It was a challenging, uncertain time when many were looking for guidance, knowing there had to be better days ahead.
It sounds like a brief description of the backdrop for Disney’s 21st animated feature, Robin Hood (celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall), but it could also describe the Disney studio in the 1970s.
During this time following the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the artists who worked closest with him on the studio’s most famous and classic films looked to steer animation forward or, at least, keep it afloat during a very uncertain time.
Walt’s vision touched so many projects for the Company, from film to TV to theme parks, that, without his guidance, many struggled with what to do next.
During this time, Robin Hood surfaced as an idea for an animated feature. Disney had already made a film based on the character before with 1962’s live action The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, but this version would be different.
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Disney’s animated spin on the legend would feature an all-animal cast. It was an idea that, according to author John Grant, in his book, Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters: From Mickey Mouse to Aladdin, could be “traced back a very long way indeed – right back to the 1930s. Around the time of Snow White, Walt became interested in the possibilities of basing an animated feature on the 12th-century legend (as revamped by Goethe and numerous others) of Reynard the Fox.”
The stories of Reynard focused on the cunning fox who deceives and outsmarts other animals in a kingdom ruled over by a selfish lion.
Disney legend, artist Ken Anderson worked on Reynard for several years, as did another legend, animator Marc Davis, who created beautiful Reynard character designs featured in Charles Solomon’s 1995 book, The Disney That Never Was.
Unfortunately, Reynard languished at the studio and was never produced. Still, Anderson merged his story and character ideas of a sly fox in a kingdom of animals when Robin Hood was given the “green light” at Disney in the late ‘60s.
Anderson created character design and artwork that would inform the film. The initial idea was to set this version of the famous tale in the deep South, but it was decided to go with the more familiar English Sherwood Forrest backdrop.
Robin and his band of Merry Men (or, as the posters at the time called them, the “Merry Men-agerie!”) attempt to bring happiness back by outwitting the whimpering villain Prince John, who has taxed the “heart and soul out of poor people of Nottingham.”
Not only was the cast filled with almost every animal, but almost every popular TV and movie personality at the time, who provided the voices.
Robin Hood the Fox, was noted British actor Brian Bedford after the initial casting of Tommy Steele (who had starred in Disney’s live action The Happiest Millionaire) didn’t pan out. Little John the bear (seeming to be a very distant relative of The Jungle Book’s Baloo) was Disney stalwart Phil Harris; the rooster narrator Alan-a-Dale was popular country and western singer Roger Miller, who also wrote several of the film’s songs; the raspy sidekick of many westerns, Andy Devine gave voice to Friar Tuck, a badger; and actresses Monica Evans and Carole Shelley (who had provided the voices for the geese in The Aristocats) were Maid Marian, a fox and Lady Cluck, a chicken, respectively.
As a triumvirate of standout comedic villains, the twangy-voiced comedian from TV’s Green Acres, Pat Buttram, was the Sheriff of Nottingham, a burly wolf, Oscar winner Peter Ustinov, was brilliant as Prince John, the cowardly lion with British comedian Terry-Thomas as his sidekick, the snake Sir Hiss (and the character was given the comedian’s trademark gap teeth).
In their book, The Disney Villain, legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who both worked on Robin Hood, wrote about the influence that Ustinov’s vocal performance had on his character:
“The incomparable actor Peter Ustinov created a completely new Prince John who was even more neurotic, but dangerous because he was the ruler and not bright enough for the job.”
During its production, Robin Hood went through a number of changes. Initially, the Sherriff of Nottingham was designed as a goat and looked like a Southern sheriff. An unused version of the film’s finale featured Prince John and Sir Hiss tracking a wounded Robin Hood and even attempting to murder him. There was another deleted sequence where Prince John sends bogus love letters via carrier pigeon to Robin Hood and Main Marion in an effort to trap them. The storyboards of both sequences are available on the Robin Hood extras on Disney+.
The songs in Robin Hood were a mixture of those written by Roger Miller, such as the earworm “Whistle Stop,” as well as “Oo-De-Lally,” and “Not in Nottingham,” as well as Johnny Mercer (of “Moon River” fame) who penned “The Phony King of England” and there was also the Oscar-nominated ballad “Love,” by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns.
Reportedly, Louis Prima wanted to be part of the cast so badly that he recorded his own album for Disneyland Records entitled “Let’s ‘Hear’ it for Robin Hood,” featuring songs from and inspired by the film. For more on the music of Robin Hood, check out Greg Ehrbar’s 2017 article.
Robin Hood was released on November 8, 1973, with tremendous fanfare. The film opened at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, playing with the famous Christmas Show featuring The Rockettes.
Many critics weren’t kind to the film. Jay Cocks wrote in Time Magazine: “…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 the sort of visual invention that made the early features so memorable.”
Despite this, Robin Hood was a success, with a box-office take that was a Disney record at the time. Also, during its initial release, the film came with a tremendous wave of merchandise, including board games, lunchboxes, comic books, storybook record albums, and more.
In 1984, Robin Hood was the first released film when Disney debuted the “Walt Disney Classics” VHS line, where they looked to begin bringing many of their animated features to home video.
Since then, Robin Hood has become beloved by those who grew up with the film in the 70s and those who watched it repeatedly on VHS.
The film has also inspired a generation of filmmakers, including director Wes Anderson, who included the song “Love” in his stop-motion animated feature, The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and director Byron Howard, who cited Robin Hood as a major influence for his 2016 Disney feature, Zootopia.
Fifty years later, Robin Hood, produced at that uncertain time at Disney and dismissed by a number of critics, has developed quite the audience, and still elicits warm, nostalgic feelings from multiple generations. For many, when it comes to the film, as the main characters themselves might say: “Oo-De-Lally!”