It’s weird to think of Disney in terms of anything other than a world-devouring mega-multi-billion dollar cartoon industry, isn’t it? Of course, I think it’s weird because I’m only thirty, and have never known a time when they weren’t in the business of marketing blockbusters. History speaks for itself, though: the real story of Disney’s animated film series is that everyone stood up and took notice when Walt himself pioneered the art form, then sort of sat back down for forty years while the studio chased its tail and tried to hammer out that magic formula of sustainability.
This is not to say there aren’t some quality films in that odd middle era. There certainly are, and Robin Hood is certainly one of them. I just think it’s useful to approach these offerings as Disney’s B-side. It’s like, nobody buys a Beatles album to hear George bust out a zither. If you were dividing the films up by tone, with all the comedies going into this box and all the romances going into that one, and so on, you’d be sort of at a loss for what to do with Robin Hood. I think “quaint” is a good word to boil it down to. There’s something soothing in that quaintness, a sort of purposely inoffensive charm, that causes the movie to be notable even though it does nothing in particular to stand out.
Man, I’m not doing a very good job making Robin Hood sound very appealing, am I? Let’s start here: this movie is great and I super duper love it. And I’m not the only one.
Oo-de-lally, what a day!
A few weeks ago I put up a friendly internet poll to find out what folks’ favorite Disney soundtracks were. Forum software being what it is I had to whittle the selection down to ten films, and being a forum full of twenty-thirty-somethings I stuck mostly to the Alan Menken soundtracks with Cinderella thrown in just to round things out. It was only a few posts before someone came along and put in an unofficial vote for Robin Hood.
Really, I should have known better. This wasn’t the first time a friendly conversation about Disney films caused Robin Hood to bubble to the surface, and quickly. No, it’s not in anyone’s top-five list, but at the same time it’s never far from anyone’s mind. This is an experiment you can conduct on your own in whatever web communities you haunt: strike up a general conversation about your favorite Disney movies, then wait and see how long it is before someone says, “Hey, anyone remember Robin Hood?” You might even be able to set your watch by it.
On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to be such a strange occurence. That’s kind of how these discussions go: “My nostalgia is better than your nostalgia.” Try having a conversation about the newest X-Men storyline without some neckbeard popping up to compare it to one he read back in the ’70s. It’s technically on-topic, but still a little strange, until the second guy chimes in with memories about the same story, and then the whole discussion veers off in that direction. It is the natural order of things. It’s practically Internet Law.
In this conversation, though, it’s nearly always Robin Hood. People just seem to have a wistful fondness for it, moreso than other Disney films of the era. It beats Sword in the Stone and The Aristocats by ten to one, at least. I’ve witnessed it surface independently on web forums, in IRC chats, in conversations with friends my age. When one of my dudes sat down to play Kingdom Hearts with me, back before anyone knew that game sucked, one of his first observations was, “Man, I hope this game has a Robin Hood world.”
It didn’t. I don’t think any of the sequels did, either. I can’t help but wonder if Square hit a snag during their demographic research.
The fondness expressed for Robin Hood is not very strong, however. Everyone seems to have warm fuzzy feelings about it, but nobody lists it as their favorite. I think this might be a key piece of the puzzle: none of us were actually around for Robin Hood‘s theatrical release and the accompanying media blitz. None of us got a lute-playing plastic rooster in our Happy Meal, or a Little John bedspread. Nobody tapped THQ for a budget PlayStation title. When we watched Robin Hood, it was because we found a battered copy at Blockbuster after renting literally everything else in the store. To be honest, I don’t even remember when I first saw it. It was just this lingering presence that would creep up just often enough to remind me it was around. Commercials and movie posters never got the chance to tell me I would like it; I had to find that out on my own.
Was it the same for everyone else? I don’t know. And does that explain the fondness for this one film over its contemporaries? I don’t know that either. But it is important to remember that watching this movie today is a bit like stepping into a time machine, and that most everyone seems to regard it as a very pleasant trip.
My Brief Stint as an Almost-Furry
I was in 10th or 11th grade when I first played Suikoden. At that point in my development 90% of all my creative writing was done in the form of RPG scripts, meant to be plugged into a videogame someday. Each time I played a new RPG, my approach to structuring my next masterpiece would change somewhat. What Suikoden did was told the story of a war through the eyes of those at the front of the conflict, so of course I thought I might try my hand at that same story. It also eschewed the typical equipment system for a one man/one weapon setup, where each fighter had a favored weapon they could make stronger but never unequip. Suikoden never explained why its fighters did this, but I thought of a pretty good reason: if the heroes had a shorter lifespan than the typical human, they might devote their time to mastering one single weapon rather than learning many. And since I wasn’t in the mood to make up some kind of fantasy Nega-Elf, I decided the heroes in my story were going to be animals.
It wasn’t until I charted out who the heroes were and what they were like that I realized I was unconsciously transposing characters and ideas over from Robin Hood. The hero was a plucky young fox who fought for justice and chivalry etc. and was most adept at using a bow. Once I realized what I’d done I changed the bow to a whip and kept going. Other than that, it didn’t bother me very much that I’d just lifted a character wholesale from a children’s movie. (I ended up giving the bow to the hero’s chameleon sidekick.)
Once it was finished, I made the mistake of letting one of my friends read it, who told me she knew an artist who was “into that sort of thing”. So I let him read it too, thinking he would do a few drawings I could add to my folder for that magical day when I would totally make it into a for-real game. I had to skip math class because he took second lunch, and when I did I thought it was “kind of cool” that his backpack and all of his folders were covered in clippings from Archie’s Sonic the Hedgehog comics.
I was young and foolish. Seeing that today would cause me to walk very briskly in the other direction.
I gave him a brief description of the characters and I think we even talked a bit about Robin Hood. He agreed he would start with the demure magic-using squirrel. In a few days he turned in his work: my squirrel was now some manner of snow owl with enormous, ahem, hooters. Her wings were splayed out behind her while she clutched a staff in her very anatomically incorrect arms. And she was licking her beak in a rather suggestive manner.
The uncomfortable conversation with this gentlemen, pointing out everything he’d done wrong, made me wish I’d just gone and factored some polynomials. And yet, he wouldn’t back down from any specific point. Snow owls were sexier than squirrels, he said. And no, birds don’t have arms (certainly not in Robin Hood!), but giving her extra appendages allowed him more freedom to… I don’t know, do whatever. In fact, he was upset with me for not proclaiming it a work of art! That was about the extent of our working relationship.
When I complained about this to one of my dudes online, I was told that I had met my first furry. “My first what?” And then, oh the things I did see. I realized I had looked into the crack of a door that led to a very dark place, and I turned my back on it. I was too embarrassed to even watch Robin Hood for many years. (I did manage to get back into Suikoden, though.)
That is, of course, unfair to Robin Hood. When I eventually did go back to it, after its DVD release, I was actually impressed that the characters were much less anthropomorphic than I remembered. Robin walks on his hind legs, sure, and speaks with an English accent, but he’s also got fangs and claws, and can move like a fox when he has cause to. He’s not just a person with a snout and red fur. This is, of course, right in line with most of Disney’s more realistic animal characters. If anything, Robin Hood is proof that there is a place in the world for stories about human-like critters having fun adventures without descending through that dark door leading to fursuits and Sonic recolors.
“We folks of the animal kingdom have our own version…”
It’s kind of dumb to compare Robin Hood to the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog when there are a couple hundred other versions of the story already floating around to compare it to instead. The movie even acknowledges this right up front, when Alan-A-Dale the rooster minstrel informs us that what we’re about to watch is “the story of what really happened in Sherwood Forest”. Other than Tarzan, I can’t name another Disney movie that was based on such a ubiquitous and well-trodden story as Robin Hood. For generations, the modern face of the fairy tale had already been Disney, and the ones they hadn’t gotten to yet (like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid) were at least slightly obscure. But Robin Hood? Everyone knows Robin Hood!
If you held me down and forced me, on pain of death, to say whether I’d seen Disney’s version or Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves first, I wouldn’t be able to answer you. But it doesn’t matter. Because even at that very young age, I understood that these were just different takes on the same story, which I was already familiar with. Not very many Disney movies attack their stories from the direction of “this won’t be the first time the audience has seen this.”
You can usually define a Robin Hood story by what gets cut out of it. Disney’s version omits the origin story entirely, opening up with Robin in the woods already a wanted criminal. All the religious trappings of medieval England have been excised. The villains were recast to be bumbling and foolish, more the better to tell a whimsical children’s story. And, of course, all the characters were made into adorable woodland creatures.
From there, the story goes exactly as you’d expect: Robin Hood and Little John are lovable vagabonds who steal from the rich and give to the poor. “Rich” in this context refers to Prince John exclusively, and the stealing happens over the course of three adventures: a treasure carriage on its way to Nottingham, the legendary archery competition where Robin competes in disguise, and finally an invasion of Prince John’s castle, simultaneous with a daring jailbreak. Along the way Robin manages to share a few tender moments with a local rabbit family and, of course, a blossoming romance with the Maid Marian.
In other words, you sort of have to know how the notes of the song go in order to listen along. The movie doesn’t spend any time introducing the characters or their relationships because it assumes you already know who they are and what they’re playing at. And really, who needs their hand held through the finer points of Robin Hood? Folklore is folklore for a reason.
This isn’t Disney’s usual approach to covering explored territory. In Tarzan, we still got the full brunt of the character’s origin and upbringing, and the major characters had been changed considerably from their original versions. Well, at least enough to put a new spin on the tale. With the rest of their adaptations of literature and classic fairy tales, Disney usually likes to pretend they’re telling the story for the first time… to own their interpretation as something new and unique. Robin Hood alone goes entirely the opposite direction.
The result is something like comfort food. The heroes feel more like old friends, the villains are rounded off and non-threatening. The setting is a place we’ve been to before, and enjoyed before… and isn’t that what we were expecting? Why else would you pick up a copy of Robin Hood with a cartoon fox on the cover? Everything about the film, all the warmth and simplicity of it, reminds you that this really isn’t Disney’s story — they’re just borrowing it for a while.
I wonder if the decision to do this was a conscious thing, a sort of shift in direction after more played-straight versions of Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book. Maybe someone stood up and said, “Guys, we’re not going to be able to pass Robin Hood off as one of ours, so let’s just have fun with it.” Or maybe it just happened naturally? Maybe Robin Hood is just the kind of story you start out with, “You’ve heard it before, but this is what really happened…”
“Alms… alms for the poor…”
The first thing I did when I decided to write this article series was sit down and do some basic research on the history of Disney movies. Since I’m lazy and live on the internet, “basic research” in this context means “I read a lot of Wikipedia and IMDB”. I have a handy spreadsheet here with the release dates, running time, budget and box office gross of every film from Snow White to Tangled, which comes in handy when comparing the current spotlight film to other films in the series, and to other films near it in the timeline. For example, I know that Robin Hood is the first feature film Walt Disney himself had no involvement in; he lived just long enough to see half of The Jungle Book‘s production, and to sign off on The Aristocats.
But you don’t have to be a Wikipedia junkie to see the cost-cutting measures employed by Robin Hood. It’s somewhat infamous for its use of traced animation, lifted wholesale from previous films to save the animators some trouble. And you don’t really have to squint to notice that the bear, snake and buzzard characters were imported directly from The Jungle Book.
My knee-jerk reaction to this is, well, animation in the 1970s was a pretty sorry affair. My apologies if you’re ten years older than I am, but you grew up during a time when most cartoon studios didn’t aim higher than “loud colorful noises to get kids to shut up”. We should consider it a minor miracle that Disney produced anything of value during that decade at all, and just move on.
What’s weird is, the numbers don’t add up. Robin Hood‘s budget of $15 million is still pretty pricey compared to The Aristocats‘s $4 million, three years prior. And both are extravagent when compared to The Rescuers, made four years later, for a scant $1.2 million. Why does Robin Hood have this reputation as a budget film, made during one of Disney’s more prominent financial downswings, if it wasn’t particularly cheap to make? And if a shoestring budget wasn’t necessary, why all the cost-cutting measures?
Either these numbers aren’t correct, perhaps the product of some overzealous independent research that got quickly cross-referenced to every website on the internet, or film production is a labyrinth of arcane secrets that I can’t possibly begin to unravel. Or heck, I still haven’t seen The Rescuers — maybe it looks like some straight-up Hanna-Barbera garbage compared to Robin Hood.
The salient question is, does any of this stuff about traced artwork and lifted characters actually impugne Robin Hood‘s quality? I don’t think it does. In fact, when you only know the movie as part of a nebulous “old, but not that old” era of Disney films, it sort of gives the impression that they simply had a stock of animal characters to draw from. Which, if you consider how many hats Mickey Mouse has worn over the years, is sort of true.
Hmm… I seem to have spent more time in this article skirting around the perimeter of Robin Hood than talking about the movie proper. I think I hit the major points, though: it is the story of Robin Hood, it features a cast of woodland creatures, and there are a damnable lot of people who feel its legacy is worth more than “that movie the hamsterdance song comes from”.
Going back to my original question, I think I know what box I’d put Robin Hood in: just plain fun. The movie doesn’t deliver overmuch, but it doesn’t ask very much from you, either. It’s got that intangible quality that just seeps into you and makes you want to like it. It probably won’t knock your socks off — it didn’t provide me with an opportunity to run to the Xbox achievement generator — but next time you find yourself inexplicably engrossed in a nostalgic conversation about Disney movies, could be you’ll be the one to say, “Hey, anyone else remember Robin Hood?”