It's hardly breaking news to suggest that Disney knows how to make a sad film. The same studio that has killed countless parents in the past is no stranger to using death or abandonment as a tool for motivation, or simply the beginning of a protagonist's journey. Some may call it lazy, others brilliant, but I can categorically say that as child, watching these films, I found it heartbreaking.
And yet, when discussing the lists of Disney's saddest moments, 1981's 'The Fox and the Hound' so rarely gets a mention. The death of Mufasa or Bambi's mother are top of any so-called list, and not far behind them you can find the brutal murder of Tarzan's parents, or the more recent but equally brutal murder of Bing Bong from 'Inside Out'. Why is 'The Fox and the Hound' so often overlooked? I dare anyone to watch the scene where the ever so warm and kind Widow Tweed is forced to abandon her friend - her orphaned and possibly only friend - and not well up to the point of despair.
When audiences first meet Tod (Mickey Rooney, 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'), he is being carried by his mother, on the run from hunting dogs and unsure where else to turn. She places the baby fox down by the fence, and after Big Mama the owl (Pearl Bailey) hears the dreaded gun shot in the distance, it's clear that this pup will need to be cared for somewhere else. A cunning plan between Big Mama and her two bird friends, Dinky (Richard Bakalyan) and Boomer (Paul Winchell, 'The Aristocats') soon sees Tod being cared for by Widow Tweed (Jeanette Nolan) like he was her own child. It's a touching moment birthed from the jaws of sadness, but the misery does not end there.
Loosely based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Daniel P. Mannix, there would be no story if there was no hound - enter Copper (Kurt Russell, 'The Hateful Eight'). Copper is a young hound puppy whose new owner is the ghastly hunter Amos Slade (Jack Albertson, 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'). Copper and Tod begin a friendship against their very nature - and therein lies the greatest tragedy, and lesson, of this tale. Tod and Copper promise each other that they will remain the best of friends forever, something that almost everyone else seems to understand can never happen.
Copper is taken one winter on a hunting trip with Amos and his trusty hunter dog Chief, but as Big Mama warns Tod, the dog who returns from this trip will not be the same dog Tod once pledged his eternal friendship to. The nature of a hound is to hunt fox, and the nature of a fox is to run from said hound. Upon their return in the spring, a ruckus ensues, and the subsequent chase gone wrong leads to Chief being hit by a train (somehow not nearly the saddest part of the film), with Amos and Copper swearing vengeance on the now grown-up Tod.
"Goodbye may seem forever, farewell is like the end. But in my heart's a memory, and there, you'll always be." I'll give readers here a moment to compose themselves. Scared for Tod's safety and knowing that she can no longer protect him, Widow Tweed takes Tod in her car, recites the words of goodbye, and leaves him in the game reserve to fight another day. Disney has a way of tugging every heartstring in your chest, and this is no exception. Tod is left all alone, with no friends, nobody to care for him, no shelter - and worst of all, he never sees it coming.
That narrative plays so expertly to elicit all the sadness one can muster, and it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that this scene caused so much despair, Pixar essentially repeated it in 'Toy Story 2' with Jessie.
The sweet and ignorant Tod knew only of the possibilities of friendship and love. Without the upbringing he would have otherwise had, Tod was freed of the limitations nature would have placed on him. Rather, he crossed the fence, both figuratively and metaphorically, to try and break down the divide that prevents his deepest connections. Tod's nature and nurture were working not as a clash, but yin and yang. His environment's expectations and the eventual reality never break his spirit, and likewise, his home life and unexpected maternal influence create for him a world he would have never otherwise benefited from.
We admire Tod and Copper's quest for friendship, and we long for a future where they can co-exist. However sad the death and loneliness of this film may be, it pales in comparison to what the extinguishing hope teases the audience.
The allegories here are endless, and upon re-watching 'The Fox and the Hound' for the first time in many years, my mind was racing with all the possible readings this film has to offer. And for me, this is one of the reasons its sadness can be overshadowed. It's not because it's not sad - believe me, this film contains enough individual moments of despair - but it's because the sadness is held together by its preachings. When Widow Tweed drops Tod off at the game reserve and turns her car away, we cry for Tod's isolation, sure, but the angst we feel for realising this is the best situation for everyone is what really hits home.
Nobody thinks it's best that Mufasa is thrown from a cliff, and I challenge anyone who thinks Bambi may have been better off without his mother. But in this strange tale of friendship against all odds, I posit that not only was Tod perhaps better off, but it prolonged his chance of survival. He is granted the opportunity to learn so much without the restrictions of his nature, and the unlikely friendship he forms with the animal that ultimately saves his life would not have even been possible.
The sad Disney montages are there for all to see, and most of them do their utmost to advance the growth of a character. There is so much beauty in 'The Fox and the Hound' - the animation and heartfelt story live long in the memory, and now that I feel old enough to see much deeper in the story, even the sadness that dominates the film has so much beauty attached to it. We admire Tod and Copper's quest for friendship, and we long for a future where they can co-exist. However sad the death and loneliness of this film may be, it pales in comparison to what the extinguishing hope teases the audience.
When you think of all those other sad Disney moments, they rarely go further than the initial shock and impetus for the protagonists to start their journey. But what sets 'The Fox and the Hound' apart is that these characters don't grow because of the sad moments, but that the sad moments grow from the characters.
40 years after the release of 'The Fox and the Hound', I still well up even at the thought of everything Tod must endure. From losing his mother to being abandoned, to losing his best friend and even being smoked out of his burrow. But I left my recent viewing experience feeling so much hope, and rather than seeing the darkness that surrounds the characters, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And no, I don't mean the light of the approaching train that knocks Chief from the tracks. 'The Fox and the Hound' is a film that is often forgotten about and rarely brought up, but it's a film that utilises its sadness to bring hope and beauty to its world.
"But in my heart's a memory, and there, you'll always be." Thank you, 'The Fox and the Hound', for teaching me more than I knew it could.