Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Robin Hood
In 1973, the future of Walt Disney animation was in doubt. The division had been in danger before. Whenever times got tough, the labor-intensive and not-always-profitable animation group always seemed to be the first one on the chopping block. But before, they’d always had Walt to protect them. Now, not only did they not have Walt anymore, they didn’t even have a Disney. Walt’s brother, Roy O. Disney, died at the end of 1971, just two months after the opening of Walt Disney World. The company was now run by CEO Donn Tatum and President Card Walker, two businessmen who seemed like they’d be just as happy to turn Disney into a theme park company that occasionally made low-budget movies and TV shows.
With the release of The AristoCats in 1970, the studio was officially out of projects that Walt had anything to do with. It was Walker who suggested that they return to the classics for their next animated feature, the fairy tales and legends they’d done so well with in the past. Ken Anderson, who had been with Disney as an art director and writer since 1934, thought Robin Hood would be a good fit. Walker liked the idea. So did Wolfgang Reitherman, who had become the primary animation director and producer, and story man Larry Clemmons. Anderson was given the go-ahead to start breaking the story and designing the characters.
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Now, Robin Hood was not the most original idea they could have come up with. There had already been countless adaptations of the story in film and television. Disney had already done one in live-action themselves, The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men back in 1952. Even in 1970, the world did not need another Robin Hood movie. (We need one even less today but that doesn’t seem to stop Hollywood from going back to Sherwood every few years or so. Please, on behalf of a grateful public, please stop.)
Anderson’s primary innovation with his Robin Hood was depicting the characters as animals. But even this idea was heavily inspired by Anderson’s work on Chanticleer, a project that had failed to get any traction for decades. Anderson and Marc Davis had spearheaded the most recent attempt to get Chanticleer off the ground but it had been shot down in favor of The Sword In The Stone. Since then, Davis had left animation to design attractions for the parks, leaving Anderson free to take another pass at the Chanticleer art. With a little softening, Reynard the Fox became Robin. Chanticleer himself became the narrating minstrel Alan-a-Dale.
Many of Anderson’s other ideas were never used. For instance, he’d wanted to shift the location from England to the Deep South. Anderson had been one of the key animators on Song Of The South and wanted to recapture some of the fun of that movie (and say what you will about the film, the animation in Song Of The South is genuinely outstanding). Reitherman didn’t think that was a good idea, partly because he wanted to stick to the original English setting and partly because Song Of The South was already starting to be a touchy subject around the studio.
So Robin Hood stayed in England but Anderson’s concept does possibly explain why so many of the film’s characters have Southern accents. It does not, however, explain why only the stupid characters have Southern accents. I live in Atlanta now and I can tell you that it’s movies like this that reinforced my Yankee stereotype that only stupid people have Southern accents. Having now met many Southerners who are smart, wonderful human beings, I think Disney owes my friends an apology.
Before long, Anderson found himself benched as Reitherman and Clemmons took charge. Anderson wanted to incorporate Robin’s band of Merrie Men. Reitherman wanted a buddy movie focused solely on Robin and Little John. Whenever Anderson’s character designs ventured a little too far out of the box, Reitherman would push things back to the obvious and stereotypical. By all accounts, it was an unhappy experience for Anderson.
Reitherman also tried playing it safe with casting. Peter Ustinov had given Disney a big hit with Blackbeard’s Ghost, his first film for the studio. He was an obvious but still inspired choice to play the cowardly lion, Prince John, and in the film’s closing minutes, King Richard. We’ll see him again soon.
Phil Harris is back, making his third and final Disney appearance as Little John. This choice was even more obvious and considerably less inspired. Look, Harris is a lot of fun in The Jungle Book and The AristoCats but there is no difference between these characters. Here, I can practically see Reitherman sitting at his desk, thinking, “Let’s see…Harris was a bear, then a cat…ah, screw it. Let’s just make him a bear again.”
Harris was basically done with movies after Robin Hood. He made a few TV appearances but mainly focused on his live act in Vegas. In 1991, Don Bluth (more on him in a minute) coaxed him out of retirement to voice the narrator in Rock-A-Doodle, his rockabilly riff on Chanticleer. Around the same time, Disney rehired him to voice Baloo on their new animated series TaleSpin. But Harris’s voice had changed with age, so Ed Gilbert ended up with the part. On August 11, 1995, Phil Harris died of a heart attack at home. He was 91 years old.
To voice Robin Hood, Reitherman picked another of Walt’s favorites: Tommy Steele, the madly grinning entertainment dervish from The Happiest Millionaire. But while Steele could handle the comedy and the romance (and could’ve handled the music if they’d bothered to give any songs to Robin), he was less inspiring as a heroic leader of men. So Reitherman decided to scrap everything they’d recorded with Steele and replace him, putting the movie behind schedule and over budget.
Eventually the role went to Brian Bedford, a celebrated Shakespearean stage actor who’d appeared with another Disney star, James Garner, in Grand Prix. I’ve seen a few sources claim that Monty Python’s Terry Jones was also considered for the part but I don’t know how much stock I put in that. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was still being produced back in England at the time and didn’t catch on in America until 1974. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that someone involved with Robin Hood could have visited England and become a Python fan. But, no offense to the late, great Terry Jones, he is not the member of the troupe I would single out as a candidate to voice Robin Hood as a fox. Why not the more fox-like Eric Idle? Or John Cleese, who actually would eventually play Robin Hood in Time Bandits? Or literally anyone else in that group apart from maybe Terry Gilliam? I don’t know, maybe Jones was considered. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Reitherman did cast one legendary British comic actor. Terry-Thomas, the gap-toothed star of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, voices Prince John’s advisor, Sir Hiss. Unfortunately, this will be his only appearance in a Disney film. Terry-Thomas had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1971, which resulted in his working less and less throughout the decade. His health forced him to quit acting in 1980 and he and his wife spent much of the 1980s living in poverty thanks to his medical bills. In 1989, a benefit concert was held to honor and raise money for Terry-Thomas, which gave him some degree of comfort in his last days. The disease finally took his life on January 8, 1990, at the age of 78.
Perhaps the film’s most significant casting was Roger Miller as Alan-a-Dale. Miller was a Grammy-winning singer/songwriter whose songs, including “Chug-A-Lug”, “Dang Me” and “King Of The Road”, were smash hits in an era when there was a whole lot more crossover between the country and pop charts than there is now. This wasn’t the first time Disney dipped a toe into the pop music world. But inviting an established star to not only voice a character but to write and perform several original songs was something new. Even the Beach Boys had to sing a song written by the Sherman Brothers in The Monkey’s Uncle and, let’s face it, Brian Wilson was a better songwriter than Roger Miller (again, no offense to Roger Miller, whom I love).
Miller’s songs, from the opening “Whistle Stop” (later to achieve internet notoriety in sampled form on the HampsterDance) to the ambling “Oo-De-Lally” to the melancholy “Not In Nottingham”, establish the movie’s tone from the get-go. And Larry Clemmons’ script reinforces those songs at every opportunity. You could make a dangerous drinking game out of taking a belt every time a character uses the expression “oo-de-lally”. Later Disney films would make pop stars part of their entire tapestry, like Elton John and The Lion King or Phil Collins and Tarzan. Roger Miller paves the way for all of that right here.
Miller contributes the movie’s best songs but not the only ones. Naturally, the Academy decided to nominate Robin Hood’s worst song, “Love” by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns, for Best Original Song. Sung by Huddleston’s wife, Nancy Adams, “Love” isn’t aggressively bad but it is as generic and forgettable as its title. This was Bruns’ fourth and final Oscar nomination, all of which had been for Disney movies. At the Oscars, the song was performed by Napoleon And Samantha costars Jodie Foster and Johnny Whitaker and I really, really wish I could find that clip online. It lost to “The Way We Were”, which I’m sure came as a surprise to no one (it was also up against “Live And Let Die”, so it really didn’t stand a chance). I still think it’s a bad song but evidently Wes Anderson is a fan. He used it on the soundtrack to Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The last original song sequence, “The Phony King Of England”, is remembered more for its animation than the song itself. That’s a little surprising considering it’s the only Disney song written by legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer. But it’s really just another excuse for Phil Harris to do his thing and not as memorable as “The Bare Necessities”. However, those budget overruns and schedule delays took a toll on Reitherman’s plans for this number. Running out of time and money, Reitherman was forced to recycle animation from previous films. This was a trick they’d used before as far back as the package films of the 1940s. But they’d never been quite as blatant about it as they were here.
Reusing animation from The Jungle Book and The AristoCats would have been bad enough. Phil Harris is singing the song and playing another bear. Of course that’s going to stand out. But having Maid Marian inexplicably grow about two feet and transform into Snow White doing one of the most famous dances in animation history is just plain lazy. If you’re subtle about it, you can disguise reused animation so only the keenest of eyes will notice. There’s nothing subtle about this and it pulls you right out of the movie.
That feeling of déjà vu extends to the rest of the film. Reitherman doesn’t so much tell a story as compile Robin Hood’s Greatest Hits. There’s a little robbing from the rich, a little giving to the poor. There’s Robin in disguise, there’s the archery contest, there’s the kiss with Maid Marian. It’s the most basic, pared-down telling of the Robin Hood story I can imagine. Even the stuff that works feels like a hand-me-down. I like Ustinov and Terry-Thomas but we just saw a kingdom ruled by a lion and his officious assistant (a bird, not a snake) in Bedknobs And Broomsticks. But Robin Hood never makes the unexpected choice when the obvious one is right there for the taking.
Despite its many drawbacks and shortcuts, Robin Hood is a hard movie to dislike. It’s too easy-going and relaxed to get mad about. Do I wish it was better? Absolutely. Would I say it was one of my favorite Disney movies? Not a chance. But have I watched it more than once? Yep. I never love it but I don’t wish I had the time back, either.
Most critics seemed to feel the same way, although some, like Gene Siskel, absolutely hated it. But in general, they gave Robin Hood a light pass while still pining for Disney’s glory days, which seemed to be a distant memory at that point. Audiences, on the other hand, loved it. Released on November 8, 1973, it became Disney’s highest grossing film of the year and one of the ten highest grossing films of the year overall.
The success of Robin Hood earned the animation division a reprieve. The studio now wanted to stay in the cartoon business but to do that, they’d need to make some changes. For one thing, most of the team had been with Disney since the 1930s. If Disney animation was going to survive, the studio needed some new blood.
The studio would hire several new animators in the years following Robin Hood, many from the animation program at CalArts, a school Walt had helped found back in 1961. But one member of the next generation was already there. Don Bluth (see, I told you we’d get back to him) was first hired by Disney as an assistant to John Lounsbery on Sleeping Beauty. But he got bored and went off to do other things, including missionary work overseas and graduating from college.
Bluth returned to animation in 1967, first as a layout artist for Filmation. In 1971, he went back to Disney where he was put to work on Robin Hood. Don Bluth would become a big figure at Disney over the next several years. Eventually, he’d become an even bigger problem for them after deciding to strike out on his own. But we’ll get to that story down the road.
Robin Hood has never been an A-list Disney title. Whenever it shows up on home video, which is frequently, the studio doesn’t make a big song-and-dance about it being locked up in “the vault”. It’s just one of those titles you can always pick up, usually at a big discount. But it’s had a low-key impact over the years. People who like it seem to like it quite a bit (and I’m sure I’ll hear from a few of them over my dismissive attitude…Disney fans are a passionate lot). It’s frequently cited as a seminal film in the furry community, a fandom so foreign and mysterious to me I’m not even going to question or comment about it apart from to say yeah, I guess that tracks. And the movie definitely had an influence on later films like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Zootopia. Not a bad legacy for a movie that frequently feels like an afterthought. Oo-de-lally, indeed.
VERDICT: This is a tough one. Compared to other Disney animated classics, this is a Disney Minus or, at best, a Disney Shrug. But compared to a lot of the other crap we’ve seen in this column lately, it’s a Disney Plus.
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