That kid's face on the poster pretty well summarizes how appealing this movie is.
On February 27, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in a bid to raise awareness of their cause and protest the ineffectual American government. It was, in a larger sense, the start of a new era in the United States for an awareness of ongoing discrimination against native peoples.
The Western, the traditional carrier of the Americans vs. Natives dramatic conflict, was dying out, and even if it hadn't been, the general perception of the Wounded Knee protests as a turning point would have made the form totally untenable, except in revisionist westerns.
As it is, Hollywood wouldn't even touch the subject until the early 90s wave of "enlightened" Westerns which either featured exclusively white on white violence (Tombstone) or extended the treacly branch of peace (Dances With Wolves). Disney themselves fanned the flames by producing Pocahontas in 1995, a star-crossed lovers fantasy which just so happened to be set against the backdrop of the European colonization of North America. This time the general American population protested loudly, while some Native groups gave the film a tentative thumbs up for its message of cross-racial cooperation.
Back in 1973, while all this was just beginning, Disney was producing a low budget Western called One Little Indian. Do you think they were using these political events to tap into the zeitgeist and produce a film of lasting meaning? Nope. This is a movie where a guy gets dragged by a camel crotch-first into a cactus.
Starting in medias res, One Little Indian is a well-shot and fast paced adventure that never colors outside the lines. The film is structured as a chase, with military defector James Garner being pursued by a villain who's so poorly sketched we're not even sure why the guy goes to such great lengths to catch his prey. But this is a Western and the driven, obsessive villain has been around since the earliest days of these "oaters".
This, incidentally, did happen in real life often enough, but never to my knowledge with this result. Usually they'd go back and keep trying to hang the convicted until it worked.
The real star of the movie is Rosie the Camel, the tempestuous steed Garner chooses to escape with. In what appears to be an awkward attempt to append a Disney cute-crazy animal story to a mediocre Western, Rosie gets the bulk of the better scenes and even dies in the final reel. Although One Little Indian is fast moving and never unpleasant, this conceit just plain doesn't work. We don't care for the camel half as much as the
Bernard McEveety is back in his final film, and to be fair he acquits himself much better than he did in Napoleon & Samantha. Many shots in One Little Indian have a pleasantly Fordian quality, and Jerry Goldsmith (!!!) turns out a decent score which classes the whole enterprise up a good deal.
About halfway through the picture, Garner runs across an isolated farm where Vera Miles and her daughter Jodie Foster are packing up to leave on the next stagecoach following the death of Miles' husband. For an extended sequence at the dinner table, the rest of the film melts away... the not-charming kid, Rosie the camel, the deserter subplot, the need to watch this Disney movie and the entire Age of Not Believing blog series vanishes and we see Garner and Miles, two good actors playing a scene with humanity and warmth. It's old-fashioned film values that work as well today as it did in 1973. It's the sort of simple pleasures that more Disney films could stand to have.
The early passages of this review concerning the context and development of Robin Hood is indebted to Andreas Deja on his blog Deja View, which is a treasure trove of animation history and theory. I'm honored to be able to present some of his observations and material in this new context.
Robin Hood is very much the inverse of The Aristocats. Aristocats is full of good material that never coalesces into a satisfying whole. Robin Hood is a mixed bag of the inspired and the mediocre which somehow becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
I really like Robin Hood, but I'm not really sure why. It's wildly inconsistent. The story is an absolute mess. Of all the Disney feature films, this one feels the most like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Yet posterity has largely reflected my inflated opinion of it. It's the only of the Disney 70s films to be still widely watched. If you asked people to start listing Disney movies they'd eventually hit Robin Hood, well behind the major 90s hits but still ahead of something like The Fox & the Hound or The Rescuers. It's well remembered and it's one of those Disney movies that gets a new video release every few years without having to be retired to the "Vault" to artificially inflate demand.
What's more, in speaking to others about this film, I got fairly near-unanimous agreement: it was generally well liked and mostly acknowledged for not being very good. So, we must ask: what is it about this particular film that manages to overcome its limitations - and the toxic reputation of Disney in the 70s - to work, generation after generation?
We'll get there, but first, I'd like to go back in time to discuss what made this movie what it is. To say Robin Hood was a troubled production may be a mild understatement: it was a mess.
In his episode of the early 80s Disney television show "Disney Family Album", Ken Anderson describes the genesis of the idea this way:
"I thought I'd put everything together. What did the animators most enjoy doing? They most enjoyed working in the manner we did on Song of the South. Where could I get animal creatures that were somewhat like Song of the South and in what kind of a picture? Sort of a charade - a burlesque of some well known fantasy story - like a Robin Hood - ah ha!"
A great deal of Anderson's early development work on Robin Hood is very interesting. Ken worked hard on getting a variety of shapes and forms into his characters - Robin is a small, scruffy fox who is virtually loomed over by the villainous Prince John. The Sheriff of Nottingham is fat but forward-heavy and tall whereas Lady Cluck is short and bottom-heavy wide. Nearly all of the Robin Hood characters have brilliantly iconic silhouettes - shapes that define and sell their personalities.
Now, as cute as these Robins are, to me the champion in the film Robin Hood is Milt Kahl, who animated Robin and Marian and had his fingers in a lot of other character designs and actions as well. Milt's early passes on Robin retained Ken's youthful fox, with an effect that reminds me a bit more of a character we'd see in An American Tail than in a Disney film from 1973. To his credit, Milt fought to push Robin in an older, more handsome direction - with a thicker neck, less pointed nose, and more mature body language. Milt also went to great lengths to retain the sense of an anatomy of a real fox, which he was relatively alone in the production for insisting on. Robin Hood carries the picture on his confident shoulders, which I'm not sure the jangly Tommy Steele version could have. Milt's perfectionism saved the picture.
Equally brilliant although less frequently seen onscreen is Kahl's Maid Marian. A worthy companion of Kahl's other great leading lady - Lady of Lady and the Tramp - Marian manages to be vivacious and romantic despite remaining 80% covered in a ludicrous outfit the entire run time (if you think it's easy to draw over-dressed characters, try it sometime). Kahl improved Anderson's interesting design - which fluctuated radically between a two-eared headdress and a typical princess cone hat - by adding a virginal veil framing her entire upper body, suggesting flowing feminine hair and simultaneously handing himself a nightmare technical job of having to animate loose material flowing and shifting weight. Despite being a floating face and hands inside a dress, Marian has the screen presence of a star. Robin's festive reds and greens contrast and compliment Marian's oranges, pinks and purples. The two have real screen chemistry and are the two most accomplished and interesting character designs to hail from the animation unit in the 70s.
As a production, Robin Hood is just plain unfinished. In the opening sequence, the animation unit hearkens back to past glories of the Walt era with the traditional "storybook" open; but this turns out to be a ruse. The book that opens is the classic story of Robin Hood - not the story that will be told - and we zoom in, past the text, towards the ornamental rooster at the top of the page. The zoom ends with an abrupt cut to an animated image, strongly suggesting that a planned transitional effect where Allan-a-Dale would've come to life on the page during the zoom was budgeted out for time or money. That's in the first minute of the film, and it's a fairly accurate summary of what's coming.
Past Disney animated films had cut corners. In 1959, Walt wanted to shutter animation production entirely in the wake of the failure of Sleeping Beauty, and the 60s films are full of small scales and smaller ambitions. But Robin Hood has an unprecedented amount of stuff that's recycled, reused, or just plain old jettisoned. The most infamous of these is in the "Phony King of England" number, which has new animation here and there but is mostly made up of action reused from The Aristocats and Jungle Book. There's a small cottage industry made up just of YouTube videos showing splitscreens of these recycled shots, so there's no reason for me to go over them again here.
"Phony King of England" is funny and effective and it peps up the end of the second act very nicely, but the actual production of the number remains suspicious, especially in light of a discarded expanded (and greatly superior) ending presented on the Robin Hood DVD and Blu-Ray. Not presented on the discs but shown in episodes of Disney Family Album are snippets of animation for this sequence, so we know it at least entered production. At some point it was then removed for a streamlined ending which reprises the exact same "is he dead or isn't he" gag from the end of The Jungle Book and jumps directly to the wedding. To me, "Phony King" looks suspiciously like a late addition to bring the running time back up from this deletion and add a song for Phil Harris. Or, a less conventionally "Disney" film was pushed into a more conventionally successful shape with a low-stakes finale and crazy song.
Maybe one of the most intriguing things about Robin Hood is its complete refusal to play by the traditional beats of the Robin Hood legend. Robin doesn't even have a band of Merry Men in this one; he spends all of his time bumming around in the forest with Little John. There is no traditional quarter-staff fight over the stream; Robin and Little John begin as friends. Instead of a disguised criminal, Friar Tuck is an actual Friar with an actual church and congregation. Will Scarlet is nowhere to seen, having been cut with the rest of the merry men. The geography doesn't even make much sense: we see Prince John, presumably a fixture in London, traveling into Nottingham to collect taxes. Then a castle in Nottingham, housing Maid Marian, suddenly seems to belong to John, as if he's based out of Nottingham. Most versions make it clear that the Sheriff of Nottingham is the local governing official and so the castle presented in the film belongs to him; the Disney version treats the Sheriff as more of a police captain, ie the Sheriff in the traditional American old west style. The film plays less like a standard Robin Hood telling and more like somebody's half-remembered, half made up version of the story.
In a way, however, Disney's alterations go far in making the Robin Hood story less of a specific historical fantasy and much more of a fairy tale, their traditional genre. Nearly every previous screen version of Robin Hood eventually becomes a story of politics; Anglos versus Saxons, rural areas versus city areas, and noble born versus low born. The Disney version dispenses with all that and basically turns the story into a Western. Robin is the good, disguised avenger, like the Lone Ranger. Prince John could easily be a corrupt governor or a congressman. Allan-A-Dale is basically just Roger Miller, voice of the people and wandering folk singer, Bob Dylan surrogate. There's even a stage coach heist. Supposedly Woolie Reitherman disposed of the Merry Men because he wanted Robin Hood and Little John to be like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the process of making this alteration, the film was successfully deformed into an entirely different generic convention. This is why nobody balks at a hoedown in the middle of the movie: it's the same old trope in an unfamiliar setting.
Pretty much the one thing that was carried over intact from the traditional Robin Hood tales is the archery tournament, and in his one case Disney's Robin Hood is very, very close to the scene in the 1939 film, close enough to suggest that somebody remembered it well or had seen it recently. The procession of archers, the disguise, Lady Marian in the box, the splitting of the arrows, and Robin's capture and escape are represented faithfully, even if Errol Flynn did not have a chicken who can double as a line tackle against rhinoceros.
Given all of the above, why does the darn thing work at all? What makes Robin Hood more easily digestible and more popular than any other Disney film of its decade?
That simplicity has drawbacks, but it has benefits too. With the situations entirely stock, the film narrows in on the animated performances like a laser beam. Despite the myriad charms of the film, I think the performances in Aristocats are pretty weak. It's hard to remember a single unique thing
There's the fact that Robin Hood is easily the most approachable of the Disney films for very very young children. It's the first Disney film I can remember in complete detail. There's nothing really scary and the storytelling is easily comprehensible. Most other Disney films put kids through the emotional wringer, but Robin Hood is lazily companionable.
In the process of extracting a narrative skeleton from Robin Hood, Disney created something new: the idea of Robin Hood as a stock fantasy situation. Largely presented as a historical epic since the pioneering 1922 Doug Fairbanks movie, Disney's version paved the way for a million generic Robin Hood stories since. Muppet Babies Robin Hood. Backyardigans Robin Hood. Veggie Tales Robin Hood. Take your pick. This is why Disney's film feels like a Saturday Morning cartoon to us today; we grew up in the wake of this vastly simplified version of the tale.
Yet really the remarkable accomplishment here is that Disney made a film where talking animal characters have as much on-screen gravity as human characters. Marian is severely underused but she has the charm and magnetic screen image of a beautiful woman. Robin Hood himself was the first animated crush of many young women. This is a real accomplishment on the part of Milt Kahl, suggesting that animation had moved beyond requiring human characters to create audience sympathy. These animated animals are thoroughly human, and thus attractive. They're the first non-human animated characters to have..... sex appeal.
And once we hit on that, we come to the reason why, in the Age of Not Believing, Robin Hood must come last: in a sea of tepid comedies, unadventurous adventures, and tedious formula, Robin Hood is, against all odds, the one film to have a genuine artistic legacy: modern anthropomorphic art.
At this point I have to break the article with a bit of a warning. I'm going to venture down a path that a lot of Disney fans try their best to ignore: the real links connecting the Disney film Robin Hood to the modern-day Furry community. Indeed, just talking about the Furry community is unreasonably difficult, given the various ways in which salacious bad press has gathered around what's more or less just another nerd subset. For several years that was one of my social scenes, and although I did not then nor do I now easily identity as such, I still have many friends who are self-professed Furries. They're not deviants, they are warm, intelligent, interesting people.
It's worth pointing out, to begin with, that in 1973 there was still no truly commonly understood genre as "furry characters". Indeed, it's very hard to draw a firm line in the sand between Robin Hood and, say, Lady and the Tramp to say "this is where the idea originated". Robin Hood is still very much in the traditional "funny animal" style of Brer Rabbit or Donald Duck - human-like animal critters who could talk and wear clothes. Bugs Bunny is another early "funny animal" who is alarmingly close to the modern understanding of "furry", but then again even Bugs' early design and attitude is a rather obvious lift from another Disney film - the 1935 Tortoise and the Hare.
What can be said about Robin Hood is that its characters mostly do not resemble the strongly humanoid body types of modern "furry" characters, putting them more firmly in the "funny animal" category. Kahl fought to keep Robin's shape expressively foxlike: he has cute short legs and a long, gangling midsection that bounces expressively when he moves. Allan-a-Dale and Lady Cluck are extravagantly avian, and look and move nothing like people in animal suits. Just about the most
It's interesting to visually compare the designs of Robin Hood with those of their nearest precedent, Song of the South. The animated character designs for Song of the South were done by Marc Davis, who had just come off several years working on Bambi trying to find the appropriate middle ground between animals and people. He went in a super cartoony direction with Song of the South, focusing on contrasting sizes and body types to create three comedy characters in a parable setting. His Brer Fox is basically a lanky guy in a funny hat with a fox head. Fast forward to the 1970s, and Davis is still more adept at anyone at using funny animals in unique ways, although this time it's in theme parks - at Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings. Of course, perhaps the link between Davis' approach and Robin Hood can be attributed to Ken Andersen who worked with Davis on Chanticleer, an aborted "first pass" at an animal-only fantasy at Disney.
|Davis sketch - note "real" bear up top.|
Now, yes, I know, I've already characterized this film as low stakes and companionable, but at the very least we can say that we are concerned that Robin may not survive his leap into the moat in a way that we are not when, say, Goofy falls off a building. The animals of Robin Hood are both identifiably human and identifiably mortal. And they did set precedents. When Don Bluth left Disney in the late 70s he took the tricks developed in Robin Hood along with him. For Disney, Robin Hood was a one-off fluke and they went back to animating funny but anatomically correct animals in The Rescuers and Fox and the Hound, films much nearer the style of Bambi or Lady and the Tramp. Bluth, conversely, took the confident waggle and body shape Milt Kahl gave Robin and used it for the heroic Justin in The Secret of NIMH.
Back to our main story here, The Secret of NIMH was a seminal event in the nascent furry community, as was the release of Animalympics in 1980. Hopelessly counter cultural to the end, it's hard to even find a timeline of events about the development of the Furry community, but a quick look at this useful article on the Furry Wiki shows that the community was still calling itself the "Funny Animal Fandom" in the mid 70s and wouldn't even develop the word "Furry" until the late 80s. This places it evenly paced with the development of other early nerd groups like Trekkers and comic fans in the mid-70s, and there's always been a lot of messy overlap between Furries, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, D&D, and, yes, Disney fans. We're all part of the same cultural stew.
How did furries organize enough to start developing 'zines by the late 70s and conventions by the early 80s? In the pre internet world how did enough people find each other with an interest that's always been sort of an awkward secret? Well, we can thank Disney for that too.
In the process of researching Walt Disney World I've spoken to enough people who were there and seen enough old photos of Funny Animal Fans at Disney to have gotten an idea of how this happened. First, some context. Back in the early seventies, what we now know as the Entertainment department wasn't as carefully monitored or controlled as it is now: practically anyone who could fit into one of those character suits was pressed into service at one time or another. The daily "parade", known as the Walt Disney Character Cavalcade, was presented throughout the 70s and basically consisted of whomever they could find to throw in an animal suit piling into various Main Street vehicles and heading down the street just doing whatever. I've spoken to a woman who worked in the Tomorrowland Terrace who left twice a day to be Peter Pan in the parade; she'd run around the parade route, run into shops, whatever.
The Furry community coalesced from there, out of these pockets of like-minded individuals who found themselves doing the same thing for the same reason at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It's no big secret in Orlando that the city is a prominent Furry Community hub, and one of those reasons is because, them as now, people move across the country for an opportunity to get paid for wearing a Pluto suit.
Themed room parties held at Sci-Fi conventions developed into full-scale specialist events.)
This history is also Disney's history. Although Funny Animal Fans and, later, Furries, are a bigger thing than just Disney, it's rare for a corporate entity to be so heavily involved in the creation of a massive fan group. And Robin Hood is just the middle act of the evolving history of Disney's impact on Furries starting with the Silly Symphonies, on to Song of the South, then Jungle Book and Robin Hood, then The Disney Afternoon and The Lion King, to whatever the next touchstone will be. It's just one word and facet for a part of a basic art genre - anthropomorphic art - that's been around for millennia.
Looking on from the Disney community side of things, I will say this. One thing the Disney community often craves is validation. After all, Disney is often synonymous with "dumbed down", and cartoons with "juvenile". That's why you see Disney people drawing connections to fine art, or urban design - subjects which already have polite company's "seal of approval". To this way of thinking, insisting on the links between Disney fans and the Furry community is counter productive, given the reputation Furries have not just in the wider world, but in other nerd groups. But just like the views that see only infantile simplicity in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or lowbrow carnivals in Disneyland, these views are reductionist and wrongheaded. Even years after the company's ascent to successful corporate conglomerate and cultural touchstone thanks to a wave of Disney films in the 90s, Disney's still kinda an embarrassing thing to like.
I suggest that it's time the early history of the furry community and the influence of Walt Disney Productions on the notion of what a "funny animal" was and what they could be in the 20th century be folded back into the Disney historical narrative. Once we accept that not all furries are crazed sexual deviants the links between Disney and Furry become less creepy and more fascinating. Could John Hench have foreseen the world of the "fursuiting" community his character costumes for Disneyland would help create when he first sat down at the drawing board in the sixties? Could Walt?
Robin Hood and Maid Marian and the film and world they inhabit still stand tall in the Furry pantheon for good reason - they're wonderfully realized characters. The links between the film and the Furry subculture flatter the film, not demean it. The Disney Animation staff made such compelling people out of those animals that even today they can stir interest and recognition in people who otherwise have no interest in anthropomorphic animals.
Hey, it's okay, you can admit it. We're all a little Furry for Robin Hood.
This concludes the main series of posts in The Age of Not Believing. The next post on this blog will be a look back at the entire series, with rankings of best and worst films. There will also be a bonus film review - Superdad. See you then!
|Phil Harris, Andy Devine, and Robin.|