The Fox and the Hound (1981)
Directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich and Art Stevens
A fox cub, orphaned when its mother is killed on a hunt, is found by the owl Big Mama. She and her bird friends arrange for the cub to be adopted by a local widow, who names him Tod. Tod soon meets and befriends a puppy named Copper, owned by the widow’s neighbor Amos Slade. Slade is a hunter, and intends to train Copper as his new hunting dog alongside his current one, Chief. Despite the danger represented by Chief and Slade, Tod and Copper enjoy playing with each other until the winter sets in.
The next spring, Tod and Copper meet again, now as young adults. Copper has been fully trained as a hunting dog, and warns Copper against coming to visit him again. Tod accidentally wakes up Chief, and is chased by Slade and his dogs in the night. The chase leads to a train bridge, and Chief gets knocked off by the train and nearly killed. Copper swears revenge, and the widow takes Tod to a local game preserve in an attempt to protect him.
There, Tod meets a female fox, and Big Mama attempts to set them up together. Her attempts are interrupted by Slade and Copper, who have come into the preserve illegally to find him. The hunters corner Tod at a waterfall, but they are attacked by an angry bear. Tod saves their lives by leading the bear over the falls. When they find the injured Tod at the bottom, Copper prevents a wounded Slade from killing him. Tod stays behind in the forest, while Copper goes back to the farm with Slade.
Production began around the time that The Rescuers was coming out. Wolfgang Reitherman, the director of all of Disney’s movies for the last decade plus, was the original director for this one as well. In fact, adapting The Fox and the Hound had been his idea in the first place, as his son had once owned a pet fox. However, he soon got into a major dispute with his co-director, Art Stevens, over the direction of the project. Stevens took his concerns to the producers, who overruled Reitherman. Reitherman eventually stepped down, saying that it was a “young man’s medium.” This would end up being the last project he worked on for Disney, as he’d die in a car accident in the mid-80s.
Since this was likely to be the last movie that any of the Nine Old Men worked on (and in fact would be – the last few members of that group retired midway through production), the animation was mostly done by the younger “B” team, who now graduated to become Disney’s primary animators. And like Reitherman, this team had some struggles with Stevens. Things came to a head over Stevens’s decision to have Chief survive being hit by the train instead of being killed like he was in the book. The animators though that not killing him took all of Copper’s motivation out of the movie, but Stevens said “we never killed a main character in a Disney film and we’re not starting now!” (conveniently forgetting all about Bambi’s mom).
Ultimately, all of the arguing with both Reitherman and Stevens was too much for Don Bluth to take, and he staged a rebellion against Disney. He resigned, and fifteen other animators (over half the crew) went with him to form their own animation studio. This defection caused The Fox and the Hound to get pushed back by six months. To fill in the gaps in the crew, a bunch of lower-level animators, many of whom were fresh out of the California Institute of Arts and had only been with the company for a couple of years, were promoted to more important positions. You might have heard of some of them: John Musker, Ron Clements, Glen Keane, Brad Bird and Tim Burton, among others. Not all of them would stay with Disney for long, but this film gave many of them their start in the industry.
So I’m told that I saw this movie when I was a kid, but I have absolutely no memory of it. I don’t know why I never caught up with it as an adult. I guess I tend to treat Disney’s pre-Little Mermaid 80s output in the same way that I do their post-Renaissance work. As not really worth my time. It’s probably about time that I start to reappraise them.
Now that I’ve actually seen it as an adult, my opinions on this particular film are rather mixed. First, the good. For the first time in decades worth of Disney films, I can confidently say that this movie looks gorgeous. There are still hints of the sloppiness of the 70s movies, but the influx of new talent has done wonders for the quality of the animation. The forests are lush, and the animals are well-drawn and expressive. I also didn’t notice any recycled animation this time around. That was one of Reitherman’s trademarks, and his departure seems to have ended that particular practice. And good riddance, I say. The xerography I can stand, but the blatant recycling just makes the movies look cheaper than they are.
I don’t really have much to say about the vocal performances on this one. I wouldn’t have been able to identify either Mickey Rooney or Kurt Russell as the adult Tod and Copper without the credits. I guess that’s a good thing? I wasn’t distracted by any sort of stunt casting, at least. Paul Buttram is also back, this time voicing the older hunting dog Chief. While I thought he was badly miscast as the Sheriff in Robin Hood, here his country hick persona is a lot more fitting.
Like The Rescuers, this movie isn’t particularly strong in the song department. One of the benefits of casting Broadway legend Pearl Bailey as Big Mama is the opportunity to have her sing most of the songs. I just wish that she’d had better material to work with. It’s been a couple days now since I watched the movie, and I honestly can’t remember a single one of the movie’s songs. I know Disney had financial troubles through most of the 70s and 80s, but you’d think they could hire a decent songwriter at least.
The songs aren’t great, but where the movie really falls apart for me is the story. Specifically, in a choice that they made halfway through. To put it bluntly, Chief should be fucking dead. NEEDS to be to dead. The animators were completely correct in pointing out that having him survive the fall from the train tracks robs Copper of all of his motivation to pursue Tod for the second half of the film. It’s maybe the most asinine plotting decision in any movie I’ve watched so far for this project. And as I pointed out in the production notes, it’s not like Disney hasn’t killed off a sympathetic animal in the past!
Bambi was strongly anti-hunting, and nothing shows that quite as much as the death of Bambi’s mother. The Fox and the Hound is also pretty clearly anti-hunting, though it isn’t quite as overt with its treatment. After all, one of the title characters is a hunting dog who, injury to Chief aside, seems to genuinely enjoy his role. The movie tries to be more of a “buddies from different sides of the tracks” type of film, which I think also blunts some of its impact.
Overall, I’m not sure that I really liked this movie all that much. Much of it is really beautiful to look at, and I’ll admit to actually enjoying the slapstick side quest of the two bird characters, who spend much of the movie trying to catch a caterpillar only for it to turn into a butterfly by the end. But the main plot was quite slow, the songs weren’t memorable, and I found the survival of Chief to be a cheap copout that robbed the movie of its power.
Animation: A (Maybe it’s just me coming off of a long string of subpar work, but this is easily the best a Disney movie has looked since Sleeping Beauty)
Main Characters: B- (Copper and Tod and cute, but ultimately don’t have much of a personality beyond what other characters want them to be)
Supporting Characters: B- (Nothing too memorable here)
Villains: B- (Slade is pretty much just the “generic Hollywood redneck”)
Music: D+ (They wasted Pearl Bailey. That’s like an automatic half-letter-grade lower, beyond what I normally would have given it)