There’s a visible tension here between the older generation, who either left after this film’s release or mid-production, and the younger generation, who wanted to expand what a Disney film could be. The Fox and the Hound works best when it leans in on the melancholy and sadness that comes with growing up, with the intrusion of social orders and loss of innocence, but it only deals with these matters half of the time.
Much like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Fox and the Hound is stuck halfway between an exciting shake-up of a tired formula, and a strict adherence to said formula. That Bond entry came into mind, for some unknown reason, as a comparable bit of franchise film-making that both dares to be different, and yet scares itself away from entirely breaking the mold. You see, the earliest parts of The Fox and the Hound, and the climax, are the best parts because they float by with an air of sadness and inevitable gloom.
Read into the conflict what you will – racial prejudice, class conflict, hell, even sexuality – since it’s vague enough to be about anything that makes us different, and is used to keep us apart. The idealistic friendship is sweet and cute, playful and alive with the innocence of that part of your life before you’re made aware of the wider social structures at play.
And then we hit the flabby second act which breaks the two of them apart, and proceeds to play out like warmed over bits of Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, and other well-known films. Tod, the fox, engaging in a romantic side-story is completely unneeded, and it’s frankly a waste of time and distraction from the main thrust of the conflict. It’s too cutesy. This saccharine development stands in stark contrast to the ways in which the numerous animals are animated more realistically than before, including the climactic battle with the ferocious bear. No adorable little Bongo critters in this forest, those days are gone.
Once again, we have a Disney film with a fake-out death. Now, I’ve gone on the record as stating that Trusty should have died in Lady and the Tramp, and the same holds true here. Showing a character getting hit dead-on by a train, only to show that same character alive with only a broken leg later is just….questionable story-telling, at best. Disney’s fear of death seems to strike mostly older male characters, as evidenced by the opening of this film, and Bambi’s traumatizing plot point, they have no problem killing off mothers.
Another problem is the musical score. This is a return to the musical films that Disney specialized in, and the score stinks. Only Pearl Bailey manages to sell her material, which is lackluster and generally unmemorable. Bailey was an iconic force of nature, so she makes "Best of Friends" sound like a classic through sheer gusto. One can sense that the old guard wanted to include these moments, along with the distracting film-long gag involving two birds and a caterpillar that just isn’t funny, while the younger generation wanted to push for the quieter, somber tone. The younger generation’s instincts were correct.
If they had been allowed freer reign over The Fox and the Hound, I think I would be loudly proclaiming it as a forgotten masterpiece. And, truth be told, tiny fragments of it are. The scene of Tod’s abandonment in the forest is devastating, and the dissolve of the central friendship is heartbreaking. I remember avoiding this one as a child because it made me too sad. Coming back to it as an adult, I feel the inevitability of life crushing their sweet youth. Too much of it is recycled formula, but the parts that linger are the delicate emotional notes it strikes.