As we enter the 80s, we begin to feel the unrest and upheaval of the Disney studio taking place. A lot of the veteran animators who'd been with the company since the beginning were beginning to retire, and being replaced by a new crop of animators who would later bring forth the Disney renaissance. "The Fox and the Hound" is sort of at ground zero of that transition point, with a lot of the initial story and character designs worked out by the old screw, while the film was finished by the new crew. To put it lightly, there was some conflict between the two camps on where to go with the movie; so much so that Don Bluth quite and took a lot of animators with him to form his own studio. But despite all the strife, here it is for us to see.
The movie is set in the countryside as the old widow Tweed takes in an orphaned baby fox which she names Tod, while meanwhile her hunter neighbor Slade brings home a puppy hound dog Copper for his hunting dog Chief to teach the ropes to. The two young'ns eventually cross paths and become good friends, but of course encounter obstacles from their respective owners. Dogs hunt foxes, y'know. Slade takes his two dogs out hunting for the winter, and by spring they're all grown up. Copper is a full-blooded hunter, but he does want to maintain his friendship with Tod, but after a big chase after him leaves the Chief terribly wounded, he begins to resent him. After causing so much trouble, Tod is let out into the wild to fend for himself.
The story's a bit more drawn out than that, and actually sounds like kind of a bummer. I wouldn't say that exactly; the film has a brisk quality to it, with the core meaning of the film (the changing dynamics between our two characters) keeping it afloat and maintaining the audience's interest. While there are some sidebar characters that are entertaining (two birds attempt to capture a caterpillar, while Big Mama is the voice of matronly reason to Tod), you pretty much have Tod and Copper, and their respective owners. What's good here is that both humans are quite stubborn, and while it may be easy to label the hunter as a villain, he enters a bit of a gray area. He wants to kill the fox, sure, but that's what he does; that and he treats his dogs well.
Turning Copper into a real hunting dog sets the story in motion, and it's really kind of complex. He's ambivalent about his friendship with Tod, at least until Chief gets injured as a result of chasing him. How? Well, he gets hit by a GODDAMN TRAIN. How is he not dead? Allegedly he would have been, but executive meddling just made him "injured." I think Copper's resulting resentment would have been a bit stronger if he had been dead, but whaddya gonna do. The point is that the conflict within the movie was ever present and always strong; they could've used oven mits here and made the story involve Tod and Copper convincing the owners of their friendship, but added the strife between them, and didn't hold back when it came to turning them on each other (literally, and fiercely). It also has kind of a bittersweet ending, which I felt was also avoiding the easy out.
As for the visuals, they may not be as strong as your Disney classics, but at least they seem to have gotten better with the xerography. All lines are solid and crisp, and the backgrounds are warm and lovely, really getting the country feel to them. The character designs are pretty standard, but they all fit the story and its needs, and they're full of such vigor from the vocal performances that they become memorable, especially Slade and the Chief (basically the hound from "The Aristocats," but his re-appropriation in this role is a bit stronger).
Verdict? This movie seems to effectively embody what "The Rescuers" tried to be, but didn't. The subject matter here is dramatic and full of turmoil, and at times is pretty serious, but there's a balance of that with strong characters and some sense of whimsy in the environment and character interactions. Plus, even at its most dour, it still has a light, airy feel to it. I didn't expect much from this one at all, but it surprised me. It's a simple, yet extremely effective film. Just cut out those terrible songs and you're done.