THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Fox and the Hound’

The one that challenged the idea of friendship.

By the late 1970s, the animation department of Walt Disney Productions had saved itself from foreclosure, particularly after the stunning success of The Rescuers. While a new crop of animators were proving the next generation may just be the answer to a much-needed revolution, the remaining members of Walt’s “Nine Old Men” were providing supervision on their final film. And the changing of the guard would prove to be more tumultuous than first expected.

Way back in May 1967, Disney had acquired the film rights to Daniel P. Mannix’s award-winning novel The Fox and the Hound. Strangely, the project sat untouched for ten years, with director Wolfgang Reitherman finally dusting it off in late 1977 for development as Disney’s next animated feature film. With their retirements approaching, the last of Walt’s “Nine Old Men,” Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Cliff Nordberg assisted with early pre-production work before handing the reigns over the next generation of animators.

The group of young animators included John Musker, Ron Clements, and Glenn Keane, who were riding high after their success with crafting The Rescuers. Entering the frame for the first time were recent California Institute of the Arts graduates John Lasseter, Tim Burton, and Brad Bird, whose names should be instantly recognisable as future superstars of both film and animation.

Working with co-director Art Stevens, a power struggle broke out almost immediately between the two collaborators, with Reitherman pushing for a closer adaptation of the novel’s darker elements, while Stevens wished to adapt the narrative into something more family-friendly. After working as the sole director of a consecutive string of recent Disney animated features, Reitherman struggled to share the task with another filmmaker.

It was left to co-producer (and future Disney President and CEO) Ron Miller to settle the constant arguments between Reitherman and Stevens, with the producer consistently siding with Stevens. With his decades-long history with the studio, Reitherman grappled with trusting the work of the young animation team, choosing to instead push his own ideas and designs than allow the animators to flourish with the freedom they deserved.

Reitherman’s bullish approach was typified by his insistence the film lacked a strong second act, deciding to add a musical sequence featuring two swooping cranes voiced by Disney legend Phil Harris and Spanish-American singer Charo. Working behind Stevens’ back, the director commissioned Charo to record a goofy song entitled “Scoobie-Doobie Doobie Doo, Let Your Body Turn to Goo,” with the singer even shooting live-action footage to be used for animation reference.

After Reitherman presented the entire storyboarded sequence, the rest of the team were aghast at how out-of-place the musical number felt with the overall film and felt it heavily distracted from the plot. Stevens complained to Miller, who agreed the sequence made little sense in the context of the film and it was quickly dropped, much to Reitherman’s disappointment.

Meanwhile, tensions between Reitherman and the young animators finally came to a head when animators Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy entered Miller’s office to hand in their resignations, declaring Reitherman was out of touch and their work was largely being ignored. Despite Miller’s desperate pleas, the trio walked away, with 13 other animators following suit shortly after. This forced Miller to push the release of The Fox and the Hound from Christmas 1980 to summer 1981 to allow the studio more time to adjust to its sudden personnel departures.

From here, Bluth would establish his own animation studio, Don Bluth Productions, which employed several of the animators who left Disney including Goldman and Pomeroy. Bluth would direct and produce several hugely popular animated films in the 1980s including An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven, which genuinely challenged Disney’s mantle as the home of family-friendly animated productions. These films pushed Disney to completely re-evaluate its entire outlook on animated films, leading to its rebirth in the late 80s.

Feeling entirely responsible for the departure of almost one-third of Disney’s animation department, Reitherman entered Steven’s office, slumped in a chair, and declared, “I dunno, Art, maybe this is a young man’s medium now.” After a lengthy discussion, the pair agreed it was best for Reitherman to leave the production immediately. Sadly, Reitherman would never direct another Disney film. After working on several undeveloped projects including Musicana, a cancelled follow-up to Fantasia, Reitherman retired in 1981 before tragically dying in a car crash in 1985 at the age of 75.

With Reitherman out of the way, Stevens was free to adapt Mannix’s novel into a buddy drama that barely resembled the original work. In Mannix’s novel, the titular fox and hound are not the best of friends, rather mortal enemies who play a cat-and-mouse game for the better part of the narrative, with bloodhound Copper determined to kill Tod, the fox responsible for the death of his master’s coonhound, Chief.

Stevens felt their adaptation worked better as another cute animal film focused on love, friendship, and family, echoing previous Disney films like The Aristocats and Lady and the Tramp. Copper and Tod would now become best friends as youngsters who struggle to preserve their connection as surrounding social pressures demand the pair be adversaries. This was a studio still afraid to take true risks and Stevens family-friendly vision was the safe alternative to the darker elements found within Mannix’s original work, particularly the death of Chief.

In what would become a major point of contention within the studio, Stevens changed an earlier version of the script which saw Chief hit by a train and die as he did in the novel, birthing the hatred Copper felt for Tod. Instead, Chief would now survive the accident and only suffer a broken leg. This angered many of the younger animators who felt the film simply didn’t work without the death scene, as it provided little motivation for the film’s third act where Copper hunts down his former friend. Stevens was unmoved by their pleas, declaring, “We never killed a main character in a Disney film and we’re not starting now!”

The loose adaptation kept several key plot points from the novel, namely the opening sequence where Tod’s mother is shot off-screen by a hunter, echoing the infamous death scene from Bambi. In a move to tug at your heartstrings, that human is Tweed, a kindly, lonely widow voiced by veteran television actress Jeanette Nolan, who raises the fox as a domesticated pet, and, let’s be honest, her pseudo child. Tod is further assisted by a menagerie of new animal characters including Big Mama, a big-hearted owl voiced by the legendary Pearl Bailey; Boomer, a woodpecker voiced by Paul Winchell aka the man responsible for Tigger; and Dinky, a rambunctious finch voiced by Dick Bakalyan.

Screen legend Mickey Rooney was enlisted to voice the adult incarnation of Tod, with former Disney child star Kurt Russell cast to voice the adult Copper. Russell wasn’t Disney’s first choice for the role, with their original intention being to hire another Hollywood legend in Jackie Cooper. When Cooper demanded more money than the studio was willing to pay, he abruptly left the project.

While several Disney animated features had attempted to portray an important message for its younger viewers, The Fox and the Hound represented the studio’s first genuine socially-conscious project. There’s little subtlety to what the filmmakers are saying here, with its tale of two polar opposite creatures allowed to become the best of friends when they’re free from the constraints of social expectations which demand they be enemies.

It’s a quality Copper begins to lose, as the pooch buys into the misguided notion he must hate his childhood pal purely because his master demands it of him. Fueled by vengeance, Copper finally loses sight of the love he once felt for Tod, becoming the hateful creature he had long avoided. It’s only when the dog realises the error of his ways and begins to think for himself again that Copper apprehends he’s an individual who can make up his own mind on who to love and who to hate.

At its core, the film is a portrayal of how society can ultimately determine our behaviour and attitudes. Prejudice is not a quality anyone is born with, and the film highlights how it can be bred from our proximity to others, particularly our parents, whose ideals may be stuck in the past. It’s the first taste of Disney pushing towards narratives with deeper ideas and valuable lessons, while still wrapped up in a hefty helping of cute animals doing cute animal things.

The Fox and the Hound was released on July 10, 1981, to relatively mixed reviews. The New York Times felt the film “breaks no new ground whatsoever” and it was “overstuffed with whimsy and folksy dialogue,” while the Chicago Sun-Times praised the ways it felt like “something of a departure for the Disney studio.” Once again, the muted critical response meant little to audiences, with the film grossing $39.9 million in the U.S., breaking the record for the highest box office result for an animated film in its initial release. Disney had another smash hit on its hands.

While the animation is far from groundbreaking and the narrative feels far too familiar to numerous other Disney animated tales, The Fox and the Hound offered a surprisingly deep message regarding the power of friendship and the follies of prejudice. It delivered a mismatched duo of friends who broke societal expectation and encouraged its audience to do the same. For a film of the early 1980s, it’s a surprisingly woke piece of cinema well ahead of its time.

Is The Fox and the Hound a Disney Classic? The Fox and the Hound never quite receives the kudos it deserves. Sure, it’s far from a masterpiece, but Copper and Tod’s friendship is so charmingly touching and the film’s message is terribly pertinent. If anything of this chequered era comes closest to the title of a Disney Classic, The Fox and the Hound takes the prize.

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