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Thursday
Jul102014

1973 in animation: Disney's Robin Hood

Tim here. We’re celebrating 1973 at the Film Experience all throughout July, and in terms of animation, that can mean one of only two things: the Czech-French allegorical science fiction film Fantastic Planet, a peculiar head trip of a movie made with highly-detailed paper animation, or Disney’s all-animal Robin Hood, a film regarded as one of Disney’s most perfect classics by a small group of people while being largely forgotten by most younger people, making it one of those films that’s simultaneously both over- and under-rated. All my love and respect to politically laden avant-garde Eastern European animation, but our current path seems clear enough: Robin Hood it is.

I will first confess that the film has never been one of my favorites in Disney’s canon; it exemplifies a very particular aesthetic that dominated the studio’s work for just a short while, seven features released between 1961 and 1977. These were the Xerox Years, when the old process of inking individual cels by hand over the animators’ rough pencil drawings had been replaced by simply photocopying the pencils directly onto the clear celluloid. This cut down significantly on the cost and time of putting together a feature film, and it also had the effect of giving the finished animation a much scratchier, hand-hewn look. For many fans of animation, and many animators, the direct one-to-one mapping this results in between what the artist drew and what we see makes it more valuable than the glossier, more polished, and arguably more lifeless work in Disney’s more expensive productions. For myself, all I can see is the cost-cutting.

But let's shelve the technical chatter and move on to the film itself...

Robin Hood is most distinctive for its irreverent decision to re-cast the legend of England’s most famous communist thief into the animal kingdom, suitably making the crafty and sly Robin himself into a fox, King Richard the Lionhearted and his usurping brother John into lions, the rapacious Sheriff of Notthingham into a fat wolf,  and major antagonist Guy of Gisborne into a character cut for reasons of space. And whatever reservations I have about the medium in which those characters have been rendered, there’s no denying that the animators and designers did fantastic work translating the various animal shapes into bipedal form, with the singular exception of the newly-created Sir Hiss, Prince John’s snake advisor and, well, lover.

Disney’s Evil Queers, in addition to being what I’ve just decided I want to be the name of my punk rock group, have been with us a long time (there was a video about it going around not terribly long ago, and of course I can’t find it now). Some of this is grasping at straws more desperately, some of it’s not, but I don’t think that anywhere in Disney’s canon is there such a clear-cut example of a gay couple as between John and Hiss. Voiced by Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas respectively, both in the mincing, effeminate tones of homosexual minstrelsy of the period, the characters sleep in the same room and share a relationship of the unhealthiest sort: John bullies and yells at Hiss until he needs comfort and understanding, and the snake permits himself some very passive-aggressive retorts throughout. They are, far and away, the most interesting characters in the movie, and Hiss is arguably the best-animated (the physical gags involving his serpentine build, at any rate, are the film’s most creative), even if that interest comes at the cost of outright homophobia.

Interesting characters are still interesting characters, though, and Robin Hood, like so many Disney films before and after, needs them. The leads are pretty bland, as is so common to animated films all along the spectrum of quality, and despite a surprisingly deep roster of more-or-less famous voices (also including Andy Devine, Pat Buttram, the inevitable Phil Harris, Disney’s favorite bear in that period, and country-folk star Roger Miller), most of the secondary characters don’t quite emerge from the stock type that those celebrity voices nail down. A pair of great comic villains is just what the film needs to give it a real shot in the arm, and they provide exactly that.

It’s still not a tremendously great film, with all apologies to the vocal fanbase: it suffers from some of the most anemic songs in any Disney musical (though Wes Anderson would likely challenge me there, given that he appropriated one of them for his own animated vulpine picture, Fantastic Mr. Fox), and any Robin Hood story is going to be brought down by an unavoidable tendency towards episodic structure.

That being said, given where Disney lived in the early ‘70s – these were the early years after Walt’s death, there was a general confusion of direction and purpose – Robin Hood is still a solid effort at doing something with the medium that’s at least somewhat ambitious and different (it’s not nearly as top-to-bottom dull as the earlier The Aristocats). The character design alone is enough to make it memorable, and when we include the knowledge that by this point, Disney was mostly retrenching into making kids’ movies more than the all-audiences films they’d had success with in previous generations, Robin Hood begins to look exactly right. It is colorful, genial in its humor, and it moves quickly enough that it never feels slack. Frothy kids' adventure stuff, but it works on that level, and compared to just about anything else in American children's entertainment of that era, Robin Hood showcases a level of craft and attention, even as it marks its studio's continued decline, that simply wasn't to be found anywhere else.

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Reader Comments (16)

I have to confess a large soft spot for this film, since it and The Adventures of Robin Hood solidified a childhood obsession with the outlaw of Sherwood forest. That said, I think the last time I watched it all the way through I was as yet unfamiliar with the idea of homosexual minstrelsy. Makes me a bit queasy to contemplate a re-watch.

As always, great write up!

July 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Soft spot for this as well--I actually rewatched it a few months ago with an old friend and we laughed as hysterically as we used to do. The tournament scene is genius.

And all of my friends admit to finding Robin Hood uncomfortably dreamy despite him being an anthropomorphic fox. How do they do it?!?!

July 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteraddy

Yeah, it's not great, but nonetheless I unabashedly love it. It's just so much fun from beginning to end, due mostly to the great vocal performances, clever gags, and that one shot of Lady Cluck as a football player. And the animal casting is pretty much perfection. King John and Sir Hiss are the highlights though, no question.

July 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

For years it was the only Robin Hood I ever knew and wanted to watch. The Errol Flynn, of course, is a classic and I like the Fairbanks silent, but this is what I think about with Robin Hood.

July 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I agree it's not great, but it's charming and overall very entertaining.
I've seen it a few months ago after quite a long time again and know now that I just like it. <3

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Fantastic article. I have the same feeling with both 'Robin Hood' and 'The sword in the stone': I know they are not among Disney's masterpieces, but I loved them so much as a child that they will always be among my favourite films. And I can say that I still find them incredibly funny.
Special mention to the design and animation of characters: they are all fantastic. I had a girlfriend who once confessed me she was totally in love with Robin Hood ('the sexiest fox I have ever seen', she said).

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbonobo

I've been really surprised by how much my five-year-old daughter likes Robin Hood. She watched it randomly on TV and has checked it out repeatedly. It's a solid movie and far from the worst of the post-Walt years like you mention. Still, I find it kind of just okay.

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDan Heaton

You can't deny Not in Nottingham is a classic!

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJB

Lady Cluck rocks. Lover her Scottish accent.

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Tim, much love for this article. My sister and I still say "Bless you, Robin Hood, bless you." in that very dramatic way from the film, and I still remember my shock when I realized Little John and Baloo had the same voice. A great Disney classic.

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjtagliere

Hmm time to see this one again

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I believe Sleeping Beauty comes out on Netflix Instant tomorrow, FYI, unless it's some knock-off version. Time to revisit the three good fairies?

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBD

Biggs' comment on "Not in Nottingham" reminded me of something I totally overlooked, which is that the opening credits music ("Whistle Stop", I think it's called) found a second life as the background music to the Hamster Dance site from back in the Elder Days of the internet. Now THAT's about as classic as it gets.

Definitely glad to see the film has a solid fanbase. It's one of the quintessential "childhood memories" Disney films, isn't it?

July 11, 2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

Pretty thoroughly agree. Ustinov is one of the very few bright spots in this film, and the movie on a whole just trudges through such uninteresting paces. It takes forever for this movie to ever do anything, and then the thing it ends up doing is only really appealing if it involves Prince John, Sir Hiss, or animation taken from a better Disney movie. ("Phony King of England" is kind of fun, but not as much as "Love" is fucking horrendous.)

It feels as though it wants very badly to be a relaxed, light, hangout movie and it goes about trying to be this by being as inconsequential and forgettable as possible.

July 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertooticky

I don't remember it much, but this was my first movie in the theater. I would have been 5 years old. (Yes, I'm one of the Olds around here.) And thanks to this post, I now know where I first got the fabulous inklings of my future life of man on man love. It all makes sense now!

July 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

This was my first "new" Disney film as a kid ("Peter Pan" "Lady and the Tramp" and "Pinocchio" all being re-releases), and I loved it so. I loved the score (an interesting bridge between the "classic" symphonic musicals of old and the more contemporary sound post-Mencken-Ashman), and I used to act out chunks of the phonograph record all the time. And yes, though I was only 6 years old, there was something about Robin-the-Fox I couldn't articulate that I really responded to. (Duh! He's sexy! Of course he is!)

Added bonus: when Prince John and Sir Hiss have their little spat and John reverts to a pouting child, sucking his thumb and growling "Mother always did like Richard best," it takes on a WHOLE new level of meaning once you've seen "The Lion in Winter" (1968), with Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lion-Hearted. ("The sun was warmer then, and we were every day together...")

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDback

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