destined to be enemies. The world makes its will known soon enough, and their fraternity is predictably tested. The two are compelled to turn on each other, until the dramatic climax, when the conflict is overcome and the film reaches its obligatory, peaceful conclusion.
If widely regarded among Disney’s more forgettable efforts, The Fox and the Hound remains distinguished in at least one respect: an emotionally formative sequence that has surely distressed scores of children in the four decades since it was released. Sensing her cantankerous neighbor will never rest until he has added Tod’s fur to his chamber of hides, Widow Tweed resolves to leave Tod in a game preserve, where she naively believes he will be safe. What follows is harrowing for any child, who may or may not themselves be honorary guardian of some possessively cherished creature. The lilting notes of a forlorn tune scores her decision. The scene fades into an anguished pan out from a black-and-white photograph of Tod’s first birthday, before she bends and gathers him in her arms. He leaps into the passenger seat of her 1910s-era Roadster and in voiceover she speaks of “good-byes” and “memories” to a woeful melody. His realization seals the moment’s victory. She cradles him one last time and removes his collar, as he bemusedly seeks her gaze with his large, downturned black eyes. This will be the second time a mother figure has tucked him away—effectively abandoned him—for his own good. At first, he trails her back to the car, but she shakes her head, grimly but firmly, as the old-fashioned chorus echoes her final words: “Good-bye may seem forever; farewell is like the end. But in my heart’s the memory and there, you’ll always be.” Tod, completely domesticated, looks helplessly after the widow as she lumbers back to the car. Then, the coup de grâce: she drives away, a final teary glance over her shoulder, and it begins to rain.
The film managed a considerable profit at the box office, despite middling reviews. Critics praised the finely mapped racial allegory (impressively subtle by Disney’s current standards) but lamented either the pacing or the trite songs or dismissed the entire affair as characteristically saccharine. The animation garnered some admiration, but visibly paled in comparison to the intricacy and elegance of its predecessors; in fact, the film recycles scenes from Bambi (1942) and The Sword in the Stone (1963). By all accounts, The Fox and the Hound would seem unremarkable, except, upon closer inspection, it bears demonstrable traces of Disney’s identity crisis at the time: the retroactive emblem of a looming new era.
The film marked a significant transition between establishment animators—more precisely, Disney’s venerable Nine Old Men, who had been perched at the studio since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)—and the much younger, incoming vanguard, wont to experiment, much to corporate chagrin. The Fox and the Hound thus became the first animated Disney feature made largely by a rising generation of artists, and not without some trouble. The film weathered a notoriously turbulent production, plagued by power struggles and infighting. Midway through development, animator Don Bluth famously quit and helmed a sudden exodus of a dozen or so top animators, which delayed the film’s release by 18 months. Admittedly, hidden in the ranks of those who remained, a constellation of then ascending filmmakers—John Lasseter, Ron Clements, and Tim Burton among them—count The Fox and the Hound as their first feature film. Meanwhile, Bluth launched his own company, which would not merely rival but handily outperform his erstwhile employer for the decade to come with a winning streak that included The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989).
It was during this especially troubled period in Disney history, wedged between its two most prosperous eras—post-Golden age and pre-Renaissance—that The Fox and the Hound arrived. The film belongs to what has been unofficially deemed the studio’s “Dark Ages,” those 18 years that commenced shortly after Disney’s death and proved, with some exceptions, generally less popular, either critically or financially. Tonally, too, these films—among them The Rescuers (1977), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988)—often strayed from the more whimsical fare Disney usually dispensed. The studio had long toed the Gothic line forged by its largely European forebears, shrinking from more grisly elements (at least three or four of the original tales that spawned the studio’s most memorable feats end in suicide), but preserving the essential human capacity for malice without disrupting the “family friendly” values foundational to the brand. Indeed, all Disney animated films are comedies; for that matter, almost all of them are structurally the same comedy: always the hero or heroine must conquer certain (often magical) encumbrances on their journey to find (though they may not know it at the time) family, whether biological or fortuitously corralled along the way (if not some blessed combination of both). Bluth himself adopted this tried-and-true design for his 1997 hit Anastasia. Narratively, Disney has rarely been especially ambitious. That is still true, perhaps even more determinedly than it was back then. With the release of The Little Mermaid (1989), they landed their first major hit in nearly 20 years, and the princess model reigned until it, too, grew untenable from overuse.
In 1979, when he and his cohorts defected, Bluth is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “There were too many committee decisions. Everything got done by vote.” Arguably more than any other film of the era, The Fox and the Hound betrayed the divided visions that afflicted the company from the top down. Just a few years earlier, The Rescuers seemed to presage a welcome change, with an influx of new artists—including Bluth, Clements, Gary Goldman, and Richard Rich—working closely with the outgoing veterans. But these young upstarts were keen to match the evolving movie landscape, one freshly emerged from the grittier, more pessimistic impulses of the ’70s.
One of the central conflicts that split filmmakers was whether Chief—Copper’s canine mentor—would die in the film as he does in the book. The event provokes a crucial transformation in Copper, who feels directly responsible. In one last honor to their friendship, he had allowed Tod to escape from the hunter before Chief, still in blind pursuit of the fox, stumbled into the path of an oncoming train. Clements, the architect behind some of Disney’s most notable successes—namely, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin (1992)—insisted that Chief should die. But Art Stevens, who would retire two years after The Fox and the Hound was released, refused. Ultimately Stevens triumphed. In the film, Chief only breaks his leg.
The choice embodies Disney’s risk-averse constitution, as crucial to its mission as its clumsy politics. The company committed far more egregious offenses in the years behind and certainly ahead of them, but the film’s lofty aspirations to say something meaningful about racial prejudice—in the social economies that keep Tod and Copper apart—is somewhat undermined by a Mammy caricature in the form of Big Mama, the owl (winsomely voiced by Pearl Bailey) who first finds Tod and maintains a watchful eye on him over the years.
In one memorable sense the film does manage to achieve some realism. Chief may not die, but relationships are ruptured and then reconciled, only just short of your standard happy ending. Tod and Copper end the film, having rescued each other, but their lives must take different paths. In the final shot, Tod and his partner Vixey watch over the widow, the hunter, and Copper in the valley below. A chasm literally, if no longer emotionally, remains between them. Perhaps there is a better version of this earnest parable, one that confronts death and the even murkier conditions in which a friendship may yet prevail. Even so, the film sincerely accounts for grief, for all good-byes hurt the same.