A Study in Disney: ‘Robin Hood’ (1973)

| December 23, 2021

Disney has been with us for almost a century now, and so it is safe to say that there might only be a finite number of people left whose childhood wasn’t touched by one of Walt’s confections.  They’re part of our culture, part of our collective imagination.  Over the next several months, I am going to be looking into their animated features.  It’s a journey that is sometimes magical, sometimes baffling, but always, purely Disney.

Disney Is Remaking Its 1973 Animated Classic 'Robin Hood' For Disney+

As a literary construct, the character of Robin Hood has its roots going all the way back to the 1370s, when he began life as a passing reference in “Piers Plowman”, a Middle English poem presumed to have been written by William Langland.  The body of the tales of Robin Hood would come along a century later encompassing nearly all aspects of the legend that we already know – the Loxley-born outlaw who sees the greed and exploitation of the peasantry by the Sheriff of Nottingham; his affections for his beloved Maid Marian; and, of course, the famous nod to Ye Olde Socialism – he robs from the rich and gives to the poor.  Suffice to say, his adventures were catnip for Walt Disney. 

Walt’s aspirations to turn Robin Hood into a feature film have their roots going all the way back to the 1930s when he began mining literary characters for ideas to turn into features after the enormous success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Robin Hood was on his mind, but budgetary problems and World War II put many of his ideas on the shelf.  The film would not, of course, see the light of day until after his death, but its origins seemed to be sprinkled here and there.

Robin Hood began with Walt’s interest in Reynard the Fox, a series of Dutch tales about an anthropomorphic fox with an ability to trick and outwit various characters around him.  Yet, while Walt liked the tales, he felt that turning such an amoral character into a feature that would be seen primarily by children might be unwise.  The project languished for decades while dropping the germ of the idea into other films such as the trickster fox J. Worthington Foulfellow in Pinocchio; and appropriating the rooster character of “Chanticleer” (a project that Walt wanted to do but opted for The Sword in the Stone instead) which seems to have become Robin Hood’s narrator Alan-a-dale.

While Walt’s preliminary idea to turn Reynard the Fox into a feature film died early in the conception, concept artist Ken Andersen believed that the story of Reynard could still have possibilities and tried over the years to get the project rolling without much success.  The project finally rounded possibilities after the success of The Jungle Book, when he and other writers were looking for story ideas.  The result effectively soaked the two fables of Robin Hood and Reynard the fox together.  Thus, came the story of the fabled hero as a trickster fox in the role of Robin hood outwitting the Sheriff of Nottingham.

The result is a very odd mixture, particularly if you are familiar with both stories.  There are over-arching elements of Robin Hood – such as the archery tournament – mixed together with elements of the tales lifted out of Reynard the Fox, as when Robin disguises himself as a fortune teller to trick Prince John using a globe filled with fireflies.  And just to get the elephant out of the room, Walt’s original objections to the Reynard the Fox character are addressed here in an opening conversation between Robin and John over whether or not they are, in fact, criminals.

The blending of the two characters perhaps lends to the film’s chief criticism – it lacks a strong central story.  Critics and film analysts have complained for decades that the elements of Robin Hood’s adventures are here but without a strong underpinning of a story, that the movie tends to feel somewhat episodic.  Yes, there’s some excitement in the individual moments, like the archery tournament and the climactic battle, but as a whole it never seems to have a narrative drive.

That may not be entirely true because one of the most effective elements to this version of the story is the weight of Prince John’s tyranny.  The film bathes in it.  When Robin Hood upsets his highness at the archery tournament the Prince triples the taxes, leaving the townsfolk desperate and destitute (their misery is accompanied by Alan-a-dale who sings the mournful “Not in Nottingham”.  You can feel the weight of their plight and how desperately they need Robin Hood, particularly when the Prince orders the execution of Friar Tuck.

What is unexpected are the action scenes, which are built up with a lot of excitement and suspense.  The final act, in which Robin tries to steal the Prince’s money and spring Friar Tuck is beautifully paced.  The scheme to get around the sleeping Sherriff and steal his keys is done with a lot of silence which builds tension.  When the scheme is revealed by the Prince’s aid Hiss, the action is ramped up so that Robin Hood is constantly under threat, dodging arrows and axes and even getting caught on top of a burning tower!

It is also dismaying, the dismissal of the characters.  Yes, they are typical “Disney types” but that doesn’t make them uninteresting.  In a bid perhaps to ride the success of The Jungle Book, this was the first fully animated Disney feature to have a cast made up entirely of anthropomorphic forest creatures with no connections to human characters (Bambi had humans off-screen).  Robin Hood and Maid Marian are foxes; Little John is a Bear; Prince John is a tiger; and there are various rabbits, rhinos, elephants, birds and snakes.  This is the first of the Robin Hood film version to take this approach and it is cleverly explained right at the top by Alan-a-dale who waves away the human adventures of Robin Hood by explaining that this animalized version is “the real story.”

They work, by and large.  There’s a fun friendship between Robin and Little John.  The romance with Maid Marian is sweet and touching, and the character traits given the villains are a lot of fun too, particularly Prince John, an infantile mama’s boy voiced by Peter Ustinov and his snake sidekick voiced by Terry-Thomas.  And the Sheriff of Nottingham, a bear voiced by Pat Buttram is great too, as a slimy tax collector who pilfers the blind, the injured and even one poor kid at his birthday party.

Robin Hood is not a crowning achievement in Disney’s cannon but it was certainly crafted with more love and excitement than the drollery of The AristoCats.  Its success, in spite of the critical middling, boosted the confidence of a studio that had been considering shutting down its animation department.  What a sad day that would have been.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.