The Fox and the Hound released at a troubling time for Disney Studios, 1981. Very few of their movies, live action or animated, were any more than moderate successes. The massively expensive Walt Disney World opened not too long ago and was still struggling to even out. Don Bluth defected from the company after only drawing a few frames, after upper management rejected one of his film ideas. He declared that Walt Disney would hate the way they were managing the company at the time. He already found success with both his short films and assisting with the animated portions of hybrid movies with his own studio. 11 other animators also defected from Disney, which massively delayed the Fox and the Hound’s release. Others agreed with him, and 11 other animators left in the next couple of weeks.
Despite its troubles, The Fox and the Hound was a moderate success when it first released. Most critics agreed that it was modestly entertaining, but kind of dull. Some critics, including Roger Ebert, praised the movie for the studio’s bold new direction with its more thoughtful filmmaking. These days it’s regarded a bit better than it used to be, but most would agree it’s not quite a classic.
The basic story is that a young fox, Todd and a young hound, Copper, become friends at an early age. Unfortunately, societal norms challenge their friendship quite harshly. Copper is owned by a hunter, and at the mid-way point of this movie, takes a winter-long hunting trip with his master and the hunter’s other dog, Chief. Todd’s owner is a kind old farmer. The neighbors tend not to get along very well through most of this movie, especially after the hunter unfairly blames Todd for causing trouble and tries to kill the fox. The story isn’t all that unpredictable. There are parts of the movie that move a bit too slow for its own good. Behind the simple story is a challenging look at friendship, society’s expectations and racism. It’s easy to see what they were going for with this story, and it’s thematically done very well.
There are a couple points in the movie that completely nail the emotion Disney Studios went for. At one point, Todd’s owner realizes that she can no longer keep him for his own safety. The scene where she drops him off at a wildlife reserve, accompanied by the sad song “Goodbye May Seem Forever”, is quite possibly the saddest moment in pre-renaissance Disney. The ending carries a more bittersweet feel instead of Disney’s traditional happy ending, with Todd and his new fox girlfriend looking at his former owner’s home from a distant hill. In case you’re interested in seeing the movie I won’t spoil anything else, but there are several other emotionally rough moments and a couple other relieving moments. The Fox and the Hound doesn’t cheapen the ending, yet there are still relieving elements within it. That’s part of what makes this movie work.
The voice acting is generally really good, no doubt helped by several people who are now big stars, including both of Copper’s voices. Young Copper is voiced by a then 10-year-old Corey Feldmen, while Kurt Russell voiced adult Copper. Big Mama, an owl who helps teach and take care of Todd over the course of the movie, is voiced by Pearl Bailey, a huge star in the music world at the time. And of course there’s Green Acres alumni Pat Buttram, who plays Chief. He was also in the three previous feature animated Disney films, but I’m mentioning him here because this is both his biggest and his last role with Disney’s Animation Studio. He also appeared in Who Framed Roger Rabbit 7 years later, but that’s a different studio.
With all that said, The Fox and the Hound isn’t without problems. The animation appears to be on par with Bambi, which released 39 years prior. Bambi’s budget was also constrained by weakened profits during the Second World War, yet it revolutionized the way animals were animated. This movie feels like a step down from some of Disney’s other releases. With the limited budget, Don Bluth and his crew leaving, and a lot of the original animators retiring all at once, all Disney had left were a bunch of young, inexperienced animators. The young animators would eventually improve and play a huge role in the Disney renaissance, so there’s that.
The music, with the exception of the emotional “Goodbye May Seem Forever”, is kind of lame. None of Bailey’s songs seem to fit her voice all that well. The “Lack of Education” song lyrics don’t really make much sense, and even though it’s short, it feels like it drags on for too long. It’s at a point where Big Mama is trying to show Todd how dangerous hanging around with Copper could be, and it ends with showing Todd the dead animals on display in the hunter’s shed. The lyrics are vague and are clearly confusing Todd, so why not just skip the song and show him the bodies?
The Fox and the Hound is kind of mixed. I still enjoy it because of its well told themes and its more emotional moments, but the comedy is kind of childish and the music isn’t great. I appreciate what they were trying to do, but I fully understand why the reception for this movie is mixed. I’ll give this one a cautionary recommendation.
I waited to mention this until now, but The Fox and the Hound is very loosely based on a novel of the same name by Daniel P. Mannix. In the book, Todd and Copper never become friend and pretty much everyone dies. Yeah, I fully understand why they changed so much.
Next up is the 25th movie, and how did Disney celebrate their 25th animated movie? By pushing out the biggest box office bomb in their Animation Studio’s history. Oh joy. After that, it’s The Great Mouse Detective, and then the last movie before the renaissance began, Oliver and Company. I’m strongly considering a vs post between The Fox and the Hound and Oliver and Company, which I haven’t seen yet.