“Darlin’, forever is a long, long time. And time has a way of changing things.”
Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) was the first motion picture I ever successfully watched in a movie theater. It promptly became my first Favorite Movie and it held that title for many years to come.
This was before the days of home video, at least in my home, so for nearly a decade, my only memories of the film itself were the vague fragments of that first and only theatrical viewing. Thankfully, someone gave me the read-along storybook/record combo pictured below. I was too young to read but I listened to the record incessantly, flipping through the book to follow along with the pictures.
I’ve often wondered why I became so transfixed with this story at such a young age. It certainly isn’t a magical adventure like so many other Disney films. In fact, one of the things people remember most about it is how sad it is.
“Sad” doesn’t begin to cover it, actually. The theme running through this movie is that when you love someone, you think it will last forever, but it won’t. It’s about the process of learning this truth, and how after you learn it you just have to carry on living, knowing that Time will erase everything you hold dear.
What the hell, Disney?!
No matter how many times I listened to that record, I always cried at the part where Widow Tweed says goodbye to Tod, her pet fox. The two meet at the beginning of the story after Tod’s mother is killed. Widow Tweed and Tod have both lost someone close to them, but now they have each other. The Widow says, “I don’t think I’ll be so lonesome anymore.” Then later in the movie it becomes clear that she has to return Tod to the wild, and as she’s driving him out to the forest, she drops a spoken word poem, “Goodbye May Seem Forever,” that encapsulates the gut-wrenching emptiness you feel when you have to say goodbye to someone you love.
And yet, I continued to put on that record and taste those tears, time and again. I don’t think I was just a bottomless well of sadness as a child. This movie tapped into a feeling of insecurity that was buried in my subconscious. Not about myself, but about my world.
In the early 1980s, I had what I thought was a happy little life. I had two parents who loved me, my sister, a best friend, lots of cousins, aunts and uncles, my grandparents. I had birthday parties and Christmases and a troupe of stuffed animals. But when I went to bed at night, I would hear my parents fighting, their voices twisted in anger, almost unrecognizable. I’d hear crashes and my heart would race. I think I must have known, on some level, that my world was on the verge of breaking down.
Then along came this movie.
I think I related to Tod at the beginning when he first meets Copper, a hound dog puppy. They play together, they wrestle, they go swimming. They vow to be best friends forever. They have a happy little world.
But Copper belongs to a hunter, Amos Slade, and a friendship between a fox and a hunting dog can’t last forever. Tod’s friends keep telling him this. They show him the dead bodies that Amos has hung up like trophies. They warn him that Copper will eventually turn into “a real killer.”
Tod can’t fathom it. He says, “Not my friend Copper. He won’t ever change.”
When you’re a little kid and your life has only ever been one way, you can’t imagine it being any different. That’s how I felt, and that’s how Tod felt. By the end of the movie though, Tod has grown up, he’s been exiled to the wilderness, and Copper has become just as bloodthirsty as his master. As a little kid watching it, you get a glimpse of what it looks like when a happy childhood turns into a depressing nightmare.
I wonder, did they sell Happy Meal toys for this?
The character Big Mama, the wise old owl voiced by Pearl Bailey, delivers the movie’s thesis statement: “Time has a way of changing things.” Somehow, I knew that she wasn’t just talking about Copper and Tod. This concept applied to me.
In the film’s climax, Tod saves Copper and Amos from a bear, prompting Copper’s redemption moment where he steps in front of Amos’s gun and saves Tod’s life. In the end, everything is reversed; Copper and Tod have been separated but they’re happy in their respective homes, and Widow Tweed and Amos have a budding playful friendship. Even the caterpillar character, Squeeks, changes into a butterfly.
“The Fox and the Hound” tells us, yes, everything will change, and some of it will feel awful, but some of it will be unexpectedly beautiful. And you’ll be okay in the end.
That may just be the reason I wore out that record.
Notice the clever way they marketed this movie to look like normal family entertainment. And below, some lovely person recorded the actual read-along book from my childhood. The Internet has everything…