THE FOX AND THE HOUND is most famous for being the film in which the "Nine Old Men", Disney's loyal animators since SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, finally turned things over to a younger group of animators, a group which included such future luminaries as Don Bluth (THE LAND BEFORE TIME, AN AMERICAN TAIL), Brad Bird (THE INCREDIBLES, RATATOUILLE) and Tim Burton (THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE CORPSE BRIDE), among others. The irony is that although the reins were handed over to a new generation, THE FOX AND THE HOUND turned out to be one of the most beautiful and mature Disney films since BAMBI.
Ironic, too, in that the film is so smoothly executed despite a four year filming history that saw a revolt and departure of several of the younger animators, who went off to form their own studios, forcing Disney to hire some new new talent to complete the film. Yet none of this affected the finished product. Critics at the time praised the animation of THE FOX AND THE HOUND but were disappointed in the story, which, to be sure, broke no new ground. Tod, a young fox, is adopted by a kindly old woman while Copper, a young pup, is brought home by the old hunter next door. The two pets become fast friends, but must soon come to grips with the fact that they are supposed to be natural enemies. In truth, the story is not exciting and does not lend itself to the kind of animated fireworks critics might have been hoping for. One of the reasons Bluth and others left Disney during production was that films like THE FOX AND THE HOUND and the previous THE RESCUERS, did not give them much room to strut their stuff.
But while many of the flashier films of the 1980s may be forgotten today, THE FOX AND THE HOUND has aged like fine wine. In 1981, THE FOX AND THE HOUND was considered a disappointment. Had it been released in 1941, critics today would be talking about it in the same reverent tones as they talk about PINOCCHIO and BAMBI. With pure hand drawn two-dimensional animation going the way of the dodo and the mighty diplodocus, what were once THE FOX AND THE HOUND's drawbacks - its conservative style and easy going storytelling - are now its strengths. The backgrounds have the warmth, depth and artistry of the classic features of the forties, while the story, although simple, is effective and touching. You would have to go back to BAMBI or even DUMBO to find a Disney protagonist as sympathetic as Tod the Wolf. Really - Bambi may have lost his mother, but not in the first five minutes! Voiced initially by child actor Keith Coogan and later by Mickey Rooney (and a nice job too, Mick!), Tod goes through more emotional trauma in this one film than Dumbo, Bambi and Cinderella combined. Yet his troubles never seem forced just for dramatic purpose but arise naturally out of the story. Despite the title, Tod the Fox is much more important to the film than Copper the Dog, who is offscreen for much of the film's running time. THE FOX AND THE HOUND should also be commended for its bittersweet ending, which, although happy in its own way, is not the typical "happily ever after" finale we expect. (For a real downbeat ending, do a search on how the book the film is based on, The Fox and the Hounds, ends!)
Like all great Disney films, THE FOX AND THE HOUND is populated with wonderfully characterized secondary players who get their share of the spotlight, such as the two birds Dinky and Boomer, voiced by Richard Bakalyan and Paul Winchell, who spend most of the film trying to catch and eat one measly little caterpillar who eludes death time and again. There is also Big Mama the Owl, played deliciously by Pearl Bailey, who gets to sing a handful of pleasant if forgettable tunes.
The one real weakness of THE FOX AND THE HOUND comes once again from the Disney people pulling their punches when it comes to tragedy. One character was supposed to be killed while chasing Tod, thus leading to Copper swearing eventual vengeance. Yet, as in THE JUNGLE BOOK and LADY AND THE TRAMP, the character turns out only to have been injured, thus undermining the emotional impact of Copper's hatred for his former friend. With all that the film does offer, it is easy to overlook this lack of courage on the part of the filmmakers, but it does get a little tiresome to see the same cheap trick used over and over. ½ - JB