Disney made a small mistake with The Fox and the Hound. The idea sounds good on paper: star-crossed friends from opposite sides of life learning each other’s role in the world.
But in reality, the original story upon which the film was based is absurdly dark. The novel of the same name features Tod having children, who are both killed early in the story to spark Tod’s anger towards Copper and the hunter. Tod kills The Old Chief on purpose (rather than accidentally injured, as in the film) and Copper chases him until he dies from exhaustion. Not to be satisfied with this as an ending, Copper is then shot by his master.
The Disney version softens up the story quite a bit. But Tod and Copper still turn against each other and, even at the end of the film, they learn that they are naturally enemies never to reconcile. The moral of the story remains that some people may feel like they can be friends, but the simple way of the world will prevent it.
The climactic battle, in which Tod and Copper fight a bear in the woods, is among the more terrifying and violent sequences that Disney had animated to that point. It involves a man with his leg caught in a bear trap, a terrifyingly single-minded killer of a bear drawn to effect, and imminent danger in a way that few Disney characters have ever felt.
The New York Times, in its July 1981 review, noticed this, too. “Like all Disney features, The Fox and the Hound is rather overstuffed with whimsy and folksy dialogue. It also possesses a climax that could very well scare the daylights out of the smaller tykes in the audience,” the reviewer wrote, adding “it breaks no new ground whatsoever.”
The awkward transition between source material and film is due largely to the old guard that decided to produce the movie and the new young animators who finished it. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of the Nine Old Men, finished their careers with this film, while Wolfgang Reitherman produced and even brought in his kids’ pet fox as a model upon which to base Tod.
But part way through production, Don Bluth left the studio to start his own production company and take animation in a different direction. The result of that venture was The Secret of NIMH in 1982. The new generation of animators who took over included now-legends Ron Clements, Glen Keane, John Musker, Tim Burton and Brad Bird. Reading through the list of (largely uncredited on-screen) animators who worked on the project now reads as a who’s-who of modern animation legends.
Despite the film’s dark turns, it remains an audience favourite. On an original $12-million production budget, over its lifetime it has grossed more than $63-million. It was re-released in theatres in 1988 and then on VHS in 1994 and DVD in 2000. But despite “animals more anthropomorphic than the humans that occasionally appear” the characters have not made their way into the Disney parks or the canon of most identifiable characters.
The Fox and the Hound represents the official change from old guard to new and the the stumbling block that any significant transition involves. But if they stumbled on this, it at least provided results at the box office. The next project would be an outright face-plant into mediocrity.