Sexy Foxes, Anti-Colonial Revolts: The Radical Allure Of 1973 Disney Robin Hood
By: Megan Kinch
There are many places one could choose to start a discussion on the masterfully subversive cult classic Robin Hood (1973.) How bizarrely sexy the animal characters are is as good as any. Dig around the internet and memes, tweets and commentaries abound on how the sexy fox Robin Hood and his lover Maid Marian have made us all closet furries. Where does the vivaciousness of these cartoon animals come from? As we will see in this review essay, this is one of the many elements in the film that has deeper roots than first meets eye.
The tale of Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw of English folklore, has long inspired struggles for justice. Coming out in 1973, at the height of a revolutionary era in global history known as the long Sixties, this animated rendition of the Sherwood revolutionary who frees prisoners and steals gold from the hated Prince John had unmistaken anti-capitalist and counter-culture themes unlikely to have been the intention of its big studio initiators.
The film opens with the wandering minster Alan-a-Dale, anthropomorphically displayed as a rooster whose Greenwich village folk music strongly underpins the entire film. Before Walt Disney himself passed away in 1966, there had been a talk of making a film about Reynard the Fox, an obscure figure of Dutch and English medieval fables. This was to be something of a sequel to Song of the South (1946), a now repressed racist Disney film in which happy slaves in antebellum south sing southern folk music. With the change of the setting to England and with the fox becoming Robin Hood, the use of the folk music was now progressive and tied to English cultural history of resistance to royalty and oppression.
Disney had long moved away from its racist 1946 film but with Robin Hood, its 21st animated feature, it took a true leap. Sword in Stone (1963) and Jungle Book (1967) had been technically impressive, despite the horrid orientalism underlying the latter, based on a book by the colonial English writer Rudyard Kipling. But Robin Hood is a qualitatively better film. It still relied on some achievements of those previous films, including the characters and voice actors it borrowed from The Jungle Book (Baloo becomes fellow bear John, Kaa becomes Sir Hiss.)
Despite the cult status and the brilliant breakthrough it represents, Robin Hood has not received its due place in the Disney canon. The CGI remake recently announced is going to be direct-to-streaming (unrelated to coronavirus), on the Disney’s popular new platform, unlike the popular remakes of Aladdin, the Lion King and Beauty and the Beast which got major on-screen premieres. Astonishingly, Robin Hood still has a ‘rotten’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Who’s lion, who’s a wolf?
In English folklore, the events of Robin Hood take place sometimes after the Norman conquest of England, the 11th century monumental invasion that changed the fate of the nation. The film highlights this historical background with a brilliantly light touch. The nobility are portrayed as obviously foreign tropical animals (lions, rhinos, snakes) while Robin Hood and co are either indigenous to the island or domesticated. The story of the French-speaking ruling classes and their indigenous subjects is thus narrated via the animal kingdom and the film gets an anti-colonial theme. The only exception is the sheriff of Nottingham and his men, allies of King John, who are all wolves. The sheriff is clearly depicted as a collaborating force with the foreign royalty who uses his links with the people to rob them more effectively and run counterinsurgency operations against the Robin Hood and his bases in the Sherwood forest. If Robin Hood is portrayed as a nobleman in some version of the tale, the Disney Robin Hood is clearly a son of yeoman classes, even if his girlfriend still belongs to the nobility, something of a class traitor.
The legend of Robin Hood has evolved with times, taking elements from different annals of English history. In this version, the setting is the 12th century, era of King John (1166-1216) and his legendary foe, brother and predecessor as king, Richard the Lionheart. It was Richard who fought the legendary Muslim warrior king Saladin over the city of Jerusalem, helped occupied Sicily and was captured by fellow Christians and held over ransom. It was the overtaxation (partially fo fund the crusades) and repressive overreach of the monarchy under King John that led to a rebellion by local lords and the historical signing of Magna Carta in 1215, a historic granting of civil rights which included unprecedented protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Love me like they do in Spain
This is also the era in which the historically backward northern country of England started to expands its ties with world. A most consequential fruit of this exchange was importing the idea of romantic love from the Muslim world by way of Spain, southern France (especially Aquitaine and its culture of courtly love) and Italy. This is where Maid Marian comes in; she adds to the legend elements of tragic romance and sexuality that have distinct southern European and Islamicate roots. Such are the roots of sexy foxes swooned over by many for decades.
To the student of history, the film is full of resonance. A prime example is Prince John sucking his thumb and crying for his mother while complaining about his brother Richard having always been the favorite. Anne Thériault uses the anecdote to open her fantastic essay on Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, the actual historical mother of John and Richard. The notorious but half-forgotten ‘Queen of Infamy’ is the ultimate “badass world-historical woman of centuries past” in the essay’s excellent reading. Through her story, we see how the culture of romantic love and sexual intrigues of southern European courts helped spice up English culture.
The song Not in Nottingham, narrating the horrendous prison debts, which provided the background to Robin Hood’s redistribution campaign is also based on solid historical record. Fighting against such conditions we have the figure of Friar Tuck, a medieval hero of liberation theology whose 1973 portrayal can’t be unrelated to the popularity of such movements at the time.
Robin Hood’s historical literacy doesn’t take anything away from the sheer fun it offers. The heist scenes of Robin Hood and friends stealing large bags of gold from Prince John, or the merry men running away to the liberated areas of the Sherwood Forest, have been etched into the consciousness of many a child. They are simply unforgettable.
The catchy tunes of the film have stood the test of time. Who can forget the lyrics of The Phony King of England, after all:
“While he taxes us to pieces
And he robs us of our bread
King Richard's crown keeps slippin' down
Around that pointed head
Ah! But while there is a merry man
In Robin's wily pack
We'll find a way to make him pay
And steal our money back!”
The song’s catchiness leads to it being parroted, even by the Sheriff of Nottingham himself, perhaps a veiled shout out to the subversive possibilities in cultural products. The song is clearly based on a vulgar anti-royalty poem The Bastard King of England misattributed to Kipling. The original was, of course, much more vulgar: “he sent the duke of zippy zap/ to give the queen a case of the clap/ to give to the bastard King of England.” That even a modified version of such a song made it into a children film speaks to the massive subversive possibilities of the time.
Robin Hood was an early progenitor of such children content. The following decades (1970s and 80s) saw more. Whether it was the legends of She-Ra and He-Man aimed at small children or Star Wars aimed at adolescents, siding with peasant insurgencies against imperialist forces was clearly a sign of time. Even the first few decades of Sesame Street had an unmistakable radical air and a black-is-beautiful aesthetic based on the inclusive Brooklyn street-life, Spanish-language content and figure of Oscar the Grouch, a humane homeless character. Humanism and anti-racism of Mr Rogers has also come to be widely recognized of late.
Subversion, though, has clear limits. The rightful King Richard must come back and get the throne as the more radical possibilities are denied. As Arash Azizi has written, monarchy-focused Disney films such as Lion King and Aladdin sully a justice-seeking message with establishing hereditary legitimacy and reinforcing the status quo.
Robin Hood feels and remains different even here: We never quite see King Richard and his return can almost be forgiven and forgotten. Robin Hood’s heroic quest to rob the rich and feed the poor is too strong a message for any kingly return to sully.