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A JOURNEY THROUGH THE DISNEY ANIMATED CLASSICS
Ink & Paint is a podcast journey through the Disney animated classics! Each week, host Daniel Lammin and a special guest will look at each film in the official Disney animated canon, and talk about their artistic, historical and social context. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss an episode! Have comments or questions for Ink & Paint? Record a message for Daniel right from your phone, and we'll try to use it in our next episode!

Episode 23: Robin Hood
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Daniel is joined by theatre-maker Elizabeth Brennan to look at the beloved cult classic ‘Robin Hood’ and discuss its political subtext, its relationship to other depictions of Robin Hood on film, and why this unassuming film from the mid-1970s and its rambunctious cast of characters has become such an enduring delight.

Host
Daniel Lammin
Guest
Elizabeth Brennan - Actor and Writer

Credits
Producer/Editor ∷ Alex Amster
Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek

Show Notes
On the 20th of January 1973, Richard M. Nixon was sworn in for his second term as President of the United States of America. A week later, on the 27th of January, the US signed the Paris Accords, ending their involvement in the Vietnam War, a controversial war that had lasted 19 years and cost millions of lives. In May, the televised hearings into the Watergate Scandal began, a political storm that had started with a break-in at the National Democratic Committee headquarters in Washington D.C. on the 17th of June 1972. Over the coming year, the scandal would turn from a storm into a hurricane, revealing a trail of corruption and lies reaching to the President himself, who would resign before he could be impeached in August 1974. This seemed to be the climax of a decade of political and social unrest in the United States, from the assasination of President John F. Kennedy to the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr, the Detroit riots and Stonewall, the pervading chaos of the Vietnam War and the constant threat of nuclear destruction in the Cold War.

In Hollywood, American cinemas' whole concept of itself was shifting. The studio system was starting to collapse and the generation born in the wake of the Second World War, now coming of age, were rejecting the glossy and highly-produced films that had entertained their parents. This was the era of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967), ‘The Graduate’ (1967) and ‘Easy Rider’ (1969), ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1969), ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969), the rise of John Cassavettes and Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. It was also the era of Simon & Garfunkel, The Doors, John Denver, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. American culture was shifting from the safety and wholesome values of the post-war years, an era in which Walt Disney had constructed the ultimate monument to American values and idealism, Disneyland. For the new generation emerging in the late 60’s and early 70’s, their monuments were Woodstock and John Lennon’s “Imagine”, a rejection of the hypocrisy of the newly emerged modern world and an embrace of new ideas, new sounds and new stories.

It was in the midst of this significant cultural shift that Walt Disney Productions began work on their twenty-first animated feature, the first conceived and constructed without any influence from Walt Disney himself. On the one hand, it would be a return to safety for them, turning to classic myths and folktales for inspiration and combining them with tried-and-true Disney tropes. On the other hand, it would sound and feel very different from the traditional Disney animated feature. Whether they were aware of it or not, the cultural reset in the United States would, for a moment, penetrate the solid institutional walls of Disney, and considering the story they were telling, it isn’t entirely a surprise. They were taking one of the most beloved vigilante heroes of all time, refashioning his story in the Disney tradition and, by accident, commenting on the state of the world in which they lived - telling it like it is, or was, or whatever.

Rob? Tsk tsk tsk. That's a naughty word. We never rob. We just sort of borrow a bit from those who can afford it.”
Robin Hood, ‘Robin Hood’ (1973)

While his older brother King Richard is off fighting in the Crusades, Prince John (Peter Ustinov) holds the throne of England, subjecting the people to crippling taxes and constant threat to satisfy his greed, selfishness and childish lust for power. Unfortunately, thwarting his efforts to maintain that power is the dashing Robin Hood (Brian Bedford) who, along with his best friend Little John (Phil Harris), robs the rich to give back to the poor. After a series of blunderous efforts to capture Robin Hood, Prince John tasks his lackey the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram) with increasing taxes and arrests in order to lull Robin out of safety. Before executions can begin, Robin and Little John break into the castle to free everyone, but while trying to steal Prince John’s gold, Robin is nearly caught, and in a fight with the Sheriff, the castle catches fire. Robin and all of the townspeople escape, sending Prince John into a rage, but soon Richard returns to take the throne back from John, and Robin is finally able to marry his one true love, Maid Marian (Monica Evans).

The stories of archer, swordsman and outlaw Robin Hood are amongst the most beloved in English folklore. In these stories, the heroic Robin Hood and his band of Merrie Men live in Sherwood Forest, robbing the rich to give to the poor and battling their nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham, all the while wooing Maid Marian. They were passed down as oral legends, but the earliest written mention of Robin Hood appears in William Langland’s 12th century alliterative poem Piers Plowman. The legends themselves were finally written down in the late 15th century, with many of the classic Robin Hood tropes intact, and over the centuries, they have grown in popularity all over the world.

Unsurprisingly, the stories of Robin Hood were amongst the first brought to the screen in the early days of cinema, with Percy Stow’s 1908 silent theatrical short ‘Robin Hood and his Merrie Men’ being the first. In 1938, Warner Bros released their lavish Technicolour spectacle, ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, featuring legendary star Errol Flynn in his most iconic role. The Oscar-winning film is still the standard by which all other screen adaptations of the Robin Hood stories are judged, but that didn’t stop the numerous adaptations released in the decades since. In fact, Robin Hood was the subject of Walt Disney’s second live-action film, ‘The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men’. Released in 1952, the film was produced in the United Kingdom to take advantage of funds frozen in the UK during the war, and was a commercial and critical success. By the late 1960’s, the adventures of Robin Hood were mostly in the hands of Hammer Films, who released a series of films on the character.

By 1968 and with Disney still glowing from the enormous success of ‘The Jungle Book’, production was in full swing on ‘The Aristocats’. Even though that film was still years from release, there were already concerns over what would come next. Under Walt’s supervision, there had always been a number of projects in development at once, and often films were planned a number in advance. ‘The Aristocats’ had been the only film left in development upon Walt’s death, and if they were going to have one ready to follow ‘The Aristocats’, they needed to decide now.

In October 1968, production designer Ken Anderson and Disney executive vice president and chief operating officer Card Walker were on a fishing trip in the High Sierras. After their disagreement after ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’, Anderson had emerged as one of Walt’s most trusted story and ideas men, and had been instrumental in solving visual and narrative issues on many of the films that had followed. On the trip, Walker expressed his concern to Anderson that they had no projects to follow ‘The Aristocats’. He suggested that perhaps they should look to a classic story that would lend itself to animation, but rather than have human characters, substituting them for animals. He asked whether this might be something the animators would enjoy, and Anderson agreed it would, citing the positive experience they had all had working on the animated sequences in ‘Song of the South’. Besides, animals were much more interesting to animate than humans, and were often more successful. The abandoned ‘Chanticleer’ project may also have been on Anderson’s mind, a project he and Marc Davis had invested much time and effort into, where farmyard animals reflected a human society.

It seemed an appealing idea, but what story would work? After thinking for a moment, Anderson suggested the stories of Robin Hood. Walker was immediately enthusiastic, and encouraged him to start developing the idea when they returned from their trip.

‘Robin Hood’ concept art © Disney

‘Robin Hood’, the film born on that fishing trip in the High Sierras, would represent a transition point for Disney animation. For the emerging artists accepted into the new Training Development Program, it would be the first animated feature on which they would work, mentored by and working with the legendary Nine Old Men. While the old guard of Disney animation were crafting their very first solo effort without Walt, the new generation were cutting their teeth and finding their footing. All the while, the cultural, political and social revolution occurring in the United States raged on, a seismic transition in America’s understanding of itself. Its people were starting to distrust the systems of power built to protect them, and the men in charge of those systems. Police force and resources were openly being used against those they were sworn to protect. Financial systems were failing, directly impacting the common American, and the gulf between the rich and the poor was growing. There was electricity in the air, and American art was responding, whether consciously or not.

FROM THE OLD SOUTH TO SHERWOOD FOREST
Returning from the fishing trip, Ken Anderson approached studio writer Otto Englender with the idea for ‘Robin Hood’. Englender had been with the studio since the early 1930’s, and worked as a story artist on many of the great films of the Golden Age. In the 1950’s, he moved to writing for the ‘Disneyland’ television series and its subsequent iterations. When he was approached by Anderson with ‘Robin Hood’, he had recently been tasked with researching potential projects for feature animation, and was intrigued by Anderson’s idea.

Though he was busy with ‘The Aristocats’, Anderson worked with Englender to solidify the concept. They once again looked to the failed ‘Chanticleer’ project, in particular the elements woven in from the Reynard the Fox folk tales. The idea of adapting the 12th century stories stretched as far back as the 1930’s, and Walt had even considered weaving the Reynard stories throughout the 1950 live-action adaptation of ‘Treasure Island’ as animated interludes. Anderson and Englender looked again at the work that had been done by Anderson and Davis in the early 60’s, particularly the idea of animals functioning as in a human society, and decided that ‘Robin Hood’ was a much stronger story for such a concept. With the idea in sturdier shape, they took it to executive Bill Anderson. It turned out that Bill Anderson had planted the idea in Card Walker’s mind about combining a classic story with animal characters, and was delighted by the ‘Robin Hood’ proposal.

The last stop for Ken Anderson would be the central committee in the animation department. He proposed ‘Robin Hood’ as a potential project during a story meeting for ‘The Aristocats’, and once again the idea was met with enthusiasm, especially from director Wolfgang Reitherman, who instantly set up a meeting to discuss the idea with Bill Anderson and writer Larry Clemons.

’Robin Hood’ character designs by Ken Anderson © Disney

With the go-ahead from Reitherman, Anderson began work on ‘Robin Hood’. “I worked on the development by myself for about four or five months,” he recalled. “The very first step, before I started digging into any of the drawings, was to read the stories. So I read what existed and then I even made little sequences to sell the idea.”

To begin with, Anderson envisioned the film following in the footsteps of ‘Song of the South’. His initial concepts set the story, not in medieval England but in the Deep South. Very quickly though, the Disney executives became concerned. The reputation of ‘Song of the South’ continued to sour, and they were wary of connecting their new film with it. Reitherman encouraged Anderson to return the story to its traditional setting. Anderson also looked at other film adaptations of the Robin Hood stories, especially the 1938 Warner Bros. film, as well as the James Bond films and the television series ‘Alias Smith and Jones’, all of which featured charming antiheroes. Anderson decided that the tone of these films was too self-serious, and decided this film should have a lighter, more carefree tone.

‘Robin Hood’, like most full-length animated productions, consists of about a dozen sequences, each an entertainment unit in itself. We tend to choose stories which are fairly well-known because they work best in animation. Live-action movies can spend time explaining the action in a story, but a cartoon is flavoured by everything that goes into it… Exposition is deadly to animators. There’s not enough time for it.
Ken Anderson, in the Official Bulletin of
IATSE (Animation Guild), Winter 1973-74 edition

With the historical setting in place, Anderson began developing the characters, especially which animal would represent these beloved folk figures. “There are no rules for developing characters,” he recalled. “Or rather, for each character there is a different set of rules. Each character has a different personality, has different problems, and is conceived in a different way. What we are after is to visualise a personality that is strong enough so that an actor can get a hold of it.”

There was no question for Anderson that Robin Hood should be a fox, a match for his sly and wily personality. From here, the others fell into place, responding to Robin as the pivot point and matching the personalities of the characters with the appropriate animal. Maid Marian became a vixen, Little John an oversized bear. Friar Tuck had originally been planned as a pig, but was later changed to a Badger. Initially, Anderson restricted his choices to animals native to the United Kingdom, but Reitherman encouraged him to think further afield. Anderson decided that Robin and his compatriots would be native animals, while King John, a pathetic snivelling lion, and those around him would be animals from all over the world. It was writer Larry Clemons who suggested that a snake could be a great foil for Prince John, and the animators went to town developing the personality and physical language for Sir Hiss.

‘Robin Hood’ pencil animation by Ollie Johnston © Disney

With work completed on ‘The Aristocats’, the animation team could begin on ‘Robin Hood’. Ollie Johnston was the first, further developing Anderson’s concept for Prince John as a cowardly lion into a full character. By this point, Oscar-winning actor Peter Ustinov had been cast in the role, and as well as Anderson’s concept drawings, Johnston drew from Ustinov’s deliciously decadent and petulant performance.

While Anderson was very open to the ideas and suggestions from the animators, he was dismayed at how his initial character designs were being treated. His designs are detailed, witty and fresh, but as work on the film progressed, those fresh ideas were being reduced to traditional Disney stereotypes, in many cases (such as Little John and Sir Hiss) uncomfortably similar to characters in ‘The Jungle Book’. One casualty was Anderson’s initial concept for the Sheriff of Nottingham. He decided to try something new and develop the villain as a goat, since they had never had a goat character in a film before. Reitherman overruled him though, and decided the Sheriff should be a wolf instead, a far-less inspired choice.

Reitherman and Anderson also disagreed on the supporting characters, in particular Robin’s band of Merrie Men. Anderson had wanted to feature all of the characters from the folk tales, but Reitherman again overruled him. In 1969, the biggest success at the US box office had been George Roy Hill’s Oscar-winning western ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, which featured Robert Redford and Paul Newman as a pair of outlaws in the Old West on the run after a series of train robberies. The relationship between the two characters had resulted in one of the most beloved buddy pictures of all time, and Reitherman wanted to recreate that same dynamic between Robin Hood and Little John. Reitherman decided that Little John would be the only member of Robin’s Merrie Men, with Friar Tuck shifted to an associate and the rooster minstrel Alan-a-Dale now the narrator of the film.

FINDING ROBIN HOOD
For the most part, finding the right voice actors for ‘Robin Hood’ was straight forward. Phil Harris joined the cast as Little John, his third successive Disney feature and his second playing a bear. “I was terribly enthused about being involved in ‘Robin Hood’,” said Harris. “Just playing myself again. They even let me change some of the lines to make them fit my personality.” Other Disney alumni also returned, including Monica Evans and Carole Shelley who had played the Gaggle Sisters in ‘The Aristocats’, now playing Maid Marian and Lady Kluck respectively.

‘Robin Hood’ character design by Milt Kahl © Disney

The biggest challenge was finding the right voice for Robin himself. British musical comedy and pop star Tommy Steele was initially cast in the role, but the animators found it difficult to match Steele’s performance with the character they were developing. Steele was giving a big, broad performance, and this didn’t match with the quieter moments of tenderness and empathy they wanted to explore.

In March 1971, they made the decision to test further actors for the role. These would include such actors as Jim Dale, Rob Reiner and Beau Bridges, as well as The Monkee’s Davy Jones. As the months went on, they still couldn’t find the perfect fit, and as a consequence, the film began to fall behind schedule. In an effort to keep up, Reitherman once again instigated the practice of reusing and refashioning animation from previous films, more extensively than they had before. This included work from recent films such as ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘The Aristocats’, but they even reached as far back as ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, reusing the animation of Snow White dancing with the dwarfs in the cottage for Maid Marian dancing with the townsfolk in Sherwood Forest.

Brian Bedford

In 1971, British actor Brian Bedford won a Tony award for his performance as Arnolphe in a production of Molière’s classic stage comedy ‘The School for Wives’. Following the production’s successful New York run, it toured around the US, and it was during its Los Angeles run that members of the Disney staff saw the production. Impressed by Bedford, they brought him in to test for the role of Robin Hood in May 1971, and after further tests through till June, decided that Bedford was perfect for the part. His “smooth” and “sophisticated” interpretation of the character worked perfectly with the character the animation department had been developing, and his chemistry with Phil Harris was undeniable.

For the other supporting players, they turned to actors with experience in westerns, especially on television. This included Andy Devine as Friar Tuck, Pat Buttrum as the Sherriff of Nottingham, and Ken Kurtis and George Lindsay as vultures Nutsy and Trigger. The decision to approach actors from westerns was in keeping with the surprising new direction for the film. It may have been set in Robin Hood’s traditional home of Sherwood Forest in England’s deep past, but the sound of the film would be something altogether more contemporary and, for Walt Disney animation, revolutionary.

OO-DE-LALLY
During story meetings for Robin Hood in 1969, it was agreed that the film should be a musical, in keeping with the recent success of ‘The Aristocats’ and ‘The Jungle Book’. It was decided though that the music should be more “up-t0-date”, more contemporary than the swing or jazz styles they had been using. Perhaps further inspired by ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, they decided that a country western sound might work for ‘Robin Hood’, and with George Bruns once again on scoring duties, they began looking for the perfect songwriter to collaborate with them.

Roger Miller

American singer and songwriter Roger Miller had begun his music career in the 1950’s, writing hits like “Billy Bayou” and “Invitation For The Blues”, before transitioning into a highly successful career as a singer in the 1960’s. His work was influenced by the honky-tonk country style, and led to enormous success in the 60’s with songs such as “King of the Road” and “Dang Me”. His clever and imaginative ability with lyrics and music made him a perfect fit for the rambunctious style Disney were pursuing with ‘Robin Hood’.

While the songs Miller would write for the film would be in line with his honky-tonk country style, they were still very much rooted in the historical traditions of the original Robin Hood legends. The decision to fashion the songs as folk ballads was in keeping with the manner in which the stories were first passed on, and the nonsense phrase Miller created for the film, “Oo-de-lally” was reminiscent of “Hey nonny nonny”, a nonsense refrain used extensively in Elizabethan songs. This meant that, rather than being purely contemporary, the songs in ‘Robin Hood’ would be a marriage of modern and medieval musical traditions, in many ways similar to the tone of the film itself.

Roger Miller wrote three songs for the film, all three of them iconic - the melancholy third act song “Not in Nottingham”, the opening scene-setter “Oo-De-Lally”, and one of the most iconic opening titles to a Disney film, “Whistle Stop”. Its use in the film is almost a statement of intention; after the traditional opening of the story book and a fanfare from George Bruns reminiscent of a more traditional Disney score like ‘The Sword in the Stone’, “Whistle Stop” blows away the cobwebs and establishes an entirely new sound and tone for a Disney film. Compared to the films that had come before it, the use of “Whistle Stop” in ‘Robin Hood’ is a genuinely surprising and revelatory moment.

‘Robin Hood’ production cel © Disney

Roger Miller recorded a number of demos for “Oo-De-Lally”, the first in October 1969. A number of different tones were tried, including a more country western-inspired version, but in October 1970, it was decided that Miller’s original demo would be used in the final film. It was also decided that Miller should voice the character of the rooster minstrel Allan-A-Dale, making Miller the narrator of the film. It was an inspired choice, the use of the demo and the casting of Miller adding authenticity to the country folk sound. During the restoration of the soundtrack released in 2017, it was discovered that Roger Miller had accompanied himself on the guitar during his recording sessions rather than the music and vocals being recorded separately. Even while recording the narration, Miller would have guitar in hand, improvising music as he went.

Two further songs were written for the film, the romantic ballad “Love”, with music by George Bruns and lyrics by Floyd Huddleston, and recorded by Huddleston’s wife Nancy Adams, and “The Phony King of England”, written by legendary Tin Pan Alley lyricist Johnny Miller, who had won four Oscars, one for the beloved ballad “Moon River”. In press material released at the time of the film’s release, it was claimed that the song was based on an authentic Medieval drinking song.

In a 75-minute picture like this there is about 60 minutes of music, background, underscoring and songs. This is a lot of music because in a cartoon, as opposed to a live-action film, most of the action is caught in melody. Music is much more an integral element of animation; it accents all the highs and lows. It’s a special brand of scoring.
George Bruns, composer

Despite the multiple composers, the songs in ‘Robin Hood’ have a strong consistency, and much of that can be credited to George Bruns. Now far more experienced at working with a song-driven score, he was able to incorporate the musical motifs of the songs into his score. “We used the melodic refrains of “Love” throughout the picture”, he said at the time, “because of its lilting fantasy quality. The music was light and beautifully illustrated what the picture was really about: romance.” Just as with the songs, a Medieval flavour was woven into the score, with Bruns using a number of instruments common in Medieval music for the orchestrations, including french horns, harpsichords and a mandolin. One of the real triumphs of Bruns’ score is his march for the archery tournament, a bombastic and lofty composition beautifully in contrast with the folk-quality of the songs, and he builds even further on this by incorporating two American football fight songs into the escape from the tournament, “Fight On” from the University of Southern California and “On, Wisconsin” from the University of Wisconsin.

More so than perhaps any Disney animated film of its time, ‘Robin Hood’ is defined by its music. After decades of the classical Disney style developed under Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace and the Sherman Brothers, this folk-infused contemporary approach shifted the idea of what a Disney film could sound like, opening the doors for the films to come to connect more directly with the music of their times.

RELEASE
In 1972, Walt Disney Productions celebrated their 50th anniversary, and ‘Robin Hood’ was positioned as a key part of these celebrations. During the making of the film, writer Christopher Finch was invited to document the process as part of his book ‘The Art of Walt Disney’, which was due to be published in conjunction with the anniversary. The book has since become one of the authoritative texts on Disney animation, with Finch having revised and expanded it a number of times over the past five decades.

Theatrical Poster, 1973 © Disney

Disney billed ‘Robin Hood’ as their most ambitious animated motion picture yet, and that wasn’t entirely hyperbole. For the Ink & Paint department and its leader Grace Bailey, the film had presented a number of unusual challenges, especially with a staff, at one point having reached over 200 artists, now reduced to just under sixty. “This ‘Robin Hood’ picture we’re making”, said Bailey at the time, “is extremely difficult for us because there are so many characters and they all are in costumes, not only one costume, but several, so it’s very slow painting. After we started the picture, we had a meeting with Wollie Reitherman and the Background/Layout people and tried to simplify by eliminating certain areas… but there are a great many characters, colours and areas to paint.”

Grace Bailey (left) © Disney

‘Robin Hood’ would be the last film Grace Bailey would work on at Disney, retiring in 1972. She had begun working at Disney in 1932, soon joining the Ink & Paint department, and in 1954 had been appointed head of the department. Under her supervision, the inking and painting artists became the finest in the world, and were guided by Bailey through the rocky transition of the Xerox process. In her forty years at Disney, Grace Bailey became one of the most powerful and important artists at the studio, integral to the development of the art of inking and painting and the training of the artists who worked under her watchful eye. She passed away peacefully in Florida in August 1983.

By the time it was completed, ‘Robin Hood’ had cost $5 million to produce, incorporating over 100,000 painted cels and over 800 painted backgrounds across its 1,200 scenes, and for its theatrical poster, the names of the key artists involved in the making of the film were featured, a first for a Disney animated feature. The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York on November 8, 1973, and reviews ranged from warm to indifferent. In ‘The Montreal Gazette’, Dave Billington wrote that “As a film, ‘Robin Hood’ marks a come-back of sorts for the Disney people. Ever since the old maestro died, the cartoon features have shown distressing signs of a drop in quality, both in art work and in voice characterization. But the blending of appealing cartoon animals with perfect voices for the part makes ‘Robin Hood’ an excellent evening out for the whole family.” By contrast, Jay Cocks wrote in Time that, “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.”

Another criticism that critics were quick to point out was the liberal recycling of elements from previous films such as ‘The Jungle Book’, in particular Sir Hiss and Little John, the latter of whom, thanks to his design and the voice casting of Phil Harris, was suspiciously close to Balloo. Animation had also started to shift outside the walls of Disney, with auteur animator Ralph Bashki pushing boundaries with his X-rated adult animated feature ‘Fritz the Cat’. Despite its more contemporary elements, ‘Robin Hood’ seemes safe and predictable by comparison.

These criticisms hardly mattered at the box office. ‘Robin Hood’ was a solid success in the US, earling $9.5 million in its initial theatrical run, and setting a new record for an animated film in the UK with $2.6 million. The film would only return to cinemas once in 1982, but in 1984 became the very first Disney title ever released commercially for home video. The studio at the time had balked at the idea of releasing their films for home video, concerned that it might threaten their future revenue in theatrical re-releases, so it was decided that ‘Robin Hood’, one of the less prestigious of their films, would be an appropriate test subject.

Through this and subsequent home entertainment releases, ‘Robin Hood’ has grown into a cult favourite. The music, in particular, has had a lasting impact, with “Whistle Stop” being sampled and sped up in the Boomtang Boys’ bizarre hit single “The Hampster Dance” in 2009, and Wes Anderson using “Oo-De-Lally” in his Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated film ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ the same year. ‘Robin Hood’ is also often sighted as an inspiration for furry movement which began to emerge in the 1980’s, a subculture interested in exploring physical representations of anthropomorphised animal characters.

‘Robin Hood’ is amongst the strangest films in the Disney canon, but also one of the most intriguing. Though it certainly isn’t entirely successful, and does borrow liberally from other films, its complete commitment to humanising its animal characters, its irreverent tone and its distinct musical style set it apart from its contemporaries. It is a more mature, relaxed and surprisingly political film, embracing the legendary character as one against whom state power can be contrasted. Robin Hood is wholly concerned with the plight of the fellow man, and even through the lens of Disney animation, the misuse of political power by Prince John has a strain of malice and darkness. In a later edition of ‘The Art of Walt Disney’, Christopher Finch argues that the ultimate failing of ‘Robin Hood’ is that it is “almost entirely lacking in allegorical power” and “does not live up to the potential of its subject”. It can be argued though ‘Robin Hood’ is very much an allegorical film for the early 1970’s, perhaps unwittingly contributing to the wider conversation on abuses of power and social upheaval in American culture. Perhaps more than any Disney animated film, it feels of its time because it is a part of its time, as much a film of revolt and revolution as the great American cinema that had come just before it. No work of art is created in a vacuum, and even by simply pulling on cultural references such as ‘Butch Cassidy’ and folk and country music, ‘Robin Hood’ lends itself to a wider cultural conversation. In this sense, ‘Robin Hood’ may be the most politically-minded of the Disney animated classics.

‘Robin Hood’ concept art by Ken Anderson © Disney

Despite its challenges, ‘Robin Hood’ had proven yet another financial success for Walt Disney Productions, and had also been a terrific testing ground for the new generation of artists working under the guidance of the Nine Old Men. It was during this time that a number of these emerging animators, led by a brilliant artist named Don Bluth, decided to revive a project that had been developed in the early 1960s based on a series of books by Margey Sharpe, telling the story of a pair of mice attempting to rescue a young girl. Walt Disney had shelved the project, but Bluth thought this could be a good film on which they could prove themselves, proposing it as a scaled-down “B” picture while the lead artists worked on Ken Anderson’s adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel ‘Scruffy’, about a family of monkeys during the Second World War.

However, neither film would be the next Disney animated feature. In 1977, Disney would return to the package film format, but not as an act of necessity. They had enjoyed great success fashioning episodes of their live-action television series together as feature films, such as with ‘Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier’ in 1955. Their next animated feature would follow the same path, bringing together three highly successful animated shorts, one of which had won an Academy Award. They told the story of a group of toy animals living in the woods, and of a particularly lovable teddy bear with the heart of a child and an insatiable love for honey - a bear named Pooh.

HOME VIDEO HISTORY

The 1984 US VHS release, the 2000 US Gold Collection DVD release, the 2006 US ‘Most Wanted Edition’ DVD release and the 2013 US 40th Anniversary Blu-ray.

  • In December 1984, ‘Robin Hood’ became the first Disney animated film released commercially on home video, available on VHS, Betamax, CED and Laserdisc. It was the first title in the Walt Disney Classics line. This release went into moratorium in 1987.
  • The film would be released several times from 1991 to 2000 as part of the Walt Disney Classics, the Walt Disney Masterpieces line and the Walt Disney Gold Classics Collection.
  • ‘Robin Hood’ made its DVD debut in July 2000 as part of the Walt Disney Gold Classics Collection, with the film presented in 1.33:1.
  • The ‘Most Wanted’ DVD edition, released in November 2006, would be the first presentation of the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio, released as a new restoration.
  • For its 40th anniversary in August 2013, ‘Robin Hood’ was released on Blu-ray, carrying over the special features from the ‘Most Wanted’ DVD release.
  • The film is available on Disney+.

ON THE NEXT EPISODE
We travel to the Hundred Acre Wood and meet one of the most beloved characters in the Disney canon with ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh’.
RESOURCES
  • Wikipedia on ‘Robin Hood’ (the legends and the film), Roger Miller, Grace Bailey and ‘The Rescuers’
  • ‘Robin Hood: 40th Anniversary Edition’, Blu-ray, 2013
  • ‘The Disney Studio Story’, Richard Hollis and Brian Sibley, 1988
  • ‘Robin Hood: The Legacy Collection’, soundtrack release notes, Paula Sigman-Lowery and Randy Thornton, Walt Disney Records, 2017
  • ‘They Drew As They Pleased: Volume V - The Hidden Art of Disney’s Early Renaissance (The 1970’s and 1980’s)’, Didier Ghez, 2019
  • ‘Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation’, Mindy Johnson, 2017
  • ‘Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (Popular Edition)’, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, 1984
  • ‘The Art of Walt Disney: from Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms’, Christopher Finch, 1973 and 1995 editions

In-Betweener #9: The Art of Animation at ACMI with Fiona Trigg
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh24
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