A Study in Disney: ‘The Fox and the Hound’ (1981)

| December 29, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

WATCH: Real Life 'The Fox And The Hound' Best Friends

There is a scene late in The Fox and the Hound when the grown-up Tod and Copper are circling each other and snarling.  Not to seem overly-dramatic, but that could easily be the representation of the production of this film.  During the five years from production to release, there was so much in-fighting and such a massive shift of power at the Disney studio that when the smoke cleared, 25% of Disney’s animators had walked out ushering in one of the darkest periods of the studio’s history.

Without taking the long road, let’s just say that the long-standing war between Disney’s old guard and the new crop of animators came to a head in September of 1979 when Don Bluth resigned “In the name of Walt Disney” and took 25% of the studio’s key animators with him.  That pushed the release of the film from Christmas 1980 to Summer 1981.

After all the turmoil, The Fox and the Hound opened on July 10, 1981 at #4 on the weekend box office behind powerhouses Superman II (#1), Raiders of the Lost Ark (#2), and Stripes (#3).  But how does the movie fair on its own?  Was it worth all the trouble?  Well, not really.  To be honest, for a movie that follows one of the largest and most far-reaching studio in-battles, The Fox and the Hound is not really a monumental achievement.  It is problematic, often feeling like a smaller project that the Disney animators would have been putting together in the shadow of a larger and much more important one.

One of the first issues with The Fox and the Hound is its inevitable comparison to Bambi.  Both films deal with the maturation and friendship of animals, one of whom loses his mother and then the changing of the season – and it has a similar ending shot.  There’s even an elder owl overseeing both stories.  What The Fox and the Hound lacks is a narrative through-line.  It tries to be a deep drama and then a cute comedy but there are problems when it tries to move from one to the other.

The central story deals with the friendship between Tod and Copper, a fox kit and a foxhound puppy who are supposed to be natural enemies.  In that bond is a sense of mature storytelling that should have been much stronger.  But while The Fox and the Hound shows glimpses of greatness, it is undercut by a lot of problems.

For one, the tone of the film feels off from the beginning.  It opens with a long opening credit sequence in which the camera moves through a dense forest while we listen to a score that feels like something out of a horror movie.  Of course, it is all to set up the death of Tod’s mother who dies at the hands of a hunter.  But shouldn’t the music set up comforting tone that makes the horror of her death fall on us as hard as it falls on him?

That, of course, sets us up for Tod to be adopted by The Widow Tweed (voiced by Jeanette Nolan) who keeps Tod as a pet.  Tod becomes friend with Copper, the foxhound next door who will eventually be trained to hunt * gulp! * foxes!  His owner is Amos Slade (voiced by Jack Albertson) who is a fox hunter by trade, and the drama of the film’s back half when Slade vows vengeance on Tod because his elderly hunting dog Chief broke his leg when falling off of a train trestle.

This was a massive point of contention among the animators and staff while the film was in production because in Mannix’s book, Chief dies while chasing Tod.  Art Stevens made the alteration to simply give Chief a broken leg and stating that no major Disney character had died before and they weren’t going to start now.  Many of the animators disagreed with Stevens, but he stuck by his guns and Chief was allowed to live to the end.

This one change gives the back half of the movie some problems.  After the Widow Tweed takes Tod into a nature preserve to keep him safe from the vengeful Amos Slade, Slade goes after Tod anyway.  But the fact that Chief didn’t die undercuts Slade’s motivation and gives the film’s third act much less of an emotional impact.  We are always thinking that Slade is over-reacting and that his mission feels a little insane and half-cocked.

The issues with The Fox and the Hound far outweigh its virtues.  This is a beautiful looking movie.  The watercolor backgrounds are a return to the stylistic choices given to earlier Disney features like Bambi and when the movie gets the drama right, it really gets it right.  But the story problems stay with you; yes, there’s cuteness here but it is at the service of a story that, by and large, doesn’t work.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.