After a young red fox is orphaned, Big Mama the owl, with the help of her friends Dinky the finch and Boomer the woodpecker, arranges for him to be adopted by a kindly farmer named Widow Tweed. Tweed names him Tod, because he reminds her of a toddler. Meanwhile, her neighbor, a hunter named Amos Slade, brings home a young hound puppy named Copper and introduces him to his hunting dog Chief. One day, Tod and Copper meet and become playmates, vowing to remain "friends forever". Slade grows frustrated at Copper for constantly wandering off to play, and places him on a leash. While playing with Copper outside his doghouse, Tod awakens Chief. Slade and Chief chase Tod until they are stopped by Tweed. After an argument, Slade threatens to kill Tod if he trespasses on his farm again. Hunting season comes and Slade takes his dogs into the wilderness for the interim. Meanwhile, Big Mama, Dinky and Boomer attempt to explain to Tod that his friendship with Copper can no longer continue, as they are natural enemies, but Tod naively refuses to believe them, hoping that he and Copper will remain friends forever.
As months pass, Tod and Copper both reach adulthood. Copper has become an experienced hunting dog, while Tod has grown up into a handsome fox. On the night of Copper's return, Tod sneaks over to visit him. Copper explains that while he still values Tod as a friend, he is now a hunting dog and things are different. Their conversation awakens Chief, who alerts Slade. In the ensuing chase Copper catches Tod. Against better judgement, Copper lets Tod go and diverts Chief and Slade. Tod tries escaping on a railroad track, but is caught and pursued by Chief as a train suddenly passes by them. Tod ducks under the train, but Chief is struck by the train and falls into a river below, breaking his leg. Angered by this, Copper and Slade blame Tod for the accident and vow vengeance. Tweed, realizing that Tod is no longer safe with her, takes him on a drive and leaves him at a game preserve.
Tod's first night alone in the woods proves disastrous, inadvertently trespassing into an irritable old badger's den. Thankfully, a friendly porcupine offers Tod shelter. That same night, Slade and Copper plan revenge on Tod. The next morning, Big Mama finds Tod and introduces him to a female fox named Vixey. Wanting to impress her, Tod tries to catch a fish, but fails due to not having survival skills. Vixey and the other animals laugh at him, but Big Mama straightens the matter by directing Tod to be himself. The two foxes reconcile and Vixey helps Tod adapt to life in the forest.
Meanwhile, Slade and Copper trespass into the preserve to hunt Tod. As Tod manages to escape Slade's leghold traps, Copper and Slade pursue both foxes. They hide in their burrow while Slade tries trapping them by setting fire to the other end of the burrow. The foxes narrowly escape without getting burned as Slade and Copper chase them up the top of a hill until they reach a waterfall. There, Slade and Copper close in for the kill, but a large bear suddenly emerges from the bushes and attacks Slade. Slade trips and falls into one of his own traps, dropping his gun slightly out of reach. Copper tries fighting the bear but is no match for it. Not willing to let his old friend die, Tod intervenes and fights off the bear until they both fall down the waterfall.
With the bear gone, a bewildered Copper approaches Tod as he lies exhausted near the bank of a waterfall-created lake. When Slade appears, Copper positions himself in front of Tod to prevent Slade from shooting him, refusing to move away. Slade lowers his gun and leaves with Copper. The former friends share one last smile before parting. At home, Tweed nurses Slade back to health while the dogs rest. Copper, before resting, smiles as he remembers the day when he first met Tod. On a hill, Vixey joins Tod as they look down on the homes of Slade and Tweed.Mickey Rooney as Tod
Kurt Russell as Copper
Pearl Bailey as Big Mama
Jack Albertson as Amos Slade
Sandy Duncan as Vixey
Jeanette Nolan as Widow Tweed
Pat Buttram as Chief
John Fiedler as The Porcupine
John McIntire as The Badger
Dick Bakalyan as Dinky
Paul Winchell as Boomer
Keith Coogan as Young Tod
Corey Feldman as Young Copper
Wolfgang Reitherman read the original novel and found it particularly touching because one of his sons had once owned a pet fox years before. He decided it would make for a good animated feature. Thus the film began production in spring 1977. Reitherman, Art Stevens, and Ron Miller quarreled over key sections of the film with Miller supporting the younger Stevens. Miller instructed Reitherman to surrender reins over the junior personnel, but Reitherman resisted due to a lack of trust in the young animators. Thinking the film had a weak second act, Reitherman decided to add a musical sequence of two swooping cranes voiced by Phil Harris and Charo who would sing a silly song titled "Scoobie-Doobie Doobie Doo, Let Your Body Turn Goo". Live-action reference footage was shot of Charo in a sweaty pink leotard, but the scene was strongly disliked by studio personnel who felt the song was a distraction from the main plot with Stevens stating "We can't let that sequence in the movie! It's totally out of place!" Stevens notified studio management and after many story conferences, the scene was removed. Reitherman later walked into Stevens's office, slumped in a chair, and said, "I dunno, Art, maybe this is a young man’s medium." He later moved onto to undeveloped projects such as Catfish Bend and died in a car accident in 1985.
By late 1978, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and Cliff Nordberg had completed their animation. Thomas had animated scenes of Tod and Cooper using dialogue Larry Clemmons had written and recorded with the child actors. This project would mark the last film to have the involvement of the Disney's Nine Old Men who had retired early during production, and animation was turned over the next generation of directors and animators, which included John Lasseter, John Musker, Ron Clements, Glen Keane, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Henry Selick, Chris Buck, and Mark Dindal, all of whom would finalize the animation and complete the film's production. These animators had moved through the in-house animation training program, and would play an important role in the Disney Renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s.
However, the transition between the old guard and the new resulted in arguments over how to handle the film. Reitherman had his own ideas on the designs and layouts that should be used, but the newer team backed Stevens. Animator Don Bluth animated several scenes including of Widow Tweed milking her cow, Abigail, while his team worked on the rest of the sequence, and when Tweed fires at Amos Slade's automobile. Nevertheless, he declared Disney's work "stale" and on his 42nd birthday, September 13, 1979, Bluth, along with Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, entered Ron Miller's office and turned in their resignation. Following their resignations, thirteen animators followed suit in their resignations. Though Bluth and his team had animated substantial scenes, they asked not to receive screen credit. With 17% of the animators now gone, Miller ordered all of the resigning animators off the studio lot by noon of that same day and would later push the release of The Fox and the Hound from Christmas 1980 to summer 1981. New animators were hired and promoted to fill the ranks. To compensate for the lack of experience of the new animators, much of the quality control would rely upon a corp of veteran assistant animators. Four years after production started, the film was finished with approximately 360,000 drawings, 110,000 painted cels and 1,100 painted backgrounds making up the finished product. A total of 180 people, including 24 animators, worked on the film.
In an earlier version of the film, Chief was slated to die the same as in the novel. However, the scene was modified to have Chief survive with a cast on his back paw. Animator Ron Clements, who had briefly transitioned into the story department, protested that "Chief has to die. The picture doesn't work if he just breaks his leg. Copper doesn't have motivation to hate the fox." Likewise, younger members of the story team pleaded with Stevens to have Chief killed. Stevens countered that "Geez, we never killed a main character in a Disney film and we're not starting now!" The younger crew members took the problem to upper management who would also back Stevens. Ollie Johnston's test animation of Chief stomping around the house with his leg in a cast was eventually kept, and Randy Cartwright re-animated the scene where Copper finds Chief's body and had him animate Chief's eyes opening and closing so the audience knew that he was not dead.
Early into production, the principal characters such as young Tod and Copper, Big Mama, and Amos Slade had already been cast. The supporting characters were cast by Disney voice regulars including Pat Buttram for Chief, Paul Winchell for Boomer, and Mickey Rooney for adult Tod who had just finished filming Pete's Dragon. Jeanette Nolan was the second choice for Widow Tweed after Helen Hayes turned down the part. The last role to be cast was for adult Cooper. Jackie Cooper had auditioned for the role, but left the project when he demanded more money than the studio was willing to pay. While filming the Elvis television movie, former Disney child actor Kurt Russell was cast following a reading that had impressed the filmmakers, and completed his dialogue in two recording sessions.
The soundtrack album for the film was released in 1981 by Walt Disney Records. It contains songs written by Stan Fidel, Jim Stafford, and Jeffrey Patch.
The Fox and the Hound was first released on North American VHS on March 4, 1994 as the last video of the "Walt Disney Classics" collection (it was not included in the "Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection") and in the UK in 1995. On May 2, 2000, it was released to Region 1 DVD for the first time under the "Walt Disney Gold Classic Collection". A 25th anniversary special edition DVD was released on October 10, 2006.
The Fox and the Hound was released on Blu-ray Disc on August 9, 2011 to commemorate the film's 30th anniversary. The film was released in a 3-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack alongside its direct-to video followup The Fox and the Hound 2 in a 2-movie Collection Edition. Featuring a new digital restoration, the Blu-ray transfer presents the film for the first time in 1.66:1 widescreen and also features 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The Fox and the Hound 2 is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and features the same sound as the first film. A DVD-only edition was also released on the same day.
In The Animated Movie Guide, Jerry Beck considered the film "average", though he praises the voice work of Pearl Bailey as Big Mama, and the extreme dedication to detail shown by animator Glen Keane in crafting the fight scene between Copper, Tod, and the bear. In The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin also notes that the fight scene between Copper, Tod, and the bear received great praise in the animation world. Maltin felt the film relied too much on "formula cuteness, formula comedy relief, and even formula characterizations". Overall, he considered the film "charming" stating that it is "warm, and brimming with personable characters" and that it "approaches the old Disney magic at times."
Craig Butler from All Movie Guide stated that the film was a "warm and amusing, if slightly dull, entry in the Disney animated canon." He also called it "conventional and generally predictable" with problems in pacing. However, he praised the film's climax and animation, as well as the ending. His final remark is that "Two of the directors, Richard Rich and Ted Berman, would next direct The Black Cauldron, a less successful but more ambitious project." Richard Corliss of Time, praised the film for an intelligent story about prejudice. He argued that the film shows that biased attitudes can poison even the deepest relationships, and the film's bittersweet ending delivers a powerful and important moral message to audiences.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Times also praised the film, saying that "for all of its familiar qualities, this movie marks something of a departure for the Disney studio, and its movement is in an interesting direction. The Fox and the Hound is one of those relatively rare Disney animated features that contains a useful lesson for its younger audiences. It's not just cute animals and frightening adventures and a happy ending; it's also a rather thoughtful meditation on how society determines our behavior." TV Guide gave the film four out of five stars, saying that "The animation here is better than average (veteran Disney animators Wolfgang Reitherman and Art Stevens supervised the talents of a new crop of artists that developed during a 10-year program at the studio), though not quite up to the quality of Disney Studios in its heyday. Still, this film has a lot of "heart" and is wonderful entertainment for both kids and their parents. Listen for a number of favorites among the voices."
Michael Scheinfeld of Common Sense Media gave the film's quality a rating of 4 out of 5 stars, stating that the film "develops into a thoughtful examination of friendship and includes some mature themes, especially loss."
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that the film received a 69% approval rating with an average rating of 6.6/10 based on 26 reviews. The website's consensus states that "The Fox and the Hound is a likeable, charming, unassuming effort that manages to transcend its thin, predictable plot".
In its original release, The Fox and the Hound grossed $39.9 million in domestic grosses. Its distributor rentals were reported to be $14.2 million while its international rentals grossed $43 million. The film was re-released theatrically on March 25, 1988, where it grossed $23.5 million. The Fox and the Hound has had a lifetime gross of $63.5 million across its original release and reissue.
The film was awarded a Golden Screen Award (German: Goldene Leinwand) in 1982. In the same year, it was also nominated for a Young Artist Award and the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film.
As well as adaptations of the film itself, comic strips featuring the characters also appeared in stories unconnected to the film. Examples include The Lost Fawn, in which Copper uses his sense of smell to help Tod find a fawn who has gone astray; The Chase, in which Copper must safeguard a sleepwalking Chief; and Feathered Friends, in which the birds Dinky and Boomer have to go to desperate lengths to save one of Widow Tweed's chickens from a wolf.
A comic adaptation of the film, drawn by Richard Moore, was published in newspapers as part of Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales. A comic-book titled The Fox and the Hound followed, with new adventures of the characters. Since 1981 and up to 2007, a few Fox and the Hound Disney comics stories were produced in Italy, Netherlands, Brazil, France, and the United States.
A direct-to-video followup, The Fox and the Hound 2, was released to DVD on December 12, 2006. The film takes place during the youth of Tod and Copper, before the events of the later half of the first film. The story-line involves Copper being tempted to join a band of singing stray dogs, thus threatening his friendship with Tod. The film was critically panned, with critics calling it a pale imitation of its predecessor.