Ah…these are the things that childhood trauma are made of: a frightened mother fox trying to save her infant son; the same terrified animal dying only moments later; the sense of abandonment felt by a young kit; the angry hunter with a gun full of unlimited buckshot; a wise old widow who can’t always be there to save her special pet; the loss of a friend; the forever alteration of such former happiness; deadly chases; near fatal falls; more rifle fire; a monstrous bear attack. In the 80-some minutes of its running time, Disney’s last “classic” – The Fox and the Hound – puts Bambi, Dumbo, and all other ‘serious’ House of Mouse movies to shame. From camaraderie interrupted to the dark and ominous last act, it illustrates how far the company had come in its cartoon storytelling, as well as why many of its pre-late ’80s renaissance efforts failed.
Tod (voiced by Keith Mitchell, and then Mickey Rooney) is a fox. He knows little about what it is to be a wild animal, since he has been raised from birth practically by the kindly widow Tweed (Jeanette Nolan). When the angry neighbor Amos Slade (Jack Albertson) gets a new blood hound named Copper (Corey Feldman, and then Kurt Russell), the two young animals become fast friends. Even with old dog Chief (Pat Buttram) warning the duo about their association, Tod and Copper enjoy a wonderful summer together. Come fall, Slade takes his pets out into the wild. His mission – camp throughout the winter and turn his newest pup into a first class hunter. With the Spring comes a newly mature Copper and Chief. Tod is now older, but none the wiser. When an instinctual dust-up cause a near fatality, the fox is forced back into his natural habitat. There, Tod meets Vixey (Sandy Duncan), and faces the fact that he may never be friends with his beloved canine buddy after all.
When compared to the weak willed and watered down animation that passes for kid vid fare circa 2011, The Fox and the Hound is horrific. It’s genuine juvenilia shock, a wee one rite of passage like learning that Santa Claus doesn’t exist or that the Tooth Fairy is actually your half-asleep parent placing some money under your unconscious head. Given a perked up polish for the Blu-ray format and paired off with a pathetic prequel (The Fox and the Hound 2), this will give parents looking for an electronic babysitter the half-pint heebie jeebies. Now, let’s not mistake appropriateness for aesthetic. This is a very good film. It’s melodramatic, manipulative, and definitely tugs at your animals in peril heartstrings. But when you consider that the last two generations have been raised on happy endings, limited reality, and heaping helpings of flawlessly merchandised anthropomorphing, watching recognizable creatures cower in authentic fear is not what the ‘set it and forget it’ parenting set want.
Take the conclusion, for example. It features Amos Slade with a shotgun (he is perhaps one of the most cruel and callous ‘villains’ in the entire Disney catalog), Copper in full ferocious mode, Tod and Vixey scared out of their wits – oh, and a bear the size of Montana with demonic red eyes and claws like unsheathed swords. Flesh is ripped. Blood is spilled. Gunshots find their mark. Perhaps most surprisingly, the House of Mouse doesn’t hold back. People have often wondered what a meaner, more mature corporate cartooning ideal would look like, and The Fox and the House (and to a lesser extent, The Black Cauldron) is the answer. These were some of the most expensive films ever made by Walt’s workers, and they turned audiences off with their less than fairytale facets. Even the moment when Chief is threatened by a direct hit from a locomotive doesn’t have the same sobering impact as most of the movie.
Perhaps this is why The Fox and the Hound 2 comes across as so cloying. Instead of staying strictly within the confines of the original’s seriousness, the 25 year in the making mess goes for one of the oddest angles ever in a kiddy cartoon – country music. That’s right, Copper (now voiced by Harrison Fahn) gets a chance to join a fair circuit dog act known as ‘The Singin’ Strays.’ Because he feels under appreciated by Tod and Amos, he is easily won over by leader Cash’s (the late Patrick Swayze’s) pitch and doesn’t care that the far more deserving former star Dixie (the legendary Reba McEntire) is sent packing as a result. Along the way, the critters learn lessons about loyalty and love, all while promises of stardom and fame twist the telling.
The contrast is confusing. While the original film feels free to threaten and frighten, the sequel is stuck making 70 minutes seem like 700. The songs are horrid, the narrative weak, and to make matters worse, this insert prequel-esque material (one assumes that this all occurs before Amos takes Copper out to the wilderness to train him) upends the mythology already established. At the beginning of The Fox and the Hound, Amos and the widow despise each other – or at the very least, they are not friends and can barely hold a halfway civilized conversation. At the end of Part 2, they are paling around, letting Copper and Tod play (which they never did before) while they share a slice of pie. Huh? Did the screenwriters for the update even look at the original for guidance, or did they just figure that the anklebiters in the audience wouldn’t notice and do whatever they wanted? The answer seems obvious.
Of course, in a world where money, not well made art, rules the day, both The Fox and the Hound and The Fox and the Hound 2 do their job. The reason so many complain about the Disney product of the ’70s and early ’80s is not because the movies are not well made. Instead, they recognize a desire on the part of the producers to change things up, to try and make Mickey’s market share less about history and more about here and now. Sadly, the approach applied wasn’t the most sound and it took the sophistication of the pro-showtune style of the next 25 years to reestablish the company’s credit. If you don’t mind the menace, The Fox and the Hound is a wonderful family film. If you need the anemic take of the last few years, stick with the shoddy sequel.