Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic’s Art: Taking 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.”