The film that marked a turning point in the fortunes of Disney turned 50 this month. Robin Hood is largely overlooked these days, but its significance in the context of the wider story of the world’s favourite cartoon kingdom is enormous.
Fortunes from back catalogue VHS sales were just around the corner
It was released in November 1973, a time when Disney had an apparently unassailable grasp on the imagination — and pocket money — of children in the US, the wider West and, increasingly, the world. As well as the hit movies, there was a successful TV show, a growing theme park empire, and spin-offs including soundtrack albums, figurines and dressing-up costumes — whilst the fortunes to be made from back catalogue VHS sales were just around the corner.
The run of animated films leading up to Robin Hood were Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocats (1970). The rather underwhelming Arthurian mis-step aside, these films were amongst the very best that the Disney brand ever produced.
After Robin the quality diminished steeply. There was Winnie the Pooh (1977) — the studio’s nadir for me — then the so-so The Rescuers (1977) and The Fox and The Hound (1981).
Depending on how you view it, Robin Hood was either the last film of the golden age or the first in what would be a long run of critical and commercial disappointments.
It premiered in New York in November, but its UK release date was 13 December 1973 — the day before my seventh birthday. It was as a birthday treat that I was taken to see it, my first ever trip to a cinema.
Robin Hood was, significantly, the first animated feature made without Walt’s own personal supervision. The last film he signed off a detailed plan for was its immediate predecessor, The Aristocats, shortly before his death in December 1966.
If Disney himself hadn’t had any direct involvement in the project’s execution, he certainly was behind its long, long origin — he had wanted to make a film in this vein for over 30 years.
Perhaps the decision to finally green-light Robin soon after Walt’s death was some kind of tribute. If so, it was very much a misplaced one.
His original idea had been a re-telling of the French mediaeval folk tale, “Reynard The Fox”, which was popular across Europe from the 12th century. It was later printed by Caxton and mentioned in Chaucer and Shakespeare. A feature length animation based on the Reynard stories was storyboarded at least twice over the decades but always sidelined. It wasn’t until the sixties that the Robin Hood myth was added into the long-established idea of a “hey nonny no fox” film.
It was a strange accommodation from the outset. Trying to merge the new bow-and-arrow story into the established vision of a film about the adventures of a 12th century fox saw robbing Robin bolted onto the existing vulpine hero, Chanticleer, the cockerel character in Reynard, morphing into Alan-a-Dale, the minstrel in the Robin story, with King Noble the lion evolving into the leonine bad King John and Marion joining as a second, alluring female fox.
Aside from Little John and Friar Tuck, there was deemed to be no space for the other Merry Men. Animal characters from Reynard — Tibert the cat and Baldwin the ass — were similarly discarded.
You have a chain gang of racoons evoking the Mississippi Delta … in Sherwood Forest
If merging the stories caused narrative confusion, this was nothing compared to the film’s bizarre sense of place. A dispute between writer and director over whether it should be set in Merry England or the Southern Gothic tradition saw a bodged compromise: most characters seem to hail from the American Deep South; the rest are olde English. So you have Terry Thomas of “oh I say” fame with his very English villainy cohabiting with Roger “King of The Road” Miller and his southern drawl. Rather than a Crusades-era European minstrel, the Chanticleer rooster character ends up as an apparent parody of Bob Dylan. You have a chain gang of racoons evoking the Mississippi Delta … in Sherwood Forest. And so on.
It’s also cheap looking. It appears more like the work of Hanna-Barbera (the television specialist mass producing multiple episodes of hit shows such as The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo quickly on low budgets) than a richer, more high-end Disney cinema release. Many scenes were recycled wholesale from previous sequences in earlier films — going as far back as Snow White (1931) — with new faces attached to old moving bodies, a curious prefiguring of AI.
The recycling extended to the characters, too. Little John is plainly Jungle Book’s Baloo without the charisma; Terry Thomas’ snake is Ka, also from The Jungle Book, only with the summer-of-love psychedelics toned down.
It’s the first Disney with no human characters at all — but without human stewardship, the animals seem to founder. It’s also the first whose lead character is a virile adult male (fox). This perhaps befits the sexed-up seventies, but Robin lacks the charm to carry it off — he’s no Thomas O’Malley, the swaggering alleycat confusingly voiced by Phil Harris between identical bears Baloo and Little John.
The songs are second rate. There’s no “Bear Necessities” or “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”. Instead we get a mawkish attempt to mimic the “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” love scene between Redford and Ross from Butch Cassidy — without the craft of Bacharach and David.
So in 1973, the Disney quality trajectory was suddenly steeply downwards — something that was only confirmed by the next film, the appalling Winnie the Pooh.
Imagine what, say, Oliver Postgate — the genius behind The Clangers and Bagpuss — might have made of the gentle, English whimsy of the original Pooh. Instead, Disney crushed the life of it with a saccharine sledgehammer.
Disney’s underperforming seventies and eighties seems to have been the consequence of the death of its founder. Walt was famously a control freak. His sudden absence led to feuds and power struggles amongst executives, then a faltering vision. The company was further distracted by these new income streams from those theme parks, TV shows and merchandise away from its core product, animated feature films. They struggled to adapt to shifts in technology as well as did, say, Pixar — the disruptor that Disney would collaborate with and eventually take over.
Disney would only finally regain its stride — and some decent box office — with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, which heralded a new run of nineties hits: The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahantas, Aladdin.
But back to Robin Hood. That debut trip to a cinema as a seventh birthday treat came at the now demolished Classic in Tunbridge Wells. With nothing to compare it to, I consumed it uncritically.
Returning to Robin Hood now, I can only regret that my parents weren’t more adventurous — and didn’t take me to something that would prove more enduring from 1973: Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist or The Wicker Man, say. None of those are quite as horrifying as Robin Hood is, when revisited 50 years on.
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