The best way to understand how I feel about The Fox and the Hound is to take a look at one of its musical sequences. I remember having watched The Fox and the Hound on VHS when I was a kid, but not many times, since I was very unfamiliar with a lot of what I saw a couple days ago when I re-watched the film. What I did remember very clearly from having seen a lot of times was the “Best of Friends” sequence, which featured in one of Disney’s sing-a-long videos. The sequence comes relatively early in the film, when the titular characters Tod and Copper first meet each other. Becuase they’re kids, they immediately become friends despite the fact that hounds and foxes are very close to an animal kingdom version of montagues and capulets. I remember the sequence very well from when I was a child. There is something very child-like in the idea of becoming best friends in a matter of seconds and very relatable in the idea of knowing these two probably wouldn’t stay friends for too long. The animation is very pretty, the two characters are very cutely designed and the music is fittingly nostalgic. That scene had remained in my memory not only because I watched it so many times, but because it does have a quality that connected with me. However, watching the sequence again, I was sadly disappointed in discovering how atrociously literal and spoon-fed the lyrics to the song are.
Despite the talent involved in crafting the sequence (and you can see the talent), the ham-fisted lyrics turn what is a very powerful moment in a child’s eyes into a groan-inducing syrupy scene. It’s just that one detail that keeps “Best of Friends” from being a childhood memory that holds up. And it’s countless such details that keep The Fox and the Hound from being a good movie. There’s no reason why the story per-se shouldn’t work. I am not a big fan of Bambi, but it’s so obvious that the Fox and the Hound wants to be the spiritual descendant of that movie that it can’t be its own thing. You can see the strings all over Fox and the Hound. It’s a little surprising that after The Rescuers, a film that tried to break the mold of what a Disney movie was, comes a movie in which all the decisions seem to come out of a manual. Still, cookie-cutter movies, if not always transcendent, can be entertaining. The bad news is execution in The Fox and the Hound is so lacking, it rarely works.
The easiest, and cruelest, way to review The Fox and the Hound would be to list all the bad decisions that make the movie feel so insincere. At the center of the film is a rather dull tone that focuses on the cuteness of its lead characters, but all around them everything seems to be off. The attempts at comedic moments are all awkward and lacking. It doesn’t help that someone decided to cast Paul Winchell and Pat Buttram but still have them perform in the voice of their most famous creations, that’s how we end up with a bird that sounds just like Tigger and a dog that sounds like the Sheriff of Nottingham. There’s also a bizarre running gag in which two birds (that serve as comic relieve and I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to sympathize with) try to capture and eat a worm (who we’re also supposed to sympathize with!). It’s a discomforting and unfunny subplot that feels like it’s there just because there’s been similar supporting characters in previous Disney movies. The dynamic is not different to what we saw between the mice and Lucifer in Cinderella, only there we knew who to root for. I think it’s suffice to say that most other aspects of the film feel as half-assed as the bird-worm subplot. You can easily find the previous films where the idea came from and see how there’s a little detail that makes it not quite work this time around.
From the data I can garner, the movie did all right upon release (both critically and financially), but this was undoubtedly a dark moment for Disney. One of the reasons why the movie came out so long after The Rescuers, and presumably why it is so lacking is the fact that mid-way through the production one of Disney’s animator, by the name of Don Bluth, decided to leave the studio. Bluth had grown frustrated with the way things were going at the studio. He wanted to make movies that embraced the Disney classics and so he went and created his own Animation Studios, taking a lot of Disney’s working animators with him. The lack of manpower explains the delayed in The Fox and the Hound‘s production, but the final result is also a clear indicator of why this exodus might have happened. Bluth went on to direct many successful animated movies like An American Tail, The Land Before Time and Anastasia. By the end of the decade, Disney would go on to experience a creative renaissance, making some of its most successful movies ever; but in 1981, the future of the studio seemed gloomy to say the least.
Next Time: I’ll take a look at one of Disney’s most infamous failures; The Black Cauldron.