One of the hallmarks of Disney movies has been their insistence on not sparing young audiences the harsh truths of life. Some might say that they traffic in such candor a little too frequently, as virtually no protagonist’s family ever survives an entire Disney animated feature intact. Be that as it may, though, Walt Disney was one of the first to recognize that the children he entertained were young adults in need of inconvenient and often painful wisdom. If it could go down with a little candy coating, so much the better. And so it was with one of his underrated classics, a 1981 treatise on how friendship comes naturally, but enmity must be learned: The Fox and the Hound.
The story takes place out in the countryside of yesteryear. A baby fox named Tod is orphaned by hunters and take in by the kindly Widow Tweed, who raises him as her indoor pet and companion. Meanwhile, Tweed’s crusty neighbor, the trigger-happy Farmer Slade brings home a hound puppy named Copper to help his old hunting dog, Chief, with the task of running down varmints. Tod and Copper don’t understand their prescribed roles as hunter and hunted just yet, and become fast friends, romping and playing their days away. But when Copper goes away on a long hunting trip, he and Tod must grow up apart from each other, during which time both are informed of the cruel truth: they are not meant to be friends. Tod persists anyway, and for a time, Copper is game, but a few cruel twists of fate soon turn these old friends into bitter enemies in a rivalry that promises to end only when one of them is dead.
By the 1980s, most of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”—the inner circle of animators who helped get Disney studios off the ground—were all either retired or on the verge of it, which helps explain why Disney produced so little animation at this time. The Fox and the Hound was a kind of crossover piece, the last hurrah of old-timers such as Wolfgang Reitherman and the debut of a new wave of animation talent, including names like Don Bluth, Tim Burton, Brad Bird,John Lasseter, and others. As such, the finished product has a kind of transitional feel to it; much of show features the same kinds of artistry audiences had grown accustomed to in the years preceding, but with new flourishes of facial expression, lush backgrounds and a kind of fluidity in animating the human characters in particular. It all comes together imperfectly, but in a way that suggests much bigger and better things to come. Sadly, it would take some time for those things to arrive, but they certainly proved to be worth the wait.
In the meantime, The Fox and the Hound provided a capable stepping-stone of a story about the loss of innocence and the competing demands of loyalties old and new. Much of the first half is the kind of low-impact fare we often expect from Disney efforts on autopilot. It’s all fairly cute and harmless, marked by an endearing friendship between two adorable little children that have made the mistake of making a friendship across a boundary neither of them are old enough yet to see. It’s doubly bittersweet seeing the young Tod and Copper play and romp knowing that the movie’s opening moments details not just the death of Tod’s mother, but the fact that it most likely happened at the end of Farmer Slade’s gun—the very guy who brought Copper into young Tod’s life. But, that’s the nature of our most intractable conflicts. They are never as clear-cut as either side imagines them to be.
Once Tod and Copper grow older, their parting becomes inevitable, and almost painfully so. Tod is so naive, he keeps coming back to visit Copper even though it’s clear Slade will kill him. Meanwhile, Copper keeps trying to warn his friend, even though he hasn’t put it together that eventually he’ll be the one tasked with chasing his old friend down. Simply warning a friend that your new job has made you mortal enemies doesn’t really win you too many sainthood points; you’re still doing the executioner’s work.
Of course, in true Disney fashion, Tod and Copper are made enemies more by a deeply unfortunate accident and the triumph of perception over reality, so their conflict becomes one with few real villains, which makes it all the sadder to see unfold. As Copper learns to hate Tod for a crime Tod didn’t really commit, Tod must flee into a forest life he simply is not ready for. Both Tod and Copper find themselves bent into a shape neither one asked for or prepared for. Is it any wonder, then, that when they finally meet again, they both bare their teeth so readily?
Seeing their hair stand up, and watching them circle and go for each other’s throats without even so much as a plaintive cry for reason is just heartbreaking, and it provides the kind of moment of truth that might be hard to watch, but it’s still required viewing for audience members young and old alike. Eventually, there is plenty of redemption to go around, and individual acts of valor driven by new loyalties greater than whatever it was that Copper and Tod once felt for each other. When it’s all over, the pair come to an uneasy peace, separated by a distance of only a few hundred feet, but they might as well be living on separate planets that just happen to be in view of each other. This simple parable about the artificial divisions that separate us by skin, creed, faith, place of origin and other pigeonholes lands squarely on the nose, and it’s meant to. After all, most of us have become a Copper or Tod along the way. We often don’t choose our enemies. We let others do it for us.