Recently a question from my childhood has returned to plague me such that I could get no peace. Why is it that in certain Disney films foxes wear trousers and greatcoats and walk among human beings, while in others they dwell naked in the woods and flee from the coming of Man? What great calamity befell the Fox Civilization that caused them to lose the power of speech? Whence Disney Fox Carthage? I took a look at the foxes that appear in Disney films over the years and found a disturbing trend: threaded throughout the separate narratives was a second, shadowy backstory of loss and cultural degradation and foxes.
Movie: Pinocchio Fox(es) Present: J. “Honest John” Worthington Foulfellow Level of Animal Sentience: Complete, in John’s case. He wears clothes and walks on his hind legs and is capable of telling lies in the English language. However, the boys who turn into donkeys become incapable of human speech, and Monstro the whale appears to be completely insensate. He eats and roars and swims and wears no clothes at all. Degree of Animal Autonomy: Mixed. John appears to live among humans as an equal, but the donkeys are subservient to them.
Movie: Robin Hood Fox(es) Present: Robin Hood, Maid Marian, various background characters Animal Sentience: Complete. The high-water mark for fox civilization. Foxes compete in archery, overturn kings, are members of the landed gentry, and make friends with bears. Animal Autonomy: Total. Foxes, lions, mice, wolves and turtles have developed their own, completely functional society without any help from or interactions with humans. It is unclear if all self-aware animals have become vegetarians, since no non-sentient animals are seen in the film, and presumably Robin Hood does not eat Maid Marian’s chicken handmaiden.
Movie: The Sword in the Stone Fox(es) Present: Mad Madam Mim briefly transforms into a fox during her Wizard Duel with Merlin, although she retains her trademark mop of grey hair Animal Sentience: N/A. She only appears to be a fox; she remains a wizard. Other animals, however, appear capable of speech (Archimedes) and of romantic love (that sad squirrel who falls in love with Wart in his squirrel morph). Animal Autonomy: Mixed. Archimedes is clearly subservient to Merlin, although not necessarily unhappily so; other animals appear to have their own society, unconnected to the goings-on of nearby humans.
Movie: The Fox and the Hound Fox(es) Present: Tod, Vixey, Tod’s murdered mother Animal Sentience: Varied. Many animals appear capable of speaking to other animals of different species (owls to foxes, foxes to porcupines, and so on) but not to humans. Whether this is because they choose not to reveal their ability to speak to humans (like the toys in Toy Story) or because humans are incapable of understanding them is unclear. Animal Autonomy: Sadly degraded. Animals either live as the pets or servants of humans, or as best they can fend for themselves in the wild. The days of the great lion-fox-chicken civilizations are gone. Humans have also created an artificial rivalry between dogs and foxes, which did not exist in Robin Hood (although, oddly enough, Tod and Vixey look almost exactly like Robin and Marian, and are quite possibly their descendents). Foxes no longer wear clothes and go about on two legs; they crawl along the dirt on all fours.
Movie: Mary Poppins Fox(es) Present: Only one; he has no name. Animal Sentience: Terrifyingly intact. Oddly enough, there appear to be dual continuities with regard to animal self-awareness in the film — during the live-action portions, birds and other beasts act largely as they do in our own world, although one robin lands on Mary Poppins’ finger and cheerfully sings along with her. In the cartoon chalk-world sequences, however, things are entirely different. Penguins wear boater hats and work at ice cream parlors, but the fox is helpless and persecuted by cartoon hunters. He can speak and he can plead, but they show no mercy. Animal Autonomy: None. The fox is entirely at the mercy of Bert’s largesse. The horses the children ride upon remain inert and dumb. The dogs are baying, mindless tools of their vicious masters — they pour toward him, an unthinking, unfeeling sea of fangs and haunches and slavering hunger. “Ah, ’tis them redcoats again!” he cries to himself. He has faced them before; he knows they carry his death in their jaws. When Bert and the children return to their old world, what will become of the nameless fox? His fate has only been postponed, not changed.