The Great Disney Blogathon: The Fox and the Hound (1981)
|June 3, 2015||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
I think it’s fair to say that The Fox and the Hound is one of Disney’s least-loved films. It came out during a time that’s infamous for being Disney’s creative nadir, there are no standout characters or voices or songs, the source material that it’s based on is not very well known, and most importantly, it’s depressing as hell. Even if you’re generally a fan of the movie, there’s no getting around the fact it’s a story about childhood best friends who grow up to attempt to murder each other because of societal pressure and weakly-justified vengeance. That is grim.
Unfortunately, I am not really here to make a case for it. The Fox and the Hound is not a stellar movie, and it’s probably even darker than you remember. But there is some fascinating history buried in there, and a couple of genuinely beautiful moments. Let’s get into it, shall we?
Like The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound is a transitional film – but where the former was guided by the Nine Old Men with contributions from some new up-and-comers, the latter was initially developed by the old guard but largely finished by the new, including such future luminaries as Tim Burton, John Lasseter (eventually the driving force behind Pixar), Jon Musker and Ron Clements (who would go on to direct films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin), Brad Bird (director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles in real life and countless Superman movies in my heart), and Glen Keane (more on him later). Meanwhile, Don Bluth walked off the production with a handful of others, Jerry Maguire-style, to start his own company, which went on to produce Anastasia and nine thousand Land Before Time movies.
Guys, that is a crazy list of names right there. Circa 1995, that group working together probably could have made a movie so good we could just quit with movies, because nothing would ever top it. But in the late 70s, they didn’t quite have it yet.1
Because The Fox and the Hound is just…it’s just plain mediocre. Disney movies usually at least have a little sparkle, a little something that sets them apart as a premium studio, but this one is just kinda there. The animation is a solid B-; like, the character designs are reasonably appealing and the forest scenes are nice, but this is Disney. They should be able to craft the most mind-numbingly cute fox kit and puppy ever and immerse you in a forest that feels more real than real ones.2 There are no real effects and a handful of small errors. The line weights are inconsistent. The voices are fine but not memorable, with the best performance coming from Pearl Bailey as Big Mama. The songs are instantly forgettable. The comic relief, courtesy of avian duo Dinky and Boomer, isn’t funny at all.
Mostly, though, the problem comes from the story. Guys, this is grim. It’s depressing. We’re talking about a movie that opens with a couple minutes of nearly complete silence, followed by the abrupt terrifying murder of the hero’s mother, and ends with the hero looking down at the only home he’s ever known, to which he can never return, while dialogue from happier times plays over the soundtrack. Also, the story functions around Copper, one of the main characters, being trained to kill sentient beings for profit and sport. Great fun for kids!
Honestly, it’s kind of amazing that the movie actually has some heartwarming moments, because the source material – a novel by the same name by Daniel P. Mannix – is, at least according to Wikipedia, a never-ending horror coaster. Revolving around the obsessive pursuit of a fox by a hunter and his dog, it features: a dog being killed by a train, two of Tod’s mates and litters of kits murdered by Copper and his master, alcoholism, rabies, pathological obsession, the encroachment of modernity on the wilderness, a child dying from accidentally eating fox poison, Tod dying of exhaustion after a lifetime as prey, Copper being put down by his weeping master, and ABSOLUTELY NO FRIENDSHIP. What lunatic looked at this book and thought, “I know! Let’s turn it into an animated musical!”?3
Obviously the plot of Disney’s take was pretty much constructed out of whole cloth, for which we can all be grateful, but it remains pretty bleak. As mentioned, the opening sets the tone for an hour and a half of sadness, which at least manages to claw its way up to bittersweet by the end. There’s a tendency in kids’ media to shy away from talking about death, but The Fox and the Hound is pretty explicit about the fact that Copper is being trained to hunt down animals just like his bestest buddy Tod – animals who are clearly on the same level of sentience as him – so that his master can shoot them and sell their skins. “Lack of Education” lays it out clearly: “If you pal around with that Copper hound you’ll wind up hanging on the wall/ Keep your nose to the wind and you’ll keep your skin/ ‘Cause you won’t be home when the hunter comes to call.” Like. Yikes. This is punctuated by the birds showing Tod the lean-to where Amos dries out the skins of the animals he’s shot, which we can pretty safely assume includes Tod’s mother.4 Amos’s gleeful demonstration of what the bear trap will do to Tod’s leg is also pretty horrifying, as are the depictions of Tod and Copper snarling at each other, feral with rage, each fang lovingly illustrated as they attempt to rip one another’s throats out. What are you doing, Disney?
…And yet. There’s a curious lack of, well, scary in this movie. The story is so thin, the characters so stock, and the staging of each scene so rote, that despite the often gruesome subject matter, those scenes fail to chill. The movie is morbid overall, but it never really cuts close to the bone.
…Except for one scene, and animation buffs know I’m about to talk about the climactic bear fight. This was animated by Glen Keane, who went on to animate, oh, Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, and Tarzan, just to name a few. Watching the bear fight closely, it’s hardly realistic – that bear seems to grow with every frame, a mountain of muscle and fur surmounted by blazing eyes. And it’s utterly gripping. It’s by far the best scene in the film, and bespeaks the tremendous work Keane would go on to produce.
There are two other beats that work really well in my opinion, and they’re both heartbreaking. For starters, the movie actually does a very good job selling you on the friendship between Tod and Copper in a very short amount of time; when I rewatched it for this post, I was surprised by how little Tod and Copper actually interact as kids. It’s basically a day and a half, but the viewer is in. This means that all the pathos that comes when Tod has to leave Widow Tweed’s is genuinely heart-wrenching, even if Copper’s grim determination to kill Tod because Chief…has a broken leg and is fine seems a little thin. “Goodbye May Seem Forever” is not the strongest Time For You To Cry Now Song in the Disney canon – that honor probably goes to either “Baby Mine” or “When Somebody Loved Me” – but it’s a tearjerker all the same.
The most powerful beat, however, is the resolution, when Copper moves to stand between Tod and Amos’s gun. I’m not going to lie: I have been pretty rough on this movie, but Copper’s quiet defiance and steady, mournful expression in this scene always get me. As John Grant points out, Copper’s kind of a weak-willed character and a pretty terrible friend, but this is his redemption, and it’s a deeply moving one.
It’s enough to help you sort of forget this movie’s broken Aesop, because the message of The Fox and the Hound is not that true friendship will overcome all adversity, but that prejudice and societal pressures will tear people apart if they’re different, and the best we can hope for is peaceful segregation. That’s…a rather dire message to subject children to for 83 minutes, and a total downer of an ending. The Fox and the Hound is not a technically spectacular movie, but at the end of the day I think it’s this morose conclusion that relegates it to the bottom shelf of Disney’s back catalog, along with artistically superior but equally upsetting movies like the aforementioned Hunchback. People come to Disney to be uplifted, and whatever the strengths of its saddest moments or the future triumphs of its animators, The Fox and the Hound doesn’t manage that most crucial task.
I can’t wait to cover the sequel next week, can you?
- I mean, and also a lot of them were working as, like, uncredited in-betweeners and stuff. Maybe if they’d been in charge the Renaissance would have started earlier? But this was probably a necessary journeyman period. ↩
- I will give a nod to Dinky the finch, whose body language is delightfully birdlike. ↩
- Presumably the same person who did that to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. ↩
- I mean, her skin may have already been sold – I have no idea how long it takes to cure a fur – but I think it’s a safe bet that Amos is the one who shot her. ↩