Disney’s The Fox and the Hound (Berman, Rich, and Stevens, 1981) is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with animals. Uncharacteristically for a Disney cartoon, it ends tragically – not with the heroes’ death, but with their recognition that they can never really be friends. But why can’t they be friends? Is it because human beings teach them to be enemies, or is it just who they are, their species being natural enemies. In other words, is The Fox and Hound about genetics or society, Nature or Nurture?
Supporting the Nature reading, there are signs of predation through the film. Consider the recurring subplot of the birds who try to catch the caterpillar, not to mention the carnivorous bear who shows up to threaten the heroes at the film’s climax. And Tod (the fox) instinctively chases butterflies and chicks. It is not clear that he is trying to eat them, but he is trying to catch them, which if successful would likely result in their death. Likewise, Copper (the hound) instinctively tracks Tod from his first smell. As pups, Tod and Copper play hide and seek, which is innocent fun, but darkly pre-figures a hunter-prey relationship.
On the other hand, there is plenty to support the Nurture reading. The Widow who adopts Tod is able to teach fox not to hunt chickens. And the Hunter who owns Copper has to teach him to hunt. Big Mama (the owl) warns Tod that Copper will become “a trained hunting dog – a real killer … time has a way of changing things”.
In fact, the songs sung by Big Mama play both sides of the Nature/Nurture hermeneutic. When the pups first meet she sings, “Neither one of you sees your natural boundaries”, suggesting there is something in the nature of foxes and hounds that separates them (the Nature reading), but then she adds wistfully, “If only the world wouldn’t get in the way”, suggesting society is the real problem (the Nurture reading).
Later she sings a song warning Tod about his impending “elimination” at the hands of the Hunter. This song also leans toward the Nurture reading. The problem is society: the hound is with the hunter “and the hunter’s got the gun,” she sings. So the solution is Nurture (“education”, as she puts it in the song).
Tod, of course, rejects the idea that his friend will grow up to be his enemy, but Big Mama insists “Tod is going to do what he’s been told.” And she’s right. When Copper returns from a long hunting trip, he is reluctant to rekindle the friendship. “Those days are over,” he says. He does, however, still have friendly feelings for Tod. When he corners Tod during a hunt, he tells his old friend, “I don’t want to see you killed,” and lets him go “just this once”. But when Copper’s mentor Chief is injured in the hunt, Copper vows vengeance. The point seems to be that Copper would be willing to be friends but, because of those around him (the Hunter and Chief) and the social convention of fox hunting, this is impossible. (There is even an economic reading to be found here, since the Hunter makes his living selling furs, and hence Tod and Copper are separated by their roles in the economy.)
So there is strong evidence for the Nurture reading. Except for the film’s ending. Check it out:
Now, I suppose one could read the ending as a happy ending. The film is ambiguous enough for us to think that Tod and Copper might remain friends. All we see is Tod and Copper save each other’s lives and then smile and walk away. We then see Copper happy on the farm and Tod looking down on the farm from a hill at the edge of the forest. Most importantly, we hear a line repeated from early in the film when the pups say, “We’ll always be friends forever.” All of this is compatible with an optimistic reading. But there is something bittersweet about the tone of the ending. It feels like Tod and Copper know they will never see each other again.
On my reading, in the end, Tod and Copper realize they can’t really be friends. Even though they can overcome their socialization, they still can’t be together. Maybe the message is that society can’t be changed. It is common to read the film as an allegory of racial segregation: some groups just shouldn’t mix. This would lend itself to the Nurture reading. But what about the vixen that Tod meets in the forest?
After falling out with Copper, Tod leaves the farm for the forest. Initially he doesn’t know how to survive in the wild (the Nurture theme), but he meets Vixie, a female fox who helps him. Is this just a new society for him, or is there something in his nature that requires this relationship? (Even the segregation reading requires us to think race is a “natural boundary”.) Big Mama sings a whole song about their “natural attraction”. And it is protection of Vixie that finally leads Tod to turn on his friend Copper.
Tod does go back at the end to save Copper’s life from the bear, and in return Copper refuses to let the Hunter kill Tod, but even so the friends realize they must go their separate ways. Ironically, the Hunter and the Widow become friends in the end (like the families of Romeo and Juliet whose feud is ended by their children’s death). But in the film’s final shot, Tod remains outside of the society with his vixen in the natural world.
We would expect Disney to press the Nurture explanation. Bambi, for example, portrays a natural world that is a perfect Garden of Eden where natural predators and prey like Owls and Rabbits can be friends. The only danger in Bambi comes from human hunters. In the Fox and the Hound, Disney seems to follow this same pattern, but there is enough alternative material to allow for the more complicated Nature explanation. Foxes and hounds are natural enemies and simply cannot be friends. This message doesn’t have to be a defense of segregation. Maybe this isn’t an allegory at all. Maybe we should just read it as a realistic statement about the violence inherent in nature. The world is not as cute and cuddly as Bambi made it seem.
This question of predation has theological implications. The Bible has a similar sort of ambiguity that The Fox and the Hound has. If we read the Genesis creation narrative and the Isaiah 11 vision of a redeemed creation as literal descriptions, then it looks like the typical Disneyfied view of nature (as in Bambi) would be correct. Nature would be perfect if not for human sin, and some day violence in nature will end and the lion will literally lay down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). So all violence is a result of human influence, what I called the Nurture reading of The Fox and the Hound.
The Nature reading, on the other hand, implies that God created animals to eat one another. If evolution is true, then Genesis is a symbolic story and animals killed each other for millions of years before there were any human beings to screw up creation. Isaiah 11:6 would not be saying anything about literal lions and lambs, but only making a point about the peace that the Messiah will bring and how humans won’t have anything to fear. On this view, foxes and hounds, like lions and lambs, are natural enemies – and there is nothing wrong with that. Any lion that could lay down with a lamb wouldn’t really be a lion at all, because the violence of a lion is in its God-given nature.
This view of natural predation is not just a rejection of Biblical literalism. In fact it fits with a literal reading of some Biblical passages such as Psalm 104:21 which suggests that we should see the lions’ prey as a gift from God, not a result of the Fall. And Job 41 which portrays the terrible sea monster Leviathan as something God created. But the primary motivation for the Nature reading of The Fox and the Hound would be to fit with the theory of evolution and the millennia of violence that seems to be built into the world God created.
Then again, who says evolution is finished? If God used evolution to bring about human beings, then why couldn’t God use human beings to further evolve lions into domesticated animals that could lie down with lambs, just as the Widow in The Fox and the Hound taught Tod to be friendly with her chickens?