Disney’s Animated Robin Hood
Animation that came after Snow White essentially was a reaction to what Disney had produced. (Wells 45) Other animation studios like Warner Brothers and the Fleisher’s noted the potential of animation and attempted to distinguish themselves from Disney in their style and content, but Disney remained king. Throughout his life and after, Disney studios continued producing quality animation. Walt Disney enabled this ability when he established an assembly-line process for the creation of the animated features which created a level of visual quality in its finished form that stood apart from the competition and was highly recognizable. The creative process began with adapting an existing story or creating a new one. In the earlier years, Walt himself would act out the characters and key sequences.
Walt was involved to some degree with each of the animated films up until his death. The amount of time that he dedicated to each film varied and eventually lessened as he became distracted by other parts of the business (Solomon). The company struggled with creative decisions following Disney’s death, many of his veteran animators were retiring and it seemed that Disney animation was going to die. By the time Robin Hood (1973) was released, it was obvious that there was the critical decline in the quality of Disney feature animation. No longer was there Walt’s final approval for the start or end of any animated feature. Robin Hood is an example of the creative problems that the company faced as it went through this period of leadership transition as they attempted to live up to the expectations of the “Disney” brand.
As the years passed Walt Disney grew busier with all the different facets of the company and less involved with the day to day operations of the studio, specifically, the animation department. According to Ollie Johnston, one of Walt’s original “Nine Old Men,” Pinocchio (1940) was the last films that he was heavily involved with (Solomon). Disney did, however, seem to put the wheels of creativity in motion which allowed the studio to continue producing popular animated films. Even with the limited involvement, no story idea or adaptation went forward without his approval.
The Disney method that enabled the animation studio to produce hit after hit, seemed to continue almost flawlessly after Disney’s death. Audiences still came to see the films and each did more business at the box office than the previous film (until The Black Cauldron in 1985, when the audiences stayed away). Following Disney’s death, the studio went through several transitional phases attempting to maintain the Disney style of feature animation production. The pinnacle of this struggle occurred with the 1973 production of Robin Hood.
Robin Hood was Walt Disney Productions 21st animated feature. The film was a talking animal version of the Robin Hood legend with a fox portraying the rogue of Sherwood Forest. The Disney studios had previously released a well received live action version, twenty years earlier, but that is where the connection with Walt and this film ended. The film featured a strange mixture of country-western music and characters thrown against a setting of medieval England. Some characters, like Robin Hood, played by Brian Bedford, spoke with an English accent while others like the Sheriff of Nottingham and the Balladeer speak with southern accents. This mish-mash of characterizations was only one problem that Robin Hood suffered.
The film was not popular with critics at the time of its release. Time Magazine said:
Even at its best, Robin Hood is only mildly diverting. There is not a single moment of the hilarity or deep, eerie fear that the Disney people used to be able to conjure up, or of the sort of visual invention that made the early features so memorable. Robin Hood's basic problem is that it is rather too pretty and good natured. The animation matches the generally pasteurized quality of the film…
By reading the reviews of critics at the time, it is apparent the film failed to evoke the Disney “magic” that had come to be expected. The magic that critics sought was a coherent storyline [the critics were appalled by Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) for the same reason] and characters that people cared about. (Maltin 263) Furthermore, the film also lacks Robin Hood aspiring for anything greater than stealing from the riches of Prince John and giving them to the poor who have been taxed into poverty as well as a small subplot regarding Robin Hood’s love interest in Maid Marion. This version of the story adds nothing new to the Robin Hood legend, other than telling it with animals instead of humans.
The film also lacks any character arc that was found in previous Disney animated features such as Pinocchio or Cinderella (1950). Pinocchio learns about the world and that he should listen to his conscience. Cinderella learns about her hidden potential with the help of her fairy godmother. There is no such development of characters in the simplistic storyline of Robin Hood.
The lack of a storyline was a major problem for the film. (Koenig) Past features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Sleeping Beauty (1959) were based on popular fairy tales and had fleshed out storylines which were worked through. Time and money was dedicated at Walt’s behest to create the best possible product. Instead of an actual plot, Robin Hood connects several sequences which are mildly related. While this type of narrative in film can work in some occasions, it is not the case with Robin Hood. The sequences have been described as “fairly bland and uninspired.” The film lacks a clear story with a beginning, climax and ending. (Jacobson)
Leonard Maltin, Disney animation historian writes, “The biggest problem with Robin Hood was in its story development – or lack of it.” It was described as a “loud mouthed vaudeville show.” Maltin also stated, “There’s something wrong when Robin Hood is the dullest character in the film. (Maltin 264) The film struggles to hang on to visual elements that made previous animated features great, such as fluid motions and bright colors. But with minimal musical numbers, which were prominent in many of the earlier animated features, it fails to elicit any emotional response from the audience. Paul Wells has noted that causing emotional audience responses to the films is a key element to Disney narratives in animation.
Even with these flaws, it did not keep audiences away. They came in record numbers to see the film during its holiday premiere. That said, aside from the box office success of the film upon its initial release, the film does not rank among the most popular of the classic Disney features such as Pinocchio and Cinderella, even if was created by some of the same animators. (Jacobsen)
When Robin Hood went into production, the animation studio still operated with the involvement of four of Walt’s original “Nine Old Men” including the director Wolfgang Reitherman. It is possible that their older influence may account for the slow pacing in the film. At the same time, there was a new generation of animators being trained by these originators of Disney animation. Among the new blood was Don Bluth, who was being groomed to lead the animation department. Bluth later left the studio after the production wrapped on Robin Hood with a dozen other new animators to create his own films that he felt were closer to the classic Disney style which he felt the company had fallen away from doing. Robin Hood features many of the industrial struggles which the studio was facing during this transition period which among other things reflects the financial struggles that the studio was facing in the ‘70s. The studio had not had any box office success in years. Their live action films were anything but blockbusters. Due to these factors, Robin Hood was allotted a lower budget which is likely what forced the simplicity of the feature.
The simplified storyline can be attributed to the fact that Disney animation had continued to use the same process for story creation for decades. When Disney began toying with an idea to turn a fairy tale for fable into a feature length film, the studio would let the development department begin exploring all the possibilities for a story. In the early years, this process would take months and sometimes years. The general events of the film would be designed and only then would dialogue be created to fill in the rest of the story. This decades old procedure for story creation of animated features became so ingrained as part of the system that by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the studio had only one “official” screenwriter, Larry Clemmons. He wrote all of the dialogue for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Robin Hood. Since Robin Hood was produced on a small budget, it seems likely that less time was spent by Clemmons or anyone else in the story development department fleshing out the story and characters to any greater depth than what was presented.
The supporting characters in the film include Phil Harris, essentially reprising the same role for a third time as Little John. In The Aristocats, Harris played O’Malley the cat, who was very similar to Baloo in The Jungle Book except he was a cat. In Robin Hood, his performance is identical to that of Baloo, including the fact that he once again is playing the role of a bear that even bares striking resemblance to an earlier character. The difference being that the character of Little John is not nearly as memorable as Baloo, nor does the character add anything to the film. The recycled bear character comes across as yet another attempt to simplify the production process for this film. The other supporting cast in the film is made up by Peter Ustinov as Prince John, a character that while being one-dimensional, comes across as the most entertaining character in the film. The character Sir Hiss is also extremely reminiscent of Kaa the snake from The Jungle Book.
Robin Hood’s character design utilized animal characters instead of human characters. Audiences were just as entertained by the animals, but critically, this was viewed as a short-cut method taken by the animators since stylized humanoid animals were inherently easier to animate than human figures (Koenig). It was the first animated feature to not feature a single human being. Granted, Bambi (1941) does not actually show any humans, but their voices and presence are heard. The next “all animal” animated feature from Disney would be 1994’s The Lion King.
The film took other short-cuts by recycling animation from both Snow White and the feature released just before Robin Hood, The Aristocats (1970). It is widely recognized that the sequence at the end of the film featuring Maid Marion dancing in the forest was traced directly from Snow White dancing with the seven dwarfs. This was another cost-cutting method to save time in animating that particular sequence. An explanation given for the recycled animation was that the new animators who were being trained during that period were learning from the men who created the art. (Solomon)
The animation quality of Robin Hood has at times been compared to that of television animation in that it has the following qualities: repetitive animation, such as the charging rhinoceros guards which uses the same animation cells through several frames, simple and similar backgrounds since the action all takes place in or around the king’s castles. The film was allotted a smaller budget than the typical animated feature due to the financial slump that the company was facing during that time. Earlier Disney innovations like the multi-plane camera were no longer used because of the time and expense to create animation via that method. There really were no innovations in this production. Gene Siskel’s review of the film at its release cites the film for having a “lack of background details and principal character movement.” He also compares the animation to that of Saturday morning cartoons. (Siskel) Current reviews of the film on DVD are no better. Colin Jacobson of the online DVD Magazine says, “Every expense was spared for Robin Hood.” (Jacobson)
Also worth noting, is that the film features less music than in any of the previous animated features. Once considered a hallmark of the Disney’s animated features, this film has only three songs, the least amount of music until The Black Cauldron was released in 1985, which features no music. This lack of music also reflects how the studio was scaling back its production methods during the 1970s.
Following Walt’s death, the studio released The Aristocats, which was the first film to go into full production without the omniscient presence of Walt. That film reflected the classic Disney “style” in its animation, though it is not one of the more memorable films produced by Disney. When it was followed with Robin Hood, Disney seemed to be struggling to regain that “style.” It was also considered by critics and animation fans to be a test as to whether Disney could continue animating without Walt. By the time The Fox and the Hound was released in 1981, Disney was trying to reinvent itself while still holding on to what was successful in the past. Robin Hood, as it turned out, fell right in the middle of this major transition period for the animation department. The director, “Woolie” Reitherman was one of Walt’s original animators. He worked with the Disney leadership as they tried to do what Walt would have done. Unfortunately, this project comes off as an exercise in Disney mediocrity, which is not something Walt would have approved of.
While this film can be pointed out as having major flaws compared to other animated films in the Disney canon, it does continue to have a built-in audience. There are and will continue to be connoisseurs of anything Disney studios puts on film, including this movie. The studio has just released a new, special-edition DVD of Robin Hood, which as of this writing is ranked in Amazon.com’s top 100 selling DVDs. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that regardless of the inferiority of the film within the Disney canon of animation, audiences will still buy it because it has the “Disney” name on it and they believe in the Disney brand. That said, it will continue to reflect the turbulent era for Disney following Walt Disney’s death and ending with the start of Michael Eisner’s leadership of the company.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Robin Hood. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Perf. Phil Harris and Peter Ustinov. Walt Disney Productions, 1973. DVD. Walt Disney Video, 2000.
Cawley, John. “The Animated Films of Don Bluth.” 13 November 2006. http://www.cataroo.com/DBrhood.html
Jacobson, Colin. “Robin Hood: Most Wanted Edition” DVD Movie Guide. 28 November 2006. 10 December 2006. http://www.dvdmg.com/robinhoodmostwanted.shtml
Koenig, David. Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation and Theme Parks. Bonaventure Press. 2001.
Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic. Plume, New York. 1987.
Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. 3rd Edition. Hyperion, New York. 1995.
Siskel, Gene. Chicago Tribune. 25 December 1973. p. B7.
Solomon, Charles. “An Afternoon with Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas and Pinocchio.” Animation World Magazine. Issue 3.4 July 1998. 9 December 2006. http://www.awn.com/mag/issue3.4/3.4pages/3.4solomon.html
Wells, Paul. Animation and America. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey. 2002.
Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation. Routlege, New York 1998.
Time Magazine. “Quick Cuts.” 3 December 1973. 13 November 2006.