January 24, 2020 posted by Jim Korkis

In His Own Words: Ken Anderson on Disney’s “Robin Hood” (1973)

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.

Anderson (left) with Frank Thomas (right) discuss Robin Hood

“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.”


  • Ken Anderson’s views on the animated feature jibe nicely with those of Howard Ashman on the relationship between the animated feature and musical theatre. As in animation, musical theatre tends to use familiar stories, and the individual songs serve not to advance the plot but to establish character. The drama arises not from the story itself, but from the interplay between the characters and the emotions that result from it. The only point on which I would disagree with Anderson is that I would call the story line a “pretext”, rather than an “adjunct”.

    In his Animated Movie Guide, Jerry Beck was rather hard on Robin Hood. I’ve never owned it on home video and probably never will, but I’ll usually watch it whenever it turns up on TV. I find it more entertaining than a few other Disney features — which I won’t list here lest I incite a lot of irrelevant arguments.

    • I don’t think Jerry was the one that review it. I think it was someone else. There were numerous reviewers for the book (including the late Fred Patten). The initials at the end of the review usually tells who wrote it.

    • Nic is correct, in the Animated Movie Guide the entry on Robin Hood was written by colleague Martin Goodman (his initials are indeed there). But I generally agree with his one-star review.

      Anderson’s designs – and the very concept of the film – I enjoy very much. The execution of the film is my problem. This is one of the poorest of the Disney features (IMHO) – which is not to say it doesn’t have many fine moments, voice performances and memorable songs. It does. And at the time of its release, Hollywood animation hit its depths. Hanna Barbera and Filmation reigned supreme, and Ralph Bakshi was emerging. Anything new resembling “full” animation was welcomed and celebrated.

      I still recall how wonderful it was to see a new “Disney” animated feature at Radio City Music Hall. I enjoyed it at the time myself… but in retrospect, and brushing away any nostalgia, it’s not one of the studio’s best.

    • Thank you for clarifying. I remembered the review but didn’t check the book for attribution before writing my comment.

  • Remember that this was in the era when there was a four-year interval between new Disney animated features. The time was very ripe for a new Disney offering. Robin Hood was hugely advertised and many books, records, and toys accompanied the release of the film. You could not walk down the street without being exposed to the Robin Hood film in some form or other. This was the first animated feature that had not been green-lighted by Walt Disney himself. It’s also the first Disney animated feature not to include a human character.

    When I saw the film, it was part of a special showing that included also a preview showing of “Super Dad” and also showed a vintage Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip.” Special events like this were exemplary of how big a deal this film was upon first release.

    • One more observation I need to add to the above. The release of “Robin Hood” was at the end of 1973, and it came as the culmination of the Disney company’s “50 Happy Years” celebration, which carried on through the entire year of 1973. The same Christmas that saw the release of the animated “Robin Hood” also saw the release of the art book “The Art of Walt Disney” by Christopher Finch, making it a truly Disney year all around, and particularly a Disney Christmas. Also that Christmas, the Wonderful World of Disney aired its latest update of “From All of Us to All of You,” and showed generous preview scenes from the newest animated release, “Robin Hood,” which added to the anticipation and excitement of seeing the film. To further document the film’s popularity, Lucy even made reference to it in an episode of her then-in-its-final-season sitcom “Here’s Lucy.” Those were great days to be a Disney Fan!

    • And “The Aristocats” was re-released over the summer.

  • Robin Hood is typical of the Disney features made in the post-Walt pre-Renaissance period. Individual segments are great and characterization is strong, but there’s a lack of narrative cohesiveness that keeps it from being truly engaging. Character animation is some of the finest ever done – made by veterans who have long since mastered the mechanical aspects of motion and could concentrate on performance – but everything else barely rises above adequate. Not a great film by any means, but still a rollicking good time.

  • The clean-up artists appear to have been laid off sometime after The Jungle Book because the character animation in both The Aristocats and Robin Hood is rife with exposed construction lines and sketchiness. Daffy Duck should have been summoned “straight from the agency” to assist (provided he could refrain from adding duck bills and feet to the characters).

    • The “sketchiness” I attribute to there being an adjustment period* in adopting to the Xerography process. I imagine cleanup drawings that were going to be hand-inked could afford to still be a little bit sketchy, because the inker would provide yet another level of cleanup. The Xerox machine provided none, so even erasures and smudges would end up on screen.

      *a perplexingly long adjustment period! They’d been using the system for a dozen years already! And their output would persist in “sketchiness” for at least four more years!

  • Disney’s “Robin Hood” was the top-grossing film the year of its release in the U.K.

    • So it beat “The Exorcist” and “Live and Let Die”? I’m impressed!

  • Since Robin Hood is 13th/14th century legend its in public domain and has seen various adaption over the years both live-action and animation:
    I have not seen every adaption of the Robin Hood legend but I would argue that the of the ones I have seen that this Disney animated adoption is actually the weakest actually even weaker than Mel Brooks’s spoof Robin Hood:Men in tights. Personally I have always thought it was odd chose by the Disney Animation studio to cast Robin and co as animals so there is no conincident that Maid Marian not in the Disney princess line up even if she is usually ether sheepherder or as noblewoman.

    • While not a princess, Maid Marian has a better claim to that title than some of the current Disney Princesses. However, my understanding is that Disney will only include humans in their Princess line, so don’t expect to see Princess Atta join the lineup anytime soon.

  • Glad to see a mention of Keith Ward’s illustrations in that Reynard The Fox book. I picked up a copy years back on eBay and it’s worth a look if anyone has a chance to find it. The full title is technically “The Scandalous Adventures of Reynard the Fox”.

    I could see how Ward’s approach to anthropomorphism could inspire Ken Anderson and the others in that direction when it came to wanting to keep animals from appearing “too human”, but just enough that their bodies still resembled their species. We’ve seen this idea go further with Zootopia in 2016.

  • Keith Ward’s illustrations in Reynard The Fox certainly could have been the inspiration for Disney’s Robin Hood. But don’t forget that Disney artists had already done the “animals as humans” thing with Honest John and Gideon, the fox and the cat characters, in Pinocchio.

    • While true there, I’d argue it’s the continual refinement of such anthropomorphism that the artists still kept working with in the years that followed that showed how that evolution took shape. Honest John certainly looked nothing like Robin Hood’s design decades later if we were to agree there.

  • What I like to know is why didn’t they put Les Clark in charge of feature animation? Out of all the “Nine Old Men”, he was at the studio the longest (he was there when Mickey was being developed). He was doing some nice educational films at the time (including a rather shocking sex education film released the same years as “Robin Hood”, which Korkis might want to talk about in a later article) and I feel like he was capable enough to tackle a larger animated project.

    • That is interesting to note here. I wonder if Les thought he was perfect for doing those educational shorts than to work on features by that point?

    • Jim Korkis devoted a chapter of his book “Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South?” to the making of the sex ed film “VD Attack Plan”. In it he wrote that after Les Clark completed his work as a sequence director on “Sleeping Beauty”, Walt assigned him to direct educational films and TV specials, a role he held for the remainder of his career. I agree that he probably would have excelled at directing features, as he did at everything else; but in the 1970s, I doubt that anyone in the company would have had the temerity to overturn a decision made by Walt himself. Wolfgang Reitherman continued to direct features, as he had since “The Sword in the Stone”, for the same reason: because that’s what Walt wanted him to do.

      By the way, as you may already know, Les Clark animated the dancing scene from “Snow White” that was retraced for the musical number in “Robin Hood”.

    • I know, but I recalling hearing Walt was not too happy with the results “The Sword and the Stone” since he was busy with “Mary Poppins” and I guess that was the reason why he was more involved with “The Jungle Book” and try to steer Woolie on the principles on how to do an animated film (although, Walt sadly didn’t get to see the film through completion).

      Regarding Les’ animation being reused, I wonder how he himself felt about that?

    • To Paul’s comment, it doesn’t surprise me if Walt’s word was seen as “final” to these guys and it just stayed that way because nobody wanted to change anything during the 70’s. Poor Les was just stuck in his own position since he nor anyone else had any clout to argue over their standing.

  • So when can we expect a “Lion King”-ish “live action” remake? The title character could be modeled on The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Harry, coupled with a Meghanish-Maid Marian. And thumb-sucking royalty? How could it miss? You’re welcome, Disney.

    • I think that idea might be dead considering humans as motion-captured animals was tried last month with “Cats” and that bombed. “Bad Ol’ Puddy Tats.”

  • Does anyone remember Hanna-Barbera’s “The Adventures of Robin Hoodnik”, which aired as an ABC Saturday Superstar Movie in November 1972? Apparently H-B got wind of what Disney was doing and rushed their own funny-animal version of the Robin Hood legend through production a full year before the film premiered. Robin Hoodnik is a dog (the working title was “Robin Hound”); Little John, as in the Disney version, is a bear; “Friar Pork”, like Ken Anderson’s original conception of Friar Tuck, is a pig, here a wacky inventor who talks like a pirate; the minstrel “Alan Airedale” is a jive-talkin’ fox; and Maid Marian appears to be a cat with a blond afro, but is described in the Big Cartoon Database as a “female dog”. There’s a word for that, and it fits. She does nothing but nag and complain in a New York accent throughout the cartoon; but, given the regularly with which she gets abducted, tied up, and stuffed in a sack, one can scarcely blame her.

    The villains and background characters, in contrast to the Disney movie, are all human: the Sheriff of Nottingham, his dimwitted deputy Oxx, the nefarious Lord Scurvy (filling in for Prince John), and King Richard, who wears an iron mask like The Mask in the Hercules cartoons and talks like Daws Butler imitating John Wayne. Scurvy’s dog Scrounger is a direct ripoff of Snuffles from “The Quick Draw McGraw Show”, the former craving crumpets as the latter does dog biscuits and reacting in the very same way: pointing to his mouth when he wants one, then leaping straight up, floating gently down and sighing when he gets it.

    There was some venerable talent behind “Robin Hoodnik”. Charles A. Nichols was animation director, Iwao Takamoto was production designer, Jack Mendelsohn wrote the story, Hoyt Curtin composed the music, and Lennie Weinrib voiced most of the characters. But the haste of the production shows. The cartoon is a cheap, shoddy, poorly-timed, unfunny mess.

    I noticed “Robin Hoodnik” on the list of Robin Hood movies linked to in Kristjan Birnir Ivansson’s comment, found it online and managed to sit through all 44 minutes of it. The only time I laughed was when a herald blew a flourish on a trumpet, Robin Hoodnik asked “What’s that?” and the minstrel Alan Airedale replied: “C-sharp!” Why is that funny? Because the note was actually F-natural! Further proof that H-B got everything, and I mean everything, wrong here. Watch it at your own risk, but be warned: in comparison to “Robin Hoodnik”, Disney’s “Robin Hood” is a bonafide animated classic.

    • It sounds like the Parent Code was figuratively breathing down the writers’ necks at nearly every turn back then. I’m sure it would’ve been better if it weren’t for those meddling activates.

    • And they repurposed Mr.Peevely (John Stephenson doing his Joe Flynn impression !) from
      Hair Bear Bunch for the evil Lord! All it needed was Joe E.Ross!!

  • During Robin Hood’s first run, The Band Concert (1935) was the animated short that preceded it. It’s sad when you remember more about the short than the feature itself.

  • But for the full animation, “Robin Hood” came close to feeling like a set of TV episodes with a perfunctory opening and closing and some odd padding: The setup is sketched in with some dialogue. Robin and Little John rob Prince John and escape. They win the tournament and escape. They break the poor folk out of the castle and escape. Cut to Robin’s and Marian’s wedding with King Richard in attendance.

    And something that bugged me: Friar Tuck can take the comically oafish Sheriff in a fight (the buzzards have to interfere) but the action climax is Robin barely surviving battle with the suddenly serious Sheriff. Why not Robin versus Prince John, whose temper could make him plausibly scary ala Rattigan?

    As Disney Afternoon was years in the future, it would be weirdly prescient if “Robin Hood” was conceived with that in mind. Perhaps just as weird, Disney’s live action “Robin Hood” divides very cleanly into two free-standing parts long before there was a Disney hour to show it that way.

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