Disney’s animated feature Robin Hood released in 1973 had a disjointed, episodic story with animation that often reused sequences from previous animated films.
Director Woolie Reitherman was notorious for trying to cut costs by re-using animation. If you loved Snow White dancing with the dwarves, then you must have enjoyed Maid Marian dancing with her forest friends (even though Marian suddenly grew taller in this particular sequence) since the dance movement was traced from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
If you enjoyed Baloo the Bear dancing with King Louie in The Jungle Book, then that sequence was transformed into Little John swinging around Lady Kluck. If you enjoyed the Scat Cat band from The Aristocats, you saw them transformed into an instrument-playing rabbit or a dog.
Producer-director Reitherman said this often-filmed story of the outlaw of Sherwood Forest would be different because it was “as seen through the eyes of the animals of Sherwood forest who knew Robin best.”
Those animals were designed by Ken Anderson. Animator and historian Will Finn discovered about a decade ago that Anderson’s character designs on this film may have been influenced by a modern American version of the Reynard the fox story written by Harry J. Owen and illustrated by Keith Ward in 1945 for Knopf simply titled Reynard the Fox. Anderson had been doing concept work on a never made Reynard animated feature.
What makes Robin Hood a milestone is that it is one of the major inspirations for the official birth of furry fandom around 1980. Anderson created characters whose bodies looked and moved in a human manner (but were covered with fur or feathers or scaly hide) but had an animal head. This was an easy design to recreate (because real animals move in a much different way because of their skeletal structure) in an actual costume.
The final story for the film was written by Larry Clemmons, who started his career at Disney as an assistant for Ward Kimball and eventually worked his way into doing story work since he quickly realized he would never be a really good animator. During the 1941 strike, he was let go from the Disney Studio and he found work as a writer for Bing Crosby’s radio show.
He returned to the Disney Studio around 1954 to write for the original Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland television shows. In the second half of the 1960s and the 1970s, Clemmons was the principal writer for Disney animated features. He contributed to Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound. Unlike other storymen, he wrote out the full script with dialogue and then it was storyboarded by others.
It was Anderson’s evocative drawings and the possibilities for so many entertaining set pieces that convinced Disney to proceed with the project, not the fact that it was a coherent story.
While Anderson hoped to develop each of the characters in Robin’s band of Merry Men, director Reitherman saw the film as more of a “buddy” picture in the spirit of another pair of outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so many interesting characters and moments were tossed aside.
Robin Hood was very successful financially upon its initial release, garnering around $9.5 million, the biggest box office total of all the Disney films at the time. In fact, the song Love written by George Bruns and Floyd Huddleston was nominated for an Academy Award. The film’s 1982 re-release brought in even more income for a fairly minimal initial investment.
For a little more insight into the film, here is an excerpt from an article written by Ken Anderson himself for the Official Bulletin of IATSE (a union newsletter) for Winter 1973-74 where he spent the majority of the article describing the time-consuming process of making an animated film.
However, I have excerpted some particular insights that he shared into the Disney animation philosophy that very few fans have had the opportunity to enjoy until now:
“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 the story, but a cartoon is flavored by everything that goes into it and exposition is deadly to animators. There’s not enough time for it. The story line is an adjunct to the finished animated product. It must only be part of the finished product, not the purpose of it.
“As with all our animated features, the animation process in Robin Hood was a team effort. Everything comes out of nothing. It grows out of the there. Walt Disney always said the creation of an animated feature was like planting a seed: It must be nurtured, pruned, cared for, and kept alive until it blooms.“What we are selling in animation is personality of the characters. It makes no difference how stylized they are. We are not selling drawings or paintings. We are selling each character’s personality.
“Animation is one of the most precious art commodities because it is life in shorthand, a caricature of emotions. We show feelings which are recognizable all around the world. People like animation because they like to see evidence of themselves and how they feel. A great caricature is a better portrait than a portrait because more people understand exactly what you’re trying to say. And a portrait, no matter how well done, is always colder than an animated caricature.
“Our business has much overlap, but we get good results. We try to find better, more economical ways to accomplish our goals, but we cannot, must not, sacrifice the quality of the end result. So we made Robin Hood in much the same way we have made very other animated feature. Things have changed little over the years.
“Before one feature is finished, the next is in a fairly advanced stage of planning. But first someone has to come up with an idea for a story, which will stimulate interest. I did that on Robin Hood then worked on character conception.
“While The Aristocats was still on the boards in 1968, I was exploring possibilities for the next feature. Studio executives favored a classic. I suggested the story of the roguish outlaw Robin Hood, and they liked the idea. It was timely, and it would help people laugh at themselves just as they did during the Depression with The Three Little Pigs.
“We decided to do what we do best: use animals for characters. As director of story and character conception, I knew right off that sly Robin Hood must be a fox. From there it was logical that Maid Marian should be a pretty vixen. Little John, legendarily known for his size, was easily a big overgrown bear.
“Friar Tuck is great as a badger, but he was also great as a pig, as I had originally planned. Then I thought the symbol of a pig might be offensive to the Church, so we changed him.
“Richard the Lionhearted of course had to be a regal, proud, strong lion and his pathetic cousin Prince John, the weak villain also had to be a lion but we made him scrawny and childish. I originally thought of a snake as a member of the poor townspeople but one of the other men here suggested that a snake would be perfect as a slithering consort to mean Prince John.”