As young pups, a fox and a hound become best friends. Then they grow up, and everything changes.
Tod, a young orphaned fox, is adopted by the Widow Tweed, who loves him. At about the same time, their neighbour Amos Slade buys a young hound dog puppy named Copper, whom he wants to train as a hunting dog to accompany Chief, another hunting dog he already has. Tod and Copper meet, and being young and unaware of the "rules", become best friends when they play together.
After a long winter where Slade takes his dogs on a hunting trip, Copper returns a full-grown dog. Tod has grown up too, but when he goes over to see his friend, Copper says that although he's glad to see his old friend, "those days are over". Just as they're talking, Chief wakes up and starts chasing Tod, who's fair game to hunt. In the chase, Copper intentionally lets Tod go free, but then Chief chases Tod on to a train bridge and ends up being injured badly. Copper blames himself for letting Tod go, and is determined to avenge poor Chief.
Widow Tweed leaves Tod in a game preserve, hoping that he'll have a new life and be safe from Slade. But Slade sneaks into the preserve with Copper, both of them ready to hunt Tod down.
There are movies that I know will make me cry if I watch them, but I watch them anyway. The Fox and the Hound is exactly that for me. It's part of an era where Disney was trying out stuff outside their fairy tale comfort zone and exploring different types of stories to tell. The Fox and the Hound isn't quite the cute 'n cuddly romp that the promo posters and DVD covers suggest it is, but the core of the story is an astounding friendship that crosses barriers.
Tod the fox and Copper the dog become friends as young pups, because when you're a kid, life's easy. A friend is someone you can play with, and you don't really need to know anything else. Both Tod and Copper don't have anyone else around them their own age whom they can befriend, so they attach themselves to each other easily. It makes me all wibbly to remember back on that kind of innocence in childhood.
But anyway, it's a doomed friendship, because as the rule goes: hunting dogs have to hunt down their prey. After both of them grow up, Tod still thinks their friendship will continue, but Copper knows what he's been trained to do despite his affection for Tod. Then when Chief is almost killed, Copper blamed Tod, and promises to get him whatever it takes. It's a shocking turnaround.
The final hunt, where Slade and Copper sneak into the game preserve to kill Tod, is one of my favourite movie scenes of all time. The tension is high and it's staged pretty brutally for a kid's film, with bear traps and animal fighting and shooting and Slade building a fire to smoke Tod (and his new mate, Vixey) out from their burrow. What I find all the more amazing is that they could pull it off in a way to make it work, because lovable Copper has become the movie's villain – but we can't root against him either.
The climax is also done in a straightforward way that I adore. I imagine that if this movie had been made in more recent times, Tod would have seen the bear and had a flashback to their youth, then come barrelling down the mountain in slow motion, then when he attacks the bear, there would been a dramatic shot of Copper's surprised reaction. But they didn't do any of that, and treated the final fight with such perfect simplicity that makes me glad that it was made back then. It's a dramatic story, but it doesn't have the bludgeon you over the head. Nope, they don't make 'em that way anymore. Tod's choice is presented just as it is, just as Copper's response happens later. The emotional impact is something that either connects with you, or it doesn't.
An emotional heart to a surprisingly deep story about friendship, stereotypes and prejudice. The ending is perfect, too, because it is true that you can't go back to the way things were before (as many people want to) for people grow up and time moves on. What you can do is try your best with what you have right now, and cherish the memories you keep. Big Mama the owl (voiced by Pearl Bailey) provides that voice of wisdom in their crazy world.
The Fox and the Hound is also a milestone for the Disney studios, because it was in this picture that the torch was passed on from the veteran animators to a new group of younger animators who were poised to take over the animation department. I think they were also experimenting with new ways to ink the drawings, because if you look closely, you can see that they constantly switch between two distinct styles throughout the movie: one is the clean traditional look and the other is a more stand-out blur look - click on the thumbnail on the right to see what I mean. You can also read up more on the "changing of the guard" elsewhere on the 'net, but I do like that such a big process of the experts handing things over to the newbies happened on such a simple, subtle but beautiful story.
More thoughts: The Fox and the Hound 2
In 2006, they released a midquel (or in-between-equel) The Fox and the Hound 2, which takes place over two days in the life of young Tod and Copper. I bought it on DVD because it came in a set with the The Fox and the Hound Special Edition, and I didn't expected to fall in love with the midquel as well – but in a totally different way.
The original is a sweet and meaningful story about friendship, and it makes me cry. The midquel, however, is a light and shallow story about show business, and it makes me laugh. Goodness gracious, how much it made me laugh. The comedic timing in The Fox and the Hound 2 is brilliant, with plenty of throwbacks to the old Tom and Jerry slapstick cartoons, and best of all, it it does not resort to unnecessary melodrama or an overly shmoopy story that panders only to the really young.
They can't really tell another story about Tod and Copper, because their arc is pretty established in the original film. So they take the spotlight away from them and to a batch of new characters, and I confess, almost every joke in this movie hit my happy buttons. From the "Shake on it" gag, to the "Sit!" gag, to "If they disliked each other any more, they'd have to get hitched!" It helps that Patrick Swayze and Reba McEntire voice two of the new characters with such chemistry and delivery. (By the way, Reba's character, Dixie, gives me flashbacks to Georgette in Oliver and Company.) That, and I'm convinced that someone in the production team is a Tweed/Slade shipper. The closest I can think of a movie that I've enjoyed in this way is A Goofy Movie, which also took me by surprise.
A complaint I do have is with the synopsis on the back of the DVD cover. It has the sentence: "...when Copper gets a shot at the big time with a nutty group of hound dog howlers, their pure bred friendship is put to the test." What? Comparing the teeny drama in the midquel to the actual drama in the original movie is an injustice to both movies. Keep 'em separate, they work better that way.