November 8, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of Disney’s animated classic Robin Hood. The film is a retelling of the English legend, with the familiar figures reimagined as anthropomorphic forest animals (and a few rhinos and lions thrown in for good measure). Filmed on a budget of about $5 million, Robin Hood brought in a respectable $33 million at the box office—making it significantly more profitable upon release than Pinocchio, Fantasia, or Dumbo, and on par with its contemporaries The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocats (1970).
Despite its initial success, Robin Hood is most notable today for its influence on the furry community. Its appeal for this particular subculture is obvious to anyone who has internet access (the same goes for the more recent “furbait” film Zootopia). Brian Bedford’s Robin Hood is a gentle English rogue with “come hither eyes” and a quiver that doesn’t quit. The undeniable hotness of this figurative and literal fox, who struts throughout the film with wanton, pantless abandon, no doubt triggered countless “appetites” in the last half-century. Oo-de-lally.
So why hasn’t Robin Hood received the same respect and adoration as other animated films from this period? The answer is complicated. It’s a messy story of shifting corporate strategy, a recession, and high expectations. It’s a case of bad timing. And it’s the first real casualty of the Disney Dark Ages.
The Beginning of the Disney Dark Age
The “Disney Dark Age,” or the “Disney Dark Era,” is the unofficial fan term for the period between 1970 and 1988 for Walt Disney Productions. The name actually holds a double meaning: typically, when people refer to this “dark era,” it’s in reference to the relative instability and turbulence of the time. Whereas the “Disney Renaissance” (1989 to 1999) saw a period of unprecedented critical and financial success for Walt Disney Feature Animation, the preceding years saw quite the opposite.
But the “Disney Dark Era” can be taken literally too. This was a period when the studio was really experimenting with darker, more mature themes and ideas—best illustrated by The Black Cauldron (1985), as well as the studio’s first-ever PG-rated film, The Black Hole (1979). This makes sense. Hollywood was in the midst of a major shift. The Production Code Administration, which had such a tight hold on the American film industry since its inception in the ’30s, died a slow death in the ’60s, being replaced by the MPAA rating system. The newfound freedom resulted in a surge of creativity and experimentation, known as New Hollywood or American New Wave. This period gave us Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Godfather (1972), and even The Exorcist (1973).
The Death of Disney
While mainstream Hollywood was redefining itself, Walt Disney Productions was experiencing its own identity crisis. Walt Disney died in 1966. (The same year Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dealt a fatal blow to the Production Code. Coincidence? Yes.) His brother, Roy O. Disney, deferred his retirement to oversee the completion of his brother’s final passion project: the experimental city of the future planned for Florida. This would eventually become Walt Disney World—less of a progressive community, and more of a family-friendly resort.
Roy never would retire from the company he had co-founded 48 years prior; he died on December 20, 1971, just two months after WDW’s official opening. This left Walt Disney Productions without either of its founding members to lead the company through the changing expectations of the American public. What’s more, the high-level execs were dealing with the growing theme park business and had the company’s entertainment segment focusing mainly on live-action films (which were more bankable). This uncertainty would inevitably lead the company down some dead-end roads, with production on The Black Cauldron in particular being so chaotic—and so expensive—it put the animation department’s future into question.
So what does this have to do with Robin Hood?
Robin Hood has the distinction of being the first major animated film produced without any involvement from Walt Disney (who was involved in a different adaptation of this source material: 1952’s The Story of Robin Hood, a live-action RKO co-pro). Other films from this period, like The Jungle Book and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), were in development for such a long period of time that Walt had some involvement in shaping the narrative—even 1977’s The Rescuers, which began under Walt in the ’60s, before he shelved the project due to its political undertones.
Even in his later years, Walt lent his considerable gift for storytelling to developing projects. His not having any involvement in Robin Hood whatsoever did not bode well for the film. One of the characteristics of the Disney Dark Age is that the leadership was trying to make decisions based on what they thought Walt would have wanted—but as legendary Disney animator Ward Kimball said in a 1996 interview, Walt was hard to predict. This strategy would prove ineffective. Playing it safe was in reality not a safe choice: In the case of Robin Hood, the resulting story felt weak, derivative, and conventional compared to the groundbreaking work in previous Disney animated features.
Adding to the film’s problems is its reputation as a “cheap” Disney film. Today’s conversations about Robin Hood (Furry culture aside) often involve references to recycled animation. Even though the film was actually more expensive than The Jungle Book, and was praised by some critics as a “return to form,” that’s not how the film’s been remembered. Perhaps this is because Gene Siskel famously panned Robin Hood, derisively comparing the visuals to “a series of flash cards” and “Saturday morning cartoon TV stuff.” Or maybe it’s because the film doesn’t have a banger on par with “The Bare Necessities” or “Everybody Wants To Be A Cat.” Either way, Robin Hood isn’t considered on the same level as other, more technically daring, animated Disney films—which is a shame, because the artwork on display has its own unique charm.
Furry or not, we can all be hot for Robin Hood
Robin Hood is one of Disney’s most under-appreciated gems. The dismissal of Robin Hood as a “lesser” Disney animated feature ignores the unique appeal offered by this charming ’70s-era text—and no, I’m not just talking about the crooked fanged grin and voluptuous vulpine tail.
Robin Hood remains one of the better interpretations of the beloved English folk tale, holding its own against Errol Flynn’s iconic portrayal in Warner Bros’ 1938 swashbuckling adventure (sorry, Russell Crowe). A fox is the perfect animal to represent the playful, cunning, and brave outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor—the animal is a trickster figure. And although less outright predaceous than its cousin the wolf, this member of the Canidae family still has fangs. That slight hint of danger, hidden behind a cuddly, welcoming exterior, is all part of the allure.
So on this 50-year anniversary, go give Robin Hood your love. The 83-minute feature combines comedy, action, and romance, delivering a story that is equal parts exciting, funny, and heartfelt. It tastefully pays tribute to the previous iterations of the story while forging its own unique voice as a distinctly kid-friendly take. It’s a light-hearted yet thoroughly enjoyable outing that promotes rebellion, community, and loyalty—and you don’t need a fur suit to appreciate that.