First Theatrical Release: July 10, 1981 (we have now officially entered my lifetime! I was 4 months old when this movie released.)
First Home Viewing Release: March 4, 1994
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My family’s VHS collection — we have the first 1994 release.
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. There are three female characters: Big Mama, the Widow Tweed, and Vixey. Only Big Mama and Vixey ever talk to each other, and it is about Tod.
Aside from Lady & the Tramp, The Fox & the Hound is one of the first Disney movies I remember really taking to as a child. Whereas movies like Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Dumbo had always just sort of been there, and movies like Cinderella, Fantasia, or 101 Dalmatians remained elusive and mysterious because of Disney’s wonky release schedule, The Fox & the Hound is probably the first Disney movie I saw in the theater when I was old enough to appreciate it (I had just turned 7 before the 1988 theatrical re-release.) It’s the first movie I remember dreaming of after we got home from the theater, wishing I could somehow go back to that place. The Fox & the Hound was also my “trump card” when it came to trying to “out-Disney” my best friend — it was the one movie in the Disney canon I got to before she did, as she was born 4 days after its initial release. She used to insist that she had watched it in utero “through her mom’s belly button.”
It’s probably a good thing I did not become interested in Disney source materials until the release of Aladdin, when I was old enough to handle the seriously effed up decisions Disney sometimes makes regarding which stories it will adapt into movies.
So, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea Again?
This is the question I can’t help but ask myself when I think about Disney’s adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame — and although that movie is probably in my top ten favorites in Disney’s canon, I can’t imagine who thought the source material would translate well into a family film.
What we know about The Fox & the Hound from the movie makes it seem an obvious choice for Disney: cute baby animals, a lifelong friendship, a warm-hearted widow, a comically chauvinistic hunter.
Except that hardly any of those things is present in the Daniel P. Mannix book.
Mannix’s book is something of a Moby-Dick story, except with a fox instead of a whale. It goes into excruciating detail about the hound dog Copper’s determination to hunt Tod down, after Tod led the hunter’s other dog, Chief, in front of a train that killed him. Woven throughout this story, Tod loses one mate to a trapper, another to a gunshot. His first litter of pups is intentionally gassed with exhaust fumes in his burrow. His second litter is lured away with rabbit decoys and shot. A rabies epidemic spreads through Tod’s territory and we are treated to harrowing specters of what we know to be funeral processions, although Tod does not understand them as such. Pretty much everyone dies at the end.
The animals do not talk. In fact, Mannix was incredibly concerned about humans’ tendency to anthropomorphize when they wrote about animals. And —
There. Is. No. Friendship.
Tod and Copper are never friends. They are instead the animal world’s equivalents of Jean Valjean and Javert. There is a brief mention of Tod being friends with a puppy in his own first year of life, when he was raised by humans due to his mother being killed by hunters, and then a mention of Copper being somewhat grateful to Tod for being the cause of his rival Chief’s death. From these briefest glimmers, it took no less than eight Disney writers to completely deconstruct everything Mannix’s novel stood for and create from its splinters another movie with talking animals and a message that translates well to human experiences, once more ditching pretty much everything from the source materials except the characters’ names.
Friendship is an Eminently Worthy Subject
One could go mad if she got her panties in a bunch every time Disney seriously mucked with its source material, so I tend to note the departures and then let them go. Each film is, after all, its own work, complete within itself, and not an extension of the source material.
So even though it was totally fabricated for the movie, I really love that friendship is the central theme of The Fox & the Hound. Although friendship is an enduring part of our life no matter our age, everything from movies to novels to self-help books tends to treat friendship is periphery to the “main event,” usually a romantic story. How often do we see quirky “friends” in supporting roles in romantic comedies? But anyone who has enjoyed a deep and abiding friendship knows: friendship is serious business, and it’s a shame that our culture doesn’t give it the attention it deserves.
Here, at last, is a movie that does. While Winnie the Pooh also touched on issues of friendship, that was more a movie about learning to live in community. The Fox & the Hound is about a one-on-one bond that is not easily broken, despite socialization to the contrary and even perceived betrayal. While Tod and Copper’s friendship takes center stage, the movie also portrays the friendship between humans and animals in a way that is more resonant than what we’ve seen so far, namely because the Widow Tweed must grapple with making a conscious choice to end that friendship when she leaves Tod at the game preserve to protect him from Amos.
I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up in this scene. The comfort a pet can bring to someone living alone and presumably grieving cannot be overstated. As the widow stared at a photo of Tod pinned to her mirror before she made the decision to let him go, I couldn’t help but think of the decision so many pet owners must make for the good of their animals. While most of us don’t have to face the pain of releasing an animal into the wild (because, let’s be clear, we should NOT be keeping wild animals as pets in the first place), too many of us have to make the decision to let our beloved pets find peace through euthanasia when they reach the end of their lives riddled with pain and suffering.
Indeed, nearly all the movie’s salient points come about because of the love that grows out of friendship. Friendship bids Copper to let Tod off the hook “just this once” after he returns from his training as a hunting dog. And Copper’s friendship with and loyalty to Chief and Amos spurs his desire for revenge against Tod when Tod’s escape leads Chief into the path of an oncoming train. [An aside here: in the book, Chief is killed by the train. I would have liked to have seen Disney stay true to the book in that aspect. Yes, it’s darker, but it’s not as if Disney hasn’t killed off its characters before. Why is it only okay to kill off mothers in children’s TV? Or both parents (offscreen) to create the pathos of an orphaned protagonist? Instead, Chief only breaks his leg, and he is such a sourpuss about it that the emotional resonance of Copper’s desire for revenge is totally robbed of its teeth. This makes his desire appear overblown, misplaced, or unreasonable. While this might make reconciliation between the two easier, it also makes it feel more inevitable, and thus, less powerful.] And, of course, it is friendship that urges Tod to put his life in danger by attacking the bear that goes after Copper at the end, which, in turn, leads to Copper’s refusal to move out of the way so Amos can shoot Tod. And it’s Amos’s affection for Copper that stills his gun. In the final scene, we even see a hint of a friendship between Amos and the Widow Tweed.
I think that’s why this movie stood out for me when I was a child. I was still 9 years away from falling in love, and even the idea of doing so wouldn’t begin feeling real to me for another 5 years. But at age 7, I understood both the joys and tribulations of friendship: I had already survived my first heartbreak and reconciliation with my best friend, which was the defining relationship of my childhood. Children are capable of understanding, on a visceral level, exactly what this movie is about.
Of course, there’s also the potential queer reading of this film, that the taboo of Tod and Copper’s relationship could be a metaphor for homosexuality. This seems particularly possible in the flirtatious way the two play as children, and Copper’s admonition that Tod is going to “get them in trouble” if he keeps coming around after they have both reached sexual maturity.
Either way, it’s gratifying to see the bonds of their youth bring these two back together in the end.