While as a Disney feature this eventually became part of our collection (I think it may not have arrived until after our late switch to VHS), I never really appreciated it much as a child. It’s slow, quiet, sad, and not all that much really happens. It’s one of my least-watched Disney movies for the amount of time I had access to it.
When Widow Tweed finds a fox kit orphaned by a hunter, she takes him into her home, names him Tod, and raises him as a pet. The hunter on the property neighboring her dairy farm, Amos Slade, has just acquired a new puppy named Copper he intends to have his older dog Chief help train in hunting. Copper happens to meet Tod independently from his trainer and the pair instantly bond, unaware of the fact that Copper’s purpose in life is to catch foxes like Tod for his master. When Tod comes to visit Copper on Slade’s property, Chief wakes up and chases Tod, resulting in the upsetting of Slade’s chickens, and Slade tells Widow Tweed that he’ll kill the fox on sight if he ever trespasses again, then takes his dogs on an overwinter hunting trip. Warned by his owl mentor Big Mama that Copper will come back a hunting dog, Tod insists they’ll still be friends. But when Copper does come back, he tells Tod that things are different now and he can’t come around anymore, then Chief wakes up and chases Tod again, with Slade bringing Copper in pursuit. Copper gives Tod one chance to escape, but Chief finds Tod and gets into a nearly mortal accident trying to catch him. With Slade exploding at Widow Tweed about her fox nearly getting his dog killed, Tweed realizes she has to give Tod up and leave him at the game preserve, where he should be safe, though completely unprepared for his new life. But the law against hunting in the game preserve doesn’t deter a man and dog on a quest for revenge.
This story likely requires an adult’s understanding to fully appreciate. I just didn’t have the patience for it as a kid. The Boomer and Dinky chasing Squeaks parts seem to be the main appeasement to the younger audience, and even as a kid they felt extraneous because they were pretty much completely separate from the main plot and also there weren’t enough of them to sustain my interest. As an adult they’re almost jarringly out of place now. However, I’m in a much better place to ride along with the complicated emotions of the actual story.
I imagined that the book was a treasured children’s novel, so I looked it up, and it looks more literary than I pictured. The summary mentions that you see the human world in the background evolving over the years, and that sounds like some fascinating detail that I think I have to read now. Wikipedia notes that the movie was “heavily modified from the source material”, and it definitely does sound like that was more than just turning the death of Chief into a broken leg.
I also didn’t appreciate the art style. It’s not as rough-sketched as 101 Dalmations, not as vintage as the Snow White, and not as modern as the post-CAPS animation of movies like The Great Mouse Detective and the Disney Renaissance movies. But what it does have is possibly the peak of what that style of animation could do without a major shift in the supporting technology. I was particularly impressed by the effects animation in places.
These days, when we talk about “adult animation”, we tend to mean animated shows with humor inappropriate for children. But this is adult in that it almost completely fails to work for children because it’s not really talking to experiences children are ready to relate to. At least, it didn’t work with me as a child, but I’m much more prepared to pick up what it’s laying out now. And it still has more of a plot than Bambi.