The Fox and the Hound (1981) Review
What do I know about the film?
‘The Fox and the Hound’ is an interesting one. Those who have seen it, tend to remember and subsequently have an emotional connection with it, but it passed a lot of people by going by this conversation I have had several times in the last month or so:
Person: I love your Disney Reviews! What is the next one?
Me: ‘Fox and the Hound’
Me: Yeah, it came out in the early…
Person: When do you get to Lion King???
It has a reputation for being one of the darker Disney flicks but it had nothing on the source material, a prize winning novel by Daniel P Mannix, praised for his psychological understanding of animal dynamics.
His story is about a Fox named Tod who is raised by a Human. Just like Disney! And a Hound named Copper who wants to please his Hunter owner. Just like Disney! The Hound is is in direct competition with another Dog named Chief. Just like Disney! The Fox leaves his Human owner when he reaches sexual maturity and finds a Mate. Just like Disney! However after Tod indirectly murders Chief a ferocious hunt begins, where the Hunter and Copper brutally murders both Tod’s Mates and Children and Tod eventually drops dead from exhaustion after Copper refuses to stop chasing him, only the Hunter then decides to kill Copper as Hunter is an alcohol dependent loner who wants to be cared for in a Nursing Home but they won’t allow dogs thus the book ends with Copper being shot in the head…Also a child dies after consuming poison meant for the foxes. Yep. Not so like Disney! In fact, the main thrust of the Disney adaptation is Tod and Copper start off as the very best of buddies which is not in any way part of the plot in the original source material
Pictured: Going off book.
But the fact that Disney failed to animate several adorable animals being ripped to pieces using their very best red ink doesn’t speak badly of the movie, right? Adaptations from books to films need to be different especially if you are targeting a family audience. But not everyone was impressed with the direction the film went in…
Back in my ‘Rescuers’ review, I briefly noted that the head animator was Don Bluth. ‘So what?’ I hear you cry. ‘This what!’ I respond nonsensically:
In 1979, during production on ‘Fox and the Hound’ and on his 42nd Birthday because apparently he was a theatrical sort, Don Bluth walked out of his job at Disney to start a competing animation company. He was not alone. Fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy went with him. The three of them had been secretly working on ideas in a ‘garage’ round the back of the Studio away from prying eyes. Other animators knew though. Some were interested in where their mutiny was going, some were not. The day after the walk out, 11 other animators also departed to work for Bluth. I suspect they were the ones that were interested.
The press, who you will know if you have been following my reviews, had been patiently waiting for the Disney power house to fall apart had a banner few months reporting this as a disaster for Disney. Which it…kind of was. They lost 17% of their lead animation department and the release of ‘Fox and the Hound’ had to be pushed back as a result. Also, Bluth had some pretty damning and more importantly public criticisms to make of his former employers, a game he continued to play as time marched on. Here are some of the many, many available diatribes that Bluth has spewed over the years:
‘It became intolerable to work under the current administration. They don’t understand the creative side. Walt did, but they didn’t…Their thinking is more toward marketing than product -more business than art’
Disney more interested in Marketing than Art? What??? No…No...
On the fact that all the female animators went with him, Bluth said they left: ‘Out of a certain loyalty to me and because the atmosphere at Disney is sometimes oppressive to women. For years, women have been assistant animators there, but they’ve rarely let them get higher.’
Disney don’t respect women? What??? No…No…
‘We felt like we were animating the same picture over and over again with just the faces changed a little.’
Wh-Ok fuck it this joke is getting old…
But one more: ‘they’ve gutted all of the meaning from THE FOX AND THE HOUND. It’s become a cute story instead of a meaningful one’
So at this point you might be thinking…What impact did Bluth’s departure and subsequent barrage of abuse actually have on one of the most powerful and successful film studios of all time? Well we have to leave that until my next review for now…
The time approaches…Oh yes…
Because first, I need to look at ‘Fox and the Hound’ and tell you if I think Bluth was right or wrong: Did Disney bastardise the story and make it too cutesy? Or was Bluth full of self righteous bullshit and it is actually a well told slice of darkness pie? Why does my opinion matter? Err…Because…Y’know. Look over there! A shot from the film that looks rude out of context!
You are welcome.
Did I see it as a child?
Yes. I got it on VHS for Christmas one year and I watched it quite a lot, although I have not seen it for many years so it wasn’t fresh in my head when I came to write this review. Which is a sweet spot I always enjoy.
I remember liking it, especially Corey Feldman as Young Copper whose earnest attempts at howling was remarkably endearing…
Had I known he would grow up to be this guy, I would have reached adulthood a lot faster…:
Oh Teddy…What happened?
The opening credits are silent…Everything is super serious cause this is a super serious movie…and then…Wait. Hold up. PAUSE. WHO plays the lead characters?! Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell??? Wow. About time those two were in a film together…
So it is time for a bit of the ol’ classic Disney parenticide: A Mother Fox is fleeing from a Hunter and hunting dog/s. She has to abandon/save her tiny Babby Fox by a post before she gets a bullet to the face. While her death is off screen it is clear what has gone down…
Luckily one of the many, many Disney Owl’s was nearby and assures the teeny Baby: ‘It’s alright, Big Mama’s here..’ rarely a phrase that inspires confidence. But if you thought the film was headed that way then get your mind out of the gutter. Big Mama, with help from fellow birds Dinky and Boomer, set about finding Baby Fox a home with a slightly loopy woman who IMDB tells me goes by Widow Tweed. After rocking Tod in a chair like a baby and declaring: ‘I won’t be lonesome anymore!’ (What are you too good for bingo club?) Tweed names him Tod…
Meanwhile not so far away, a Hunter named Amos brings home an adorable new puppy he names Copper much to the disdain of his older dog Chief…
When the paths of Tod and Copper cross, a quick happy bond is established and they declare they are best friends. Awwww etc but can their friendship last when Copper is being trained to track and kill him? Nobody seems to think so, except a determined Tod…
I meant to post this review a week ago…But I was struggling with something. One of the things that is consistently a problem with 65 minute films is the pace. And, indeed, it is a problem here. We the audience see Tod and Copper play together a couple of times in an uninspired game of hide and seek, have a playful romp in the water and we are supposed to be invested in the survival of their unbreakable attachment to one another? We seriously only see them together 3 short times (not even a third of the run time I am guessing…) before they are separated…Why should we care? This bothered me a lot and I was going to put this under the heading of things that didn’t work. But the more I worked on this review and the more I reflected, I realised something that made me respect the film a lot more: This isn’t a story about undying friendship. It is about growing up and letting go of things that no longer fit in your life.
To understand how I got here, let’s start with the introduction of the two lead characters. We get the typical Disney ‘cute’ moments, as Tod causes chaos in Widow Tweed’s barn. Do I really have to call her that? Ok…Well he ‘cutes’ his way out of trouble and like many terrible parents before her, she lets him out off as a result. Awww cute etc! But the implication of the chaos is that Tod is restless. He is a fox being cared for by an old lady. He doesn’t have any peers, only some birds with too much time on their hands who only talk to him when they feel like it. Tod is vulnerable from the off, because he is an outsider in his environment.
Meanwhile, nearby we have Copper and Chief, who sleep in barrels, are fed well and, despite Chief’s irritation with his young cohort, are clearly very fond of each other. Copper is being trained to hunt and not long after his intro, his nose leads him to Tod…
I just want to pause and reiterate how much I enjoy Feldman’s Copper. Copper is almost painfully charming, aided considerably by the way he is animated. Sure, it is cutesy, but it doesn’t feel OTT: Copper is naturally enthusiastic, eager and sweet natured and his characterisation does serve a purpose other than the blatant manipulation of my senses…
Some people might find it a bit on the nose that right after their crappy game of Hide and Seek (come on Copper, he’s right there!) they are declaring that they are best friends and will be forever…But that is how very young children talk to each other sometimes. I had a lot of ‘best friends’ at different times as a kid, and we would always talk about how we would be friends for the rest of our lives. And of course, you had to declare you were best friends. Otherwise someone else might come along and steal your Best Friend…which wasn’t ok…Cause they are your Best Friend…
It is pretty complicated I admit…
But notice that it is Tod who instigates all this chat about being best friends. Copper happily agrees, as is his just-go-with-it nature, but Copper is also the character who ends both of their playdates because he needs to get home to his demanding family of Amos the Hunter and Chief. He has a job to do, and even though he enjoys hanging out with Tod, whenever he hears his Master calling, he gets distracted from their play and becomes anxious to get home…
This could be a sign that he is afraid of them, and while that is partly true it is not because he fears abuse. It is abundantly clear that while naturally brusque and harsh, both Amos and Chief love Copper. What it’s really a sign of is that Copper is more connected to his family than Tod is to his. Sure he wants to play, but he also likes coming home. Tod on the other hand is looking to make a connection and is willing to put himself at risk of getting attacked by Chief, to see Copper and spend more time with him, even when Copper makes it clear this is a mistake.
When Amos heads off on what appears to be a year long hunting trip with his dogs (Seriously? How long are they gone for? Does that happen?) Copper is super excited to get going. He doesn’t even think of Tod until he sees the Fox rushing towards the vehicle, too late to say a proper goodbye. Then he gives a (naturally adorable) howl of regret. But up until then, he had been cheerfully enjoying Chief’s life lessons about when exactly a dog can sit up front and is ready for the open road.
Tod on the other hand is crushed. Therefore a life lesson from Big Mama about how Copper will return a fully grown killer falls on deaf ears. Even after Tod is shown the Shed of Death:
So…Which one do you think your Mom is?
Tod believes the bond he made with Copper will last the months apart…Even as his face betrays his anxiety, he declares that since they agreed they would be best friends forever, all this chat about them being enemies is ridiculous…
When we see Copper, he doesn’t seem to be mourning the loss of his friend at all…He is getting stuck in to tracking and as time goes on is successful. It is at this point in the film that his winning personality pays off: Because now Copper is pretty much an adult and is responsible for the death of some poor off screen animals whose carcasses we see being tied to the car for the journey to home. Yet, we still like him. Copper dives into his role as Hunter with the same happy-go-lucky attitude as he does everything so it is hard to begrudge him his triumph even when it comes at the cost of many, assumably equally anthropomorphic lives.
So then Copper and Chief are back home and a jealous Chief advises Copper that he needs to think ‘nasty’ if he is ever to have the stomach for hunting long term. While Copper humours him it is clear he thinks he is doing just fine. Then Tod shows up. And their reunion is…Awkward.
A lesser Disney film might have made them equally delighted to see the other, romanticising their bond to the extreme, making it seem like it is only fate that is keeping them apart, like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for bros. But in one of my favourite scenes in the film, Tod clearly expects their friendship to pick up where it left off, but Copper, while happy to see Tod, explains that they can’t really hang out anymore. When Tod asks if they are still friends Copper tells him ‘those days are over.’ Not ‘I’d love to, but I probably shouldn’t’ not ‘If only things were different’ See the difference between Tod and Copper is, Copper actually likes his life. He is satisfied to hunt, he likes his home, he likes making his owner happy. While it was nice to have someone he could mess around with when he was a Puppy he doesn’t need Tod bringing trouble to his door and clearly wants him to leave.
I am sure you see what I am getting at: This is a film where a kind of obnoxious character learns he can’t always get what he wants. His childhood friend (who he tellingly calls ‘Kid’ when they introduce themselves to each other) was easy to bend to his will, but now they are older and have nothing in common, recapturing their trouble free youth just isn’t an option partly because, as he has been told lots of times, dogs and foxes are natural enemies but also because Copper just isn’t as invested in their friendship and Tod doesn’t want to accept that.
This point is further emphasised in a gut wrenching sequence when Widow Tweed realises she can’t keep a fox as a pet any longer. So after shuffling through some memories, such as the time she made him a birthday cake…Wow. Really? For a fox? Did y’ah just eat it all yourself in the end? I didn’t even question that as a child…Anyway, she drives him into the forest and leaves him there, even though it breaks her heart to do it. Because ultimately, while she liked having him to keep her company, she is not doing him any favours forcing him to live in a house when he belongs in the wild. So she has to let her friend go…Remind you of anyone??? Themes! Themes I tell you!!!
The scene does work, although the inner monologue as she is driving him and the sad chorus are a bit sentimental, the moment when she hugs him and walks away is genuinely very moving.
So the trigger for Widow Tweed to send her pet fox back to the forest was a chase that ended in Chief getting hurt. Because of this, Copper, who had earlier shown mercy, declares Tod his enemy. This leads to a pretty intense series of moments where Copper and Amos track Tod and his Mate Vixey, who having seen ‘Bambi’ anticipates the attack when the forest gets ‘too quiet.’ The pursuit of Tod is pretty compelling complete with fire, traps, and a Tod VS Copper showdown. If the winner is decided by who has the best ‘It’s on!’ face, Tod wins:
But then a Bear enters the scene and Tod and Copper team up to save Amos. Despite this, Amos goes to shoot an injured Tod, only for Copper to step between them. Now unlike the earlier scene with Widow Tweed saying goodbye to Tod, Disney nail this moment by leaving the power of the gesture to speak for itself. It is very effective.
Copper might be a Hunter himself now but he is fair and he can’t let Tod die after he literally fought a motherfucking bear for him. So he silently stands up and waits. Amos relents and, wordlessly, the two opposing sides reach an uneasy conclusion: They will live their seperate lives with a begrudging respect for one another.
If you expected the film to end with the cycle continuing, Tod’s kids playing with Copper’s kids something like that, then you’ve been watching the wrong film. Copper sleeps happily in the sun, while Tod looks down on his friend for the last time from up in the hills…
And that is that. They both grow up and move on. Nobody dies, nothing truly terrible happens to anyone in the story we care about…And yet this film is dealing with some dark stuff. Without bashing you round the head with it, ‘The Fox and the Hound’ truly is about how difficult it is to let go of what was once really, really important: Even if you don’t need it anymore. It isn’t just asking: ‘What if you are constantly told you are supposed to hate your best friend?’ or ‘What happens if two characters who love each other are separated at a crucial time in their development?’ although, sure, both those dissertations are there to be written. What I took from the story is: Growing up is hard to do and things inevitably change even when you don’t want them to. And the story does a great job of exploring that. As do the stories of Don Bluth and Corey Feldman…
There are some genuinely moving moments that don’t feel forced, and I respect how they make you empathise with just about everyone: Tod, Copper, Chief, Widow Tweed, even Amos. Now really think about that. This is Disney. One of their most famous moments comes from a deliberately off screen monster who actually KILLS animals. Yet this is the film when they give the Great Evil Hunter a face and you can’t really call him the villain. In part that is due to him being played so well by the great Jack Albertson but it is also because he is recognisably a real person not just an idea. Sure, he is by no means an easy person to care about as he is grumpy and unpleasant but he also clearly cares about his dogs and takes pride in their achievements. And crucially the movie does not condemn him. We empathise with him because he is a loving, flawed, lonely, defensive creature. We witness him behave badly not because he is evil but because most people are not good all of the time…Disney had rarely explored the idea of ‘grey’ in their universe up until this point (‘And the good, clean, pretty people lived happily ever after…’) and it lands successfully.
I am impressed that I never feel like I am being asked to take sides in the story. It might seem obvious to resent Copper changing and leaving Tod behind when actually I found Tod’s stubborn arrested development pissed me off a lot more, but this was a personal preference. I can fully believe other views prefer Tod. I wasn’t told who to like best and how to feel about each character which for a Disney film is quite a big shift. More than usual, the camera feels like it is witnessing a story unfold naturally rather than forcing morality from up on high.
While it is easy to criticise the way the movie leaves the source material so far behind that had they not cited it and used the same name you might not have recognised it as an adaptation at all, if you judge the film on its own merit there is a lot to like. From my perspective, and I know not everyone will share this, they find a successful balance between exploring some pretty dark themes and still making it a charming picture on the whole. While the quality of the animation isn’t brilliant, nor is it distractingly bad, the characters are notably complex and layered, I found the story compelling and there are some masterful scenes. So overall, is this an underrated success story? Well nothing is ever that simple I’m afraid…
What Doesn’t Work:
As I said above, I found Tod harder to like than Copper. And never was this more of a problem than his courtship of Vixey. So Big Mama sees that a recently abandoned and thoroughly miserable Tod needs cheering up so decides to pimp out Vixey (So THAT’s how she got the nickname Big Mama…) a perfectly pleasant but criminally dull female version of Tod. What follows is kind of like the scene in ‘Bambi’ where all the adolescence lead characters fall in love only with a rather unpleasant streak of nastiness thrown in.
So Vixey, all naïve and just off the bus, can’t even imagine how she might cheer up Tod but goes over anyway. After his rose tinted childhood rolling around with Copper I was surprised he was interested in her, but it turns out just the sight of the first Fox he has ever seen giving him ‘come to bed’ eyes sends Tod straight to Hornsville.
This is not a scene from the film BTW.
But after Vixey dares to laugh at his pathetic attempts to catch fish Tod’s attitude towards her turns, calling her ‘an empty headed female.’ Note: This is by my count one of 6 times a deviation of ‘woman’ is used as an insult in this film. Anyway, Vixey objects to being criticised by some arrogant cunt she just met so stomps off in a huff. Leaving Big Mama to do some damage control, I.e sing a song about appreciating ladies (doesn’t she have anything better to do?) Tod then gives Vixey a flower and apparently that is good enough and shortly after she excitedly talks about all the babies they are going to have…
Seriously, you can’t imagine all the fucks I do not give about the bland Vixey and Tod’s genuinely abusive seductive technique…I would have had a lot more respect for the film if they had just had a time jump and shown that Tod had adapted to the forest and found a mate without even showing any of what passes for romance (he pretends he is better than her and when he is exposed as a liar insults her, they fuck…lovely) in this horrible little universe.
Speaking of lady appreciating, while the score works well a lot of the individual songs are pretty average. As I mentioned before, the big goodbye scene between Widow Tweed and Tod could have worked better without the sentimental warbling. And many of the songs just don’t commit like ‘Lack of Education’ which pretty much forgets to have a melody and goes nowhere.
There is a running background plot where birds Dinky and Boomer (complete with Tigger laugh…Come on Disney…There are a lot of actors out there…) pursue a caterpillar named Squeaks in order to…I guess eat him? I think…I mean, were they going to share him? Anyway, they are deffo trying to kill him. These sequences play a bit like a Road Runner/Wille E. Coyote cartoon, complete with characters getting funny hairstyles due to being electrocuted:
I am honestly not sure if these scenes were supposed to be comic relief or a commentary on another theme of the movie that we are all hunters/killers at heart, even the side characters. Their endless pursuit of Squeaks and his evasion of capture seems personal, thus it is like a mini version of the main plot…Still, it is filler, filler, filler, filler Batman! And not nearly entertaining enough. If you cut all these scenes and replaced them with more work on Young Tod and Young Copper spending time together, it would be animation well spent.
Although in the direct to DVD midquel they apparently join a band so maybe not…
And you thought I was kidding…
But I am sorry to say, that my biggest problem with ‘Fox and the Hound’ is that they didn’t kill Chief. That is right. I WANTED Chief to fall to his death. Yes. A character I like a lot.
First of all: Even though it is a cartoon, some rules do apply. This isn’t like Tom and Jerry where the violence has no long lasting consequences. Animals get shot and killed in this film and they want us to take that seriously. So how exactly do you explain how a dog that gets hit by a fast moving train, gets struck from the track, knocking into boulders as he falls, and landing on some hard rocks below, comes away with only a broken leg???
It is frustrating because in many ways, the stakes are such that he may as well have died. After all, we see Copper is totally traumatised by finding the lifeless body of his mentor and immediately decides that Tod will pay for Chief’s death…Only then in the next scene Amos goes over to shout at Widow Tweed and we learn Chief didn’t actually die…but why not? Chief doesn’t even have a part to play in the finale…He doesn’t do anything else in the movie except whine for sympathy for his leg in a pretty funny scene played brilliantly by long time Disney voice actor Pat Buttram. But my point stands: Why is he still alive?
This is almost identical to the moment in ‘Lady and the Tramp’ when Trusty is seemingly crushed by the cart. He is mourned by his friend, and then…Nope! Just a broken leg! Gotcha! In both those films, the characters were scripted and, crucially, ANIMATED as being dead only for the Studio to change their minds. But if you are going to do that, then why not remove the bit where they are CLEARLY NOT ALIVE?! It is like…Telling your kid that their pet has been put down and then a day later revealing it was a hilarious prank. Sure, this hypothetical kid’s pleased their pet is still alive but what was the point of making them think otherwise?
Perhaps they just don’t believe kids can take it…Maybe they got a lot of mail about Mrs Bambi. I don’t know. But, as I said, the impact of Copper’s change of heart is completely undermined by the reveal that Chief is actually fine. His survival is not only unrealistic in a way that genuinely does take me out the film, but it undermines the tone they are going for. While I don’t think the fact they ignored most of the source material is a problem, this is one plot point that would have been worth sticking to. Narratively speaking, Chief surviving his fall but Copper still vowing revenge makes about as much sense as Hamlet’s Father really being alive the whole time and cropping up at the end of the play to offer everyone homemade tacos.
How you recieve a film is often impacted by who you see it with. I watched ‘Fox and the Hound’ for this review with 2 other people. When it finished,one of my buddies turned to me and said: ‘That was horrible!’ I was surprised, frankly. As I am sure has been clear by now, I kind of like ‘Fox and the Hound’ Despite the odd pace, the ignoring of gravity, the continuous use of ‘female’ as a swearword, I think it works as a whole. However, my viewing companion felt that while she could acknowledge it was a good film it just wasn’t fun to watch.
Now these reviews are about my personal views and are written for my own amusement. But since she was with me while I was watching it and came to such a different conclusion, I wanted to give her criticism some thought. Not everyone is going to like this film. I did. I do. But it is…It is kind of brutal. Sure, nobody actually dies, the ending is relatively happy. But the mood of the film is kind of dour, the pace is kind of sloppy and the message is that nothing lasts. Things that mean a lot to you, that at one time may have meant everything, end. Not everybody wants to watch films dealing with themes like that and it is not because those people are cowardly or philistines…It just doesn’t work for them. It is jarring. It bums them out.
What I am getting at is: If you are looking for an uplifting Disney film to tickle your inner child…Look elsewhere.
While by no means perfect, I personally feel ‘The Fox and the Hound’ deserves credit for creating a surprisingly emotionally complex story about deterioration while keeping it kid friendly. There are cute puppies and chase scenes paired with convincingly awkward demonstrations that not all people who you love, love you back in the same way. In short, a kid’s film about the disappointed and wonder of growing up. Although I am glad that 90’s gravity grew less forgiving of Disney characters because seriously…How many times can you send a character reeling down a cliff only to see they are fine?
Twice. They did it twice.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 5
Tod’s Mum gets shot, Shed of Death, Chief wakes up and starts barking at Tod violently, Tod’s game face and Scare Bear.
While I am not a big fan of the songs in ‘Fox and the Hound’ I think ‘Best of Friends’ wins because it has the most memorable melody and I have fond recollections of making my Troll Doll and Gorilla sing it as a duet when I was a kid:
Next Time: The ultimate battle between an old man with crippling arthritis and a magic pig! With a bit of Jar Jar Smeagol thrown in for good measures! Oh yes it is time for one of the biggest, messiest accidents in Disney history…Hold on to your judgemental harp…It is The Black Cauldron (1985)