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the Xerox Years, when the old process of inking individual cels by hand over the animators’ rough pencil drawings had been replaced by simply photocopying the pencils directly onto the clear celluloid.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.