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Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic’s Art: Taking the Heat

This month Dr. Toon advises aspiring critics on how to dish it out - and how to take it.

One of the favorite pastimes of my early college days was reading what other critics had to say. Since I aspired to be one, it was always interesting to read their reviews on a variety of arts, because there is nothing like learning from professionals. There was no Internet in 1974, so I spent hours at the university library magazine archives pulling stacks of back issues and rifling through them for music, film, and theater reviews. Each one gave me some idea of how I was developing as a critic by allowing me to compare my opinions and tastes to others while I strove to develop a style of my own.

© 1973 - Walt Disney Studios. All rights reserved

On one cold day in November, I came across an incredible music review from 1967. Although I disagreed with it wholeheartedly, it taught me a very important lesson about becoming a critic. The review was memorable, but the reviewer, alas, was not. I can’t recall the gentleman’s name, but he stood alone against the most popular and transformational band in history. In fact, he handed down a scathing review of perhaps their most important album, one that radically changed the development of rock music. This man totally trashed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I repeat: gave two big thumbs down to Sgt. Pepper.

So, what can aspiring animation critics learn from this? One, you must have considerable courage to do what you do. Thousands (millions in the digital age) may well call you an idiot, a fool, or even (as I was of late), “a demented monkey”. Someone out there is going to disagree with you so vehemently it will sound as if you murdered their firstborn. I can tell you only one thing with certainty about the music critic described above – even with the judgment of history against him, he never regretted that review. He may draw snickers of disdain to this day, but he did what he believed in and what he was paid for.  This, my aspiring critics, is your job.

In the summer of 2003 I was asked by animation historian Jerry Beck to join his team of five contributors in writing The Animated Movie Guide. Jerry asked me to evaluate and critique the Disney films from Snow White through Home on the Range, a plum assignment indeed. When the book finally went to print, it stirred some controversies among animation fans. The one I was involved in was an instructive experience and a milestone in my career as a critic. You see, if one looks at all the Disney films in retrospective, one of them has to finish at the bottom of the pile. One did.

I have never liked the question (and neither will you), “What do you think was the worst animated feature ever made? Like Tolstoy’s families, each unhappy one is unhappy in its own way. Not only that, any feature released after your choice has the potential to surpass it. The best I can give is a list of candidates, and I may not even feel the same way about that list from month to month. When asked to give readers and audiences my opinions about the Disney manifest, I put Robin Hood (1973) in the birdcage-lining category.

Let me stress that I do not hate Robin Hood, at least not in the way that I hate the unquestioned Disney stinker Chicken Little. Robin Hood is simply an incompetent film by Disney standards, flawed in far too many places to work as an animated feature. I came to this conclusion after multiple viewings, comparison with other features both contemporary and past, and examination of the movie using critical skills I worked hard to develop over forty years of watching animation of all stripes. That, after all, is what will allow you to make your stand, unpopular though it may be. It is never enough to say that a movie sucks; anyone who buys a ticket can do that. Your job will be to articulate your opinions and back them up in a learned and observant way based on your knowledge and experience. It’s how you learn to take the heat.

Should you type : “You Suck, Martin Goodman” into Google, you may yet come across a blog by furious animation fans who rushed to rescue of Robin Hood like Errol Flynn on a white steed. One among them was so vehement that he actually defended one of the film’s most unforgivable failings, the reuse of animation from Snow White and The Aristocats. I am not by any means going to defend my critique; I offer this column to aspiring animation critics who will inevitably face withering responses for doing what they are expected to do. Now, there are occasions and situations where I have been known to suck, but this review was not one of them.

I was inclined to give Robin Hood more than a bit of slack. The movie was more or less in production since the 1950s as a proposed combination of folk tales, one featuring Reynard the Fox and another spotlighting Chanticleer the Rooster.  Story man Otto Englander suggested to Walt Disney that Raynard be portrayed as a hero similar to Robin Hood. The project eventually retreated to the dusty archives until revived by Ken Anderson in the early 1970s. The decade, with few exceptions, was a nadir for American feature animation. The Disney Studio, like most of its competitors, was in a creative slump.

Compounding the problem was the absence of Walt himself. Robin Hood was directed by Woolie Reitherman, a venerable studio veteran but a not an overly talented director. Having Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery and Eric Larson on board (not to mention a young Don Bluth) should have elevated the film to a much higher level, but as I wrote:

“Given the talent that went into the making of this picture and the funds available, there is no excuse for this shoddy, half-hearted effort.”

Strong words? Certainly. Fair words? That’s what you will have to believe if you truly want to do this work. Now your job is to say why you might think that way. We know that one of the traditional strengths of the Disney Studio is story. Yet, that is what seems to be lacking in Robin Hood. There is nothing integrative in the script, which is highly episodic until late in the story:

“To begin with, there is basically no plot to the film, merely vignettes in which Robin Hood outwits the bad guys…The only segment approaching a plot concerns the rescue of Friar Tuck and the people of Nottingham during the final part of the film.”

It can be argued that the original tales of Robin Hood (if he existed) are also episodic, but in order to tell a story in 83 minutes, it’s probably best to highlight and adapt one of the tales and fashion a script around it; after all, this worked fine when Disney adapted Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in 1967 (a film that Walt was still somewhat involved with). When story is weak, you have only animation and characters to fall back on. Unfortunately, character is another component lacking. Not only is Robin a rather bland hero, other major characters are derivative, reused, and in the case of the villains, unworthy foils:

“Phil Harris once again portrays Baloo the Bear, who has ended up in Merrie Olde England along with his companion from The Jungle Book, Kaa. In this film Baloo is called Little John. Kaa is named Sir Hiss…but the character and design are virtually the same. Sir Hiss even has Kaa’s hypnotic powers, which are never used even once against Robin or his allies. All of the villains, in fact, are so clownish, hapless, and unbelievable that we never accept that Robin is in any danger.”

This trick only works if viewers have never seen The Jungle Book. For those who have, these characters represent only the bankruptcy of Disney imagination. Would it have been so difficult to create new characters rather than recycle ones from six years ago? If Disney intended to use a stock company, why not put Shere Khan in the role of Prince John? If Disney did not, the lack of creativity bespeaks the sparse effort put into this film. The same can be said for the previously mentioned reuse of animation from different Disney films:

“Worst of all, the animation actually retraced scenes from prior Disney films…a device seen only in the shoddiest of Saturday morning animation.”

The blogger who vented his anger averred that the move was economic; Dr. Toon isn’t buying. The Disney empire was far from broke in 1973 and could have afforded much better effort. As if the failings of this film thus far are not enough, other inconsistencies help sink an already foundering vessel:

“Some of the characters, notably the Sheriff of Nottingham, are given voices that seem to come from rural Arkansas, and much of the music and score is far more mod than madrigal.”

One area where I am inclined to back off, and not by much, was my assessment of the animation:

“The animation in much of Robin Hood is frankly terrible; virtually everything animated in long shot is poorly done. One sequence, in which animal children play in the forest prior to meeting Maid Marian, is so sloppy and careless it is impossible to believe that Disney artists worked on it.”

I freely confessed that the “Most Wanted” restored DVD edition had not been released at the time of the writing, and it is possible that said edition had superior clarity to the DVD I viewed. However, the scene remains as described; Disney’s B-team could likely have delivered a livelier effort.  In the end, I refer again to the beginning of my review:

Robin Hood is a strong and nearly uncontested candidate for last place among the studio’s animated features. Given the talent that went into the making of this picture and the funds available, there is no excuse for this half-hearted, shoddy effort.”

Robin Hood was made during a time of enervation and was perhaps the natural result of creative entropy at the studio.  It was preceded by The Aristocats (1970), a weak film in the Disney canon, and followed by The Rescuers (1977), a movie with a stronger pulse, but still no classic. (The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh, released earlier in 1977, was basically a compilation film).  Woolie Reitherman directed them all, and as stated before, was far from the surest feature director in the studio’s history. It would have been hard for any Disney film to achieve tremendous success in 1973, so I have to accept Robin Hood within its historical context. Unfortunately, that does nothing to change my judgment.

The bloggers who blasted me may have very fond memories of this film. Perhaps it was their introduction to the Disney canon, or stirs up memories of snuggling in a blanket at the drive-in with Mom and Dad, soda pop in hand. There are also those who believe Disney films to be sacrosanct, somehow above criticism. They may even see their defense of the movies as patriotic, a defense of the American (and capitalist) way of life. Or, more likely, they believe that Robin Hood was an exceptional film bereft of flaws and problems. They are entitled to this point of view, and in truth, I have done nothing to rob them of that.

What, then, have I done? The very same thing I ask of you future critics, journalists, writers, and pundits to do. Use your critical eye, your knowledge of animation history, your analytical skills, your convictions. Join them to your love of the animated medium. Be fearless, honest, and forthright with your readers. Believe in what you write, just as the lonely critic of the Lonely Hearts Club band did.

I am not claiming that my review of Robin Hood is “right”, only that it was done in a heartfelt manner using the ingredients listed above. I implore you to do the same. Only then will you be able to stand bravely in the critic’s shoes and be able to withstand the heat.

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Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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