I think this might be the most melancholic Disney movie I’ve seen to date. I’m trying to think of anything else that has smaller stakes and a more bittersweet ending, but I’m drawing a blank.
Modern Disney movies are usually notable for their sense of animated spectacle. You watch something produced any time after the late ’80s (I think The Great Mouse Detective might have been the first Disney movie to go for really ambitious visuals with the clock tower fight scene, although I haven’t yet rewatched that one, so it may end up being less spectacular than I remember), and you can expect that Disney’s going to do everything it can to wow with you the animation.
The Fox and the Hound generally doesn’t go for impressive visuals and flashy scenes (the climactic fight between Tod, Copper, and a bear is a major exception), which is probably reflective of the more meditative nature of the story. There’s no great conflict or adventure to be found here, only misunderstandings and personal grudges.
The story follows Tod, an orphaned fox (we actually begin by witnessing his mother’s death by hunter; it’s a pretty strong clue that this is not going to be the typical lighthearted fantasy that has been Disney’s bread and butter for most of its history), who is adopted by an elderly woman and raised next door to the hunter Amos Slade, who has just acquired a new hound dog, Copper, that he plans to train for hunting. Tod and Copper quickly develop a friendship despite warnings from the local wildlife that there’s no way they’ll be able to maintain it. These warnings ultimately bear out, as Copper swears revenge on Tod after his mentor Chief gets seriously injured while Amos is chasing Tod down for trespassing on his property (I don’t fully understand why Copper would hold Tod responsible for Chief’s injury, but that’s probably just my sensibilities about the aggressor being the one at fault clouding my judgment). Of course, in the end the two make peace with one another, but they still have to bid farewell, since Tod can’t return from the game preserve where he’s been released by his owner.
In a lot of ways, this story’s a lot more adult than what Disney typically deals with. Even with Tod and Copper’s reconciliation, they still grow apart in the end, and this is treated as something that’s to be expected. When I was a kid first watching this movie, I was disappointed that the two friends don’t get an unambiguously happy ending. As an adult, I can see how this story’s trying to make a point about circumstances forcing people to grow apart. It’s unfortunate, but also unavoidable.
But then again, that’s the innocuous reading of this story. Rachael pointed out to me that the whole thing takes on very unfortunate implications if you recast the story as an allegory for race relations (keep in mind that this is mostly just fancy, since I don’t think Disney’s ever been much for allegorical storytelling). Tod is an outsider to the domesticated human world, and he’s only allowed to be there through the good graces of his owner. Copper, meanwhile, is part of that order of things as a trusted companion to his owner. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to read the clashing worlds here as representative of white and non-white social spheres. Despite all of Tod’s best intentions, he’s unable to escape being seen as a threat by the hunter, and his benevolent owner eventually has no choice but to return him to his own kind. The ending serves to drive home a rather mortifying moral that members of different tribes can’t mix without meeting insurmountable obstacles.
Let’s just hope that’s not what Disney was actually going for.
Besides the film’s intended moral, there’s really not much to recommend it. It isn’t catastrophically bad like Dumbo (which is probably more fairly described as extremely dated), but it’s not especially good either. All of the characters feel underdeveloped, and way too much of the run time digresses from Tod and Copper’s story to inject slapstick comedy by way of Dinky and Boomer, a pair of birds who are on a never ending quest to catch a caterpillar. The music is lackluster, and Tod’s love interest, Vixey (who gets introduced in the third act as a device to cheer Tod up after he’s been let loose), is an all around horribly written character who has no perceivable personality. All in all, if you’re in the mood for older Disney, give this one a pass (or chase it with something more jubilant, like Robin Hood).