The 1981 animated feature The Fox And The Hound captured a Walt Disney Company in flux. The year it went into production, Don Bluth and 11 other animators left Disney's studios to form their own company; around the same time, the last of Disney's "nine old men," artists who'd largely been with the company since Snow White, died or retired. A chipper six-minute featurette on Fox And The Hound's 20th-anniversary-edition DVD boasts that this was the film where Disney's first-generation filmmakers passed the baton, but it doesn't mention the effect these trials had on the picture—which was delayed a year and still bears visible scars—or on the studio, which headed into a creative slump that wouldn't end until The Little Mermaid, eight years later. Still, for all its flaws, Fox And The Hound has its unassuming pleasures. It's no masterpiece, but it's much more than a test feature for a new crop of filmmakers.
The story, based on Daniel P. Mannix's novel, follows an orphaned fox kit named Tod and a hound-dog puppy named Copper (voiced by a young Corey Feldman) who become friends on a casual, sunny summer afternoon. Then they grow up. Urged to track down his fox friend on behalf of his cranky hunter master, the adult Copper (now voiced by Kurt Russell) lets Tod (Mickey Rooney) escape, with tragic consequences; swearing revenge, he sets out to kill Tod in earnest. It's dark material for a Disney feature, so naturally, the screenwriters lighten the mood whenever possible, with pointless slapstick and draggy, sentimental songs, mostly provided by Pearl Bailey as a motherly, plus-sized owl.
But the darkest scenes yield the greatest rewards. The long, hushed opening-credits sequence, featuring Tod's mother desperately carrying him to safety, is simply animated but breathtaking, and the grim final battle achieves a stark, Bambi-like naturalism on top of the beautifully smooth movement. By contrast, the middle scenes, where the foreground and background don't always integrate, and footage, voice talent, visual design, and characterizations are heavily recycled from earlier Disney movies, leave a queasy impression. Best remembered for its relaxed, cutesy scenes of a kit and pup gamboling together, Fox And The Hound should probably get more play as the film where Disney was so busy re-finding its feet that it managed to try something a little dangerous along the way.
Key features: Unrelated Disney shorts, games for kids.