A mother fox is racing across the countryside with her young son in her jaws, fleeing from a hunter and his dogs. Realising she cannot shake them, the vixen pauses at a fence near a cottage and hides the infant, then rushes off to meet her doom: a shot rings out and the little fox is now an orphan. All this is observed by Big Mama the owl (voiced by Pearl Bailey) and she does not wish to stand by and watch a small creature perish, so with the help of two of her bird friends she attracts the attention of the cottage's owner, Widow Tweed (Jeanette Nolan), who calls the fox Tod and adopts him. So how about a friend for the little guy?
You can guess by the title who that friend will be, in this, the Disney film that made a generation of eighties kids cry. Obviously patterned after Bambi, what with the death of the mother character happening barely a minute after the opening credits are over, the film has a confused attitude to nature, settling on cutesy depictions of the animals when it suits the filmmakers, then going for a less sentimental approach for some degree of realism in the characters' relationships.
This was based on the novel by Daniel P. Mannix, and production suffered when many of the animators left the project while it was still uncompleted, yet the professionalism of this studio shone through nevertheless, making this look better than many of the seventies efforts that had been criticised for their unimpressive animation. Rest assured the facial expressions and animal movements are very satisfying, and the rural landscapes evoke the forest idyll of Bambi in the best way, although this is still very much in the shadow of that classic.
The hound in this tale is Copper, a hunting dog owned by irascible, shotgun-wielding Amos (Jack Albertson), and brought to his cottage as a puppy. Naturally, there is a spot of cross-species friendship between the two little animals, with Copper voiced by Corey Feldman and Tod by Keith Coogan, and scenes of frolicking in the country follow, all of which are intended to make you go "Awww..." and set you up for the tragedy to come. Except it's not as tragic as it could have been because the filmmakers ensure that nobody dies after the first five minutes, so it's the loss of friendship that tugs at the heartstrings.
In truth, Watership Down did this kind of nature in all its conflicting emotions far better, and there are times where you feel the script is laying on the weepie aspect a little too thick. For example, when Tod (now Mickey Rooney) and Copper (Disney favourite Kurt Russell) grow up, they are forced apart by their roles in life, and to prevent Tod being killed by Amos after he accidentally injures the hunter's other dog, the widow has to take the fox away for his own safety. This grows ridiculous when not only is Tod abandoned in an unfamiliar wood, but then a chilly wind blows up, the rain starts and to top it all a thunderstorm erupts overhead - all right, we get the idea! The film laments the way the leads have to fit their function in life when they could easily have gotten along fine, but this at least is not overstressed. It's that conflicted view of nature that offers not only a bear attack - yes, animals do eat other animals - and a caterpillar that spends over a year in that state without transforming into a butterfly for comedy reasons; it's an awkward tone to be striving for. Music by Buddy Baker.