Robin Hood. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Walt Disney Productions. 1973.

Robin Hood, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman (Walt Disney Productions, 1973)

Here is the trailer for the ‘foxy’ Robin Hood:

This Disney animation of the legend of Robin Hood focuses on the adventures of the eponymous hero as he steals from the rich to give to the poor. Early in the film, with his friend Little John, (Phil Harris) Robin Hood (Brian Bedford) disguises himself as a fortune teller and manages to rob the sulking King John (Peter Ustinov). Already outlaws, they have a bounty put on their head and seek refuge in Sherwood Forest. Meanwhile, it is revealed that the vixen Maid Marion was the childhood sweetheart of Robin, and she will be giving a kiss to the winner of a forthcoming archery competition arranged by the king. Robin enters in disguise and obviously wins. His disguise is rumbled however, and he is sentenced to execution but manages to escape. The furious king raises taxes in his anger by so much that many of the friends of Robin Hood end up in prison. The climax of the film is Robin’s freeing of the imprisoned animals, and his near-death escape from the burning castle. Order is restored by the eventual return of King Richard from his crusade: he imprisons Sir Hiss and King John, and Maid Marion and Robin Hood get married.

As the plot synopsis suggests, the film fits into the family adventure film genre. In keeping with the genre it is an exciting story that uses both comedy and action to keep children, and grown up children, entertained throughout. It is animated in the classic Disney cartoon style, reminiscent of previous works by the same director, Wolfgang Reitherman, such as The Jungle Book (1967). Instead of human representations of the characters, the film’s narrator, Allan-a-Dale tells the audience at the beginning that this is the ‘animal kingdom’s’ version of the legend. As such, all the characters are animals, with the hero being a fox. Heroes and villains also help to place the film in the family adventure genre; in this case the villain is the snivelling lion, King John. For the purpose of my analysis of animals in the film the key feature of animated adventure is that it allows, as Wells discusses, the creative possibilities to be extensive and a suspension of disbelief is expected in the audience so you do not find yourself questioning how elephants, foxes, lions and badgers are all living in Nottingham! This idea is crucial to analysing the representation of animals in this film: ultimately, any inconsistencies in the film’s portrayal of animals are excused because of the distancing effect of its animation and place within the adventure genre. This results in an extremely enjoyable caper full of funny and endearing animal characters to revitalise a story that has been told in so many ways before. As one review said: ‘An all animal/bird version of Robin Hood? Good grief! But then, why not?’[1] which shows how the film’s genre pre-empts a suspension of disbelief in order to be simple fun.

Paul Wells argues that animal narratives ‘fail…if they do not manage to accommodate what simplistically may be called recognizably true animal actions’[2].  I would argue that although the film does not portray animals in a ‘true animal’ way, it does not fail. Rather the strength of its genre allows the film to be viewed as simply a fun family film that uses animals to freshen up the story and add comedy. If you want to add more depth to it you can make the case that the use of foxes, being hunted by regal characters may well be born out of the public opposition to hunting for sport. However, this interpretation is distanced by the intended audience of predominantly children, therefore the animation and genre enhance the fun of the rather than focus on the ability of animals in film to have symbolic political meaning. For example, there is an amusing moment when King John chastises his assistant, the snake Sir Hiss (Terry Thomas) during the fortune-telling scene and he coils himself up in such a way that it looks as though he is resting his head on his crossed ‘arms’. This is the sort of witty visual play that is associated with the genre and as such you laugh, rather than questioning the film’s legitimacy in portraying animals. Another similar way in which the film rejects true animal actions is the fact that the characters wear clothes, which is obviously not natural! However, the clothes are a device within the film for enhancing the characters of the animals. For example, Robin Hood wears the typical green hat and is unmistakeably Robin Hood of legend.   

The comedy of having animals in clothes is accentuated by the fact that the clothes themselves are often props for the film’s gags. For example the over-sized crown of King John, symbolic of the fact that it truly belongs to the absent King Richard, comically undermines his character. Another example of the clothes being a useful device for comedy, rather than a device for accurately portraying animal behaviour, is the scene in which a shuttlecock gets stuck in the overweight hen’s blouse. These two amusing ways clothes are used in the film highlight the ‘malleability and liminal nature of animation as a vehicle of expression’[3] and as such the power the film’s genre has over its audience. The fact is, regardless of how silly it seems to have animals acting as humans in every way is excusable and I think not a failure, rather it accentuates the fun of the film. Even if it is unfunny to certain members of the audience, one can then say that the portrayal of animals as entirely anthropomorphised highlights the post-modern interpretation that this renders the animal extinct, can therefore can point towards a serious reading of the film: that it is an act of mourning the loss of animals in the modern world, as discussed by Jonathan Burt.[4] In his discussion of Reitherman’s previous film The Jungle Book (1967) Wells cites Murphy and points to why the film works for me. He states that ‘animated films sustain the suspension of disbelief…[we] are viewing an animated fairytale that can play with generic orthodoxies and real world expectations’ because of its status as animation[5]. Thus the film triumphs in using the power of its genre and animated form to enhance the viewer’s enjoyment of its story.

In another review, this success is vindicated: by ‘turning legends and fairy-tales into cute critters rather than sticking with human figures…this sprightly and funny take on Robin Hood is so much more appealing…It seemed to bring out the personality in them’[6]. An interesting way of looking at animals in the film is therefore to analyse the stereotypes humans have imposed on the animals and why they may add personality to the characters of folklore. For example, the use of a fox as Robin Hood is clever because they are animals associated with cunning, which immediately adds something to his personality. Although this interpretation of foxes is somewhat cliché, Robin Hood as a character is cliché in itself so the novelty of using a fox, with its associated stereotype is a clever way to address the problem of telling a story that’s been told many times before. Likewise, lions play the roles of the kings and that is certainly in keeping with their stereotype as ‘kings of the jungle’. The use of lions is toyed with though as King John is comically without a mane, resulting in his distinctly un-regal appearance in comparison to the returning King Richard, with his strong posture and flowing mane, making him superficially and stereotypically kingly.

The King of the Jungle?

Sir Hiss the snake is a brilliant choice because his hissing voice adds comedy and personality to him as a character. Likewise, a wolf to represent the Sheriff who relishes taking money from the poor, adds all the associations and stereotypes of wolves from fairytales (such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and the ‘Three Little Pigs’) to his status as villain. The film is brilliant at using animals to enhance its story, just like it uses animation to do the same.

As my analysis has hopefully made clear, the two most important aspects of animal representation in Robin Hood are its complete humanizing of the animals and the use of animal stereotypes to accentuate the personalities of the characters. The representation can be seen as problematic, for example the inconsistency between the premise that this is the animal kingdom’s version of events, as we are told at the start, and how what follows is a story in which the animals do not behave at all like animals! However, at this point it is important to reiterate the significance of the animated genre: if you can embrace the fact that this is a cartoon designed as purely entertainment then the fact that there is an unlikely population of axe-wielding rhinoceroses in Nottingham is forgivable and it becomes a witty and fun film to watch. Similarly, although the use of animal stereotypes could be problematic in terms of ‘throwing into relief the methods by which humankind has sought to impose an identity on animals’[7], I would argue the film overcomes this through the way it is so disconnected from actual reality. The stereotypes may be there but cannot be taken too seriously as the film humanizes the animals to such an extent that actually they accentuate and add novelty to the human stereotypes of the characters from the legend on which this film is based.

The film’s use of animation to allow a suspension of disbelief is similar to a number of other animated animal films. For example, the earlier work by the same director, such as The Jungle Book. In fact, in order to save money Disney actually used sequences in Robin Hood that had been used in previous films: you may notice the likeness between Little John and Balou the bear in Jungle Book.The Jungle Book also stereotypes animals in order to add personality to the characters, such as the villainous and predatory Shere Khan.

Further Reading:

The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons and Culture, Paul Wells. (2009)

100 Years of Cinema Animation, Giannaalberto Bendazzi. (1994)

Animals in Film, Jonathan Burt. (2002)

Films Cited:

Robin Hood, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman (Walt Disney Productions: 1973)

101 Dalmatians, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman (Walt Disney Productions: 1961)

The Jungle Book, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman (Walt Disney Productions: 1967)


Burt, Jonathan, Animals in Film, (London: Reaktion, 2002).

Canby, Vincent, ‘Robin Hood (1973)’ in New York Times (November 9, 1973) <> [Accessed 22/11/2014].

Nathan, Ian, ‘Robin Hood’ in Empire Online, <> [Accessed 22/11/2014].

Wells, Paul, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons and Culture, (London: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

Word Count: 1751

[1] Vincent Canby, ‘Robin Hood (1973)’ in New York Times (November 9, 1973) <> [Accessed 22/11/2014].

[2] Paul Wells, TheAnimated Bestiary (London: Rutger University Press, 2009)p.22.

[3] Ibid. p.23.

[4] Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion, 2002) p.23.

[5] Wells, The Animated Bestiary, p. 49.

[6] Ian Nathan, ‘Robin Hood’ in Empire Online, <> [Accessed 22/11/2014].

[7] Wells, The Animated Bestiary, p.49.