Taking Another Look at Robin Hood

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Disney’s animated feature Robin Hood released in 1973 was an innovative and milestone film but not for its disjointed story nor its animation that often reused sequences from previous animated films.

In fact, even though when it was first released it was the biggest box office hit of any Disney animated feature to that time, it is not beloved by animation critics and some Disney fans consider it one of the worst animated features made by Disney.

Being involved in the animation and comics communities when I lived and worked in the Los Angeles area introduced me to many tangent fan groups including furry fandom.

Furry fandom covers a very wide range of participants from writers and artists to people who actually make and wear animal costumes. The term refers to an interest in anthropomorphic animals that act and think in a human way. Having worked as both a “face character” and in fur for two different theme parks on two different coasts, I can understand the magic of dressing up as an animal character and interacting with guests.

What makes Robin Hood innovative and a milestone is that it is one of the major inspirations for the official birth of furry fandom around 1980. In the film, art director Ken Anderson created characters whose bodies looked and moved in a human manner (but were covered with fur or feathers or scaly hide) but had an animal head.

Not only was this an easy design to recreate (because real animals move in a much different way because of their skeletal structure) in an actual costume, but the spirit of the movie, the interaction of its characters, and the fact that it was the only Disney animated feature up to that point that had no human characters at all (so it was like its own universe) just seemed to “click” with people—even though anthropomorphic animals have been part of storytelling for centuries.

If you decide to explore furry fandom further, please be careful because just like any fandom, there are several offshoots that may be a little too extreme for your tastes.

The story of the animated Robin Hood actually begins while Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in production.

Walt had been fascinated by the folk tales of Reynard the Fox and had considered making an animated movie about the character as early as 1937. However, unlike the more benign trickster Br’er Rabbit in the tales of Uncle Remus, Reynard was much more a vicious scoundrel whose antics resulted in the often unnecessary deaths of his victims and Walt couldn’t quite find a story solution to presenting the adventures of this anti-hero who had no sense of decency or honor.

Speaking of Br’er Rabbit, Walt had seen some success incorporating three animated story segments of that character’s tales in the primarily live action film, Song of the South in 1946. So, it was no surprise that Walt seriously considered also having three animated story segments of Reynard’s adventures in the live-action film Treasure Island in 1950. Long John Silver would have told the tales to Jim Hawkins to parallel an action taking place in the film just as Uncle Remus had done in Song of the South.

Fortunately, Walt wisely decided just to make the film completely live action and it is a much better film for that decision. However, he would continually take another look at the possibilities of a Reynard story for almost three decades.

Disney Legend Ken Anderson was also fascinated with the Reynard story and did some possible storyboard sketches in 1956 and even produced a script in 1960 (with Reynard as a villain rather than an anti-hero). At that point, Reynard became the villain in the “Chanticleer the Rooster” project being developed by another Disney Legend, Marc Davis. However, Walt had a choice between making this film and another project that storyman Bill Peet was working on, “The Sword in the Stone” and only one could be put into production.

In addition, the feeling around the studio was that audiences weren’t interested in a “chicken” being the hero of a animated feature. Disney Press released a 32-page book in 1991 titled Chanticleer and the Fox featuring the concept sketches by Marc Davis in a shortened version of the story retold by Fulton Roberts. Davis later utilized some of his character sketches for “Chanticleer” in creating animals for the Disneyland Audio-Animatronics attraction America Sings.

More than a decade later, Anderson thought he had solved the problem of Reynard being an outlaw by transforming him into one of the world’s most beloved outlaws, Robin Hood. The fox could still be sly and a trickster but this time he would use those skills to protect the community from the evils of tyranny.

The final story for the film was written by Larry Clemmons, who started his career at Disney as an inbetweener assistant for Ward Kimball and eventually worked his way into doing story work since he quickly realized he would never be a really good animator. During the strike, he was let go from the Disney Studio and he found work as a writer for Bing Crosby’s radio show.

He returned to the Disney Studio around 1954 to write for the original Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland television shows. In the second half of the 1960s and the 1970s, Clemmons was the principal writer for Disney animated features. He contributed to Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and "The Fox and the Hound." Unlike other storymen, he wrote out the script with dialogue and then it was storyboarded by others.

Robin Hood was one of the first animated films produced by the Walt Disney Company after Walt Disney's death. Producer-director Wolfgang (“Woolie”) Reitherman said this often-filmed story of the outlaw of Sherwood Forest would be different because it was “as seen through the eyes of the animals of Sherwood forest who knew Robin best.”

The film begins with Prince John and Sir Hiss in control of England after King Richard has left on a crusade. With the help of the Sheriff of Nottingham, they tax the life out of Nottingham's peasants, leaving them all penniless but with the courageous Robin Hood as their only hope of overcoming this tyranny.

Animator and historian Will Finn recently discovered that Anderson’s character designs on this film may have been influenced by a modern American version of the Reynard story written by Harry J. Owen and illustrated by Keith Ward in 1945 for Knopf simply titled “Reynard the Fox”. You can see some of these comparison drawings at this link.

Robin Hood is not really as satisfying a story as some of the previous Disney features, but seems to be merely a collection of sequences that often seem more entertaining on their own rather than in the context of the actual film. In fact, it was Anderson’s evocative drawings and the possibilities for so many entertaining set pieces that convinced Disney to proceed with the project, not the fact that it was a coherent story.

While Anderson hoped to develop all of the characters in Robin’s band of Merry Men, director Reitherman saw the film as more of a “buddy” picture in the spirit of another pair of outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so many interesting characters and moments were tossed aside.

That decision plus the directive to save money by reusing animation from previous films helped to prevent the film from becoming a possible classic.

If you loved Snow White dancing with the dwarves, then you must have enjoyed Maid Marian dancing with her forest friends (even though Marian suddenly grew taller) since the dance movement was traced from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. If you enjoyed Baloo the Bear dancing with King Louie in The Jungle Book, then that sequence was transformed into Little John swinging around Lady Kluck. If you enjoyed the Scat Cat band from The Aristocats, you saw them transformed into an instrument-playing rabbit or a dog.

The robe that Prince John wears, and the crown worn by the puppet version of himself, are the same robe and crown the lion king wears in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Unfortunately, I could spend an entire column pointing out all the “borrowing” that was done from previous Disney animated films that served no purpose other than attempting to save money, even though outstanding new young animators like Don Bluth and Dale Baer worked on this film. It was not unusual for Disney to study or even “borrow” an animated segment from a previous film for a difficult sequence or to help train a young animator but it was never done to the massive extent it was done in Robin Hood.

In addition, just like in The Aristocats  there is blatant recycling of animation in the film itself where an action is repeated.

Certainly having country singer Roger Miller as the narrator Allan-a-Dale jolts the audience out of the era of Medieval England, a jolt that is continued with the voice work of actors like Andy Devine, Pat Buttram and George Lindsey who were more associated with entertainment projects from the Old West or the Southern United States. Others have commented that Phil Harris merely seems to be repeating his performance as Baloo the Bear in his interpretation of Little John.

While I do not consider the film a classic, it is always fun to see the adventures of the character of Robin Hood and the voice work by actors like Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas is delightful. In addition, as I mentioned, there are a handful of individual sequences that are fun, even if they never stretched the talents of Disney’s artists.

When Robin Hood was first released in November 1973, it received mixed critical reaction but audiences loved it. I learned long ago that every Disney animated feature is somebody’s favorite and despite its flaws, it certainly was inspirational to a great many young artists interested in anthropomorphic animals.

As I previously mentioned, Robin Hood was very successful financially upon its initial release, garnering around $9.5 million, the biggest box office total of all the Disney films at the time. In fact, the song Love written by George Bruns and Floyd Huddleston was nominated for an Academy Award. The film’s 1982 re-release brought in even more income for a fairly minimal investment.

For a little more insight into the film, here is an exceprt from an article written by Ken Anderson himself for the Official Bulletin of IATSE (a union newsletter) for Winter 1973-74 where he spent the majority of the article describing the time-consuming process of making an animated film. However, these particular insights that he shared into the Disney philosophy of animation stood out for me and very few fans have had the opportunity to enjoy them until now:

Robin Hood like most full-length animated productions, consists of about a dozen sequences, each an entertainment unit in itself. We tend to choose stories which are fairly well known because they work best in animation. Live-action movies can spend time explaining the action in the story, but a cartoon is flavored by everything that goes into it and exposition is deadly to animators. There’s not enough time for it. The story line is an adjunct to the finished animated product. It must only be part of the finished product, not the purpose of it.

“As with all our animated features, the animation process in “Robin Hood” was a team effort. Everything comes out of nothing. It grows out of the there. Walt Disney always said the creation of an animated feature was like planting a seed: It must be nurtured, pruned, cared for, kept alive until it blooms.

“What we are selling in animation is personality of the charaters. It makes no difference how stylized they are. We are not selling drawings or paintings. We are selling each character’s personality.

“Animation is one of the most precious art commodities because it is life in shorthand, a caricature of emotions. We show feelings which are recognizable all around the world. People like animation because they like to see evidence of themselves and how they feel. A great caricature is a better portrait than a portrait because more people understand exactly what you’re trying to to say. And a portrait, no matter how well done, is always colder than an animated caricature.

“Our business has much overlap, but we get good results. We try to find better, more economical ways to accomplish our goals, but we cannot, must not sacrifice the quality of the end result. So we made Robin Hood in much the same way we have made very other animated feature. Things have changed little over the years.

“Before one feature is finished, the next is in a fairly advanced stage of planning. But first someone has to come up with an idea for a story, which will stimulate interest. I did that on Robin Hood then worked on character conception.

“While The Aristocats was still on the boards in 1968, I was exploring possibilties for the next feature. Studio executives favored a classic. I suggested the story of the roguish outlaw Robin Hood, and they liked the idea. It was timely, and it would help people laugh at themselves just as they did during the Depression with The Three Little Pigs.

"We decided to do what we do best: use animals for characters. As director of story and character conception, I knew right off that sly Robin Hood must be a fox. From there it was logical that Maid Marian should be a pretty vixen. Little John, legendarily known for his size, was easily a big overgrown bear.

“Friar Tuck is great as a badger, but he was also great as a pig, as I had originally planned. Then I thought the symbol of a pig might be offensive to the Church, so we changed him. Richard the Lionhearted of course had to be a regal, proud, strong lion and his pathetic cousin Prince John, the weak villain also had to be a lion but we made him scrawny and childish. I originally thought of a snake as a member of the poor townspeople but one of the other men here suggested that a snake would be perfect as a tlithering consort to mean Prince John.”