Over the last few weeks, my daughter and I have been slowly working through the Disney movies that are available for streaming on Netflix. I’m not sure about the business details of that arrangement, which I can only assume involved some protracted negotiations, but Disney’s conservative approach to its back catalog leads to an intriguingly skewed sample set. It’s reluctant to give unlimited access to its most lucrative plums, so the selection includes neither the masterpieces of the first golden age, like Snow White or Pinocchio, nor the heights of its late renaissance, like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Instead, it gives us the movies that fell through the cracks: lighter fare, much of it from after Walt Disney’s death, like The Aristocats or The Rescuers, or the movies that the revitalized studio continued to produce after the bloom had gone off the rose, like Hercules or Treasure Planet. And although my daughter seems equally happy with all of it, as an animation buff, I’m most interested in the way the result amounts to an accidental canon from a parallel universe. As viewers of the excellent documentary American Experience: Walt Disney can attest, the studio’s history consisted of alternating periods of boom and bust, and watching the movies on Netflix is like experiencing that legacy with most of the high points removed, leaving the products of the years when money was scarce and the animators were forced to work under considerable constraints.
In his indispensable book Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards, the historian John Canemaker says this about that era:
After Walt died in 1966, story took a backseat to animation at the Disney Studio. In films such as The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound, the animators brought new degrees of subtlety to the characters’ personalities and relationships. But the stories, concocted solely by storyboards that were mainly contributed to by a committee of animators, were weak and almost an incidental backdrop to the often bravura performances. Observing fine animators going through their dazzling paces in second-rate vehicles was likened by one pundit to watching great chefs make hot dogs.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston make much the same point in Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life:
The interrelationships of these characters were of particular importance in Robin Hood, because the story was secondary to the characters. There was no real suspense in Prince John’s many attempts to catch Robin. They are showcases for the histrionics of the two villainous actors who become richer and more entertaining as the picture progresses.
This goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar appeal of Robin Hood, which remains one of the most beguiling works in the whole Disney canon, as well as the movie that my daughter and I have ended up watching the most. Its reduced budget is painfully apparent, with animation and character designs repurposed from other projects, reused from elsewhere in the movie, or simply flipped and repeated. Much of the writing feels like the work of animators more accustomed to thinking in terms of isolated character poses and bits of business than considering the story as a whole, leading to the kind of crude, obvious gags and tricks that we find even in Winnie the Pooh. And the story suffers from a manifest indifference, verging on boredom, toward Robin Hood and Maid Marian: Disney has always been better at evil than at good, and it’s particularly evident here. But the evil is truly delicious. The pairing of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and the British comic Terry-Thomas as Sir Hiss—both playing wonderfully within type—still makes me laugh with delight. And the rest of the cast is stocked with the kinds of dependable character actors that Disney used so capably: Phil Harris, Pat Buttram, Ken Curtis, George Lindsey, Andy Devine. (You could write an entire dissertation on the evolving pool of talent that the studio employed over the years, from vaudeville and radio pros like Ed Wynn through the television stars of the seventies through the Second City and single-camera sitcom alumni that make up the cast of a movie like Inside Out.)
And it’s still oddly charming, especially in the songs that Roger Miller contributes as the Rooster: if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably got “Whistle-Stop” running on a loop through your head right now. (There’s something undeniably shrewd in the way the studio outsourced the music to different writers, with Miller’s novelty country numbers sharing screen time with “Love” by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns and Johnny Mercer’s “The Phony King of England.”) It’s a cut below the classics, but luckily, we don’t need to take it in isolation. When we’re in the mood for a movie on which the studio lavished all its resources, there’s always Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty, but there’s also something engaging about the sheer roughness of Robin Hood, cut corners and all, which is as close as Disney ever got to the actor’s performance passing through the pencil sketches to end up almost intact on the screen. It all feels like the result of a private huddle between the animators themselves, and they weren’t afraid to poke fun at their own situation, as Thomas and Johnston note:
The subtler shadings of [Sir Hiss’s] personality were based on real experience. Occasionally, over the years, there had been men at the studio who in their determination to please Walt did a fair amount of bowing and scraping…Suddenly there was a place to use these observations as our cartoon character matched the reality of human actions. “Now, what was so funny about the way those guys did it?”
Now that Disney is an entertainment juggernaut once more, I doubt we’ll ever see anything as unvarnished and vital again. And as much as I love Frozen, I also miss the spirit that we find here, with Robin Hood himself—in the form of Walt—gone from the forest, and a ragtag group of merry men doing their best in his absence.