Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Year of the Frog

I've been actively seeking out Walt Disney World history for around ten years now. In relative terms of the community, that makes me a little-bitty baby researcher. It's okay. Ten years sounds like a lot otherwise, but it really isn't, because it's not every day (or even every month) that something cool shows up. Probably the most significant aspect of Disney research isn't so much skill and perseverance as it is sharp observation and luck.

In 2008, Mike Lee turned me onto a Jungle Cruise mystery he'd been contemplating for a long time. I was able to put more information out there, but then out of nowhere this year the mystery was finally unraveled - twice, in rapid succession.

This is more a natural function of the internet age than anything appropriately mystical - even the most obscure facets of Walt Disney World history probably are preserved, somewhere, on some moldering obscure slide in an attic in the Midwest. The place was not obscure. Millions of people saw it in only its first two years, and they were armed with cameras, and home movie film. As more and more people have this film and these slides digitally scanned, more and more (and longer) videos are cropping up. Sometimes you get lucky. A few years ago, a snippet of film of Disneyland's infamous Hatbox Ghost materialized. That was 2011. As far as I'm concerned, 2014 is the Year of the Frog.

I've told this story before elsewhere on the site, but here we go again. At least it'll all be in the same place this time. A true Walt Disney World mystery: The Tale of the Vanishing Frogs!

In a weird way, the frogs never entirely "vanished". Always intended to accompany their significantly less impressive brethren who have managed to survive these 43 years - the giant butterflies - Marc Davis' giant frogs can still be heard  just past Inspiration Falls, although their bodies departed the place sometime around October 1973.

In the beginning, there was a concept drawing.

I've also seen versions of this where Marc wrote on the bottom "Replaces Man-Eating Plants", which at least is a tantalizing option. Now, what's interesting about the Florida Jungle Cruise is how completely faithfully WED replicated Marc's designs in the finished show:

Bottom photo: Joe Shelby

...And when it came to the giant frogs, MAPO was no slouch. The final sculpted frogs, as unearthed by Mike Lee and Dave Ensign, looked even cuter than the concept art.

So basically for about five years, we ("we" meaning the WDW internet community who cares about rubber frogs) have known that a) the frogs did indeed exist, and b) that tourists saw them, but what we didn't really have was any photos of them in situ in the park. We didn't have to wait long.

In May of this year, a mid-1972 silent reel of super 8 film appeared online, painstakingly restored by the webmaster of RetroDisneyWorld.Com. It's a beautiful watch. The colors are vivid, the shadows pop with that "Florida Summer" bright white intensity, the grain is clear and it's the next best thing to being there. Oh yeah, and the frogs are there.

It's just about three frames of footage between Inspiration Falls and the beached canoes, but there's five handsome looking frogs - two adults and three babies. Based on Mike Lee's maintenance schematic diagram, these appear to be the first cluster of frogs which appeared on the right side of the boat in the area that's currently home to a tarp and a skull on a stick.

(That squiggly thing across from the figure location is Inspiration Falls, the arrows indicate the direction the boats travel...)

It also just happens to be the spot I singled out back in 2011 as a possible frog location when I posted this 1973 Jungle Cruise refurbishment slide due to this cluster of men working on... something:

All of this was great news, but of course three frames isn't long enough to see the frogs move, just long enough to know they're there. But the Year of the Frog would not be stopped so easily. Just a few months later, thanks to a lucky eBay find by Brian Miles, a reel of 8mm footage from December 1971, showing what I can only describe as an astonishingly young Magic Kingdom, summonded the Jungle Cruise frogs yet again, for their best appearance yet:

Showing three adults and two baby frogs on a fallen log and tree stump attractively flecked with mushrooms, this frog grouping likely is the one across the river to the right:

(To anyone paying close attention at home, in this case the designation "F22" or "Figure 22" likely refers to the whole piece, ie the sculptural base plus five frogs, with each frog being designated A thru E).

Best of all, there was enough footage this time to get a taste of what these guys looked like in motion. Watch the adult frog's throat pouch inflate and the baby frog's mouth open:

As for the fate of the frogs, Park Operations VP Dick Nunis ordered them removed on the grounds of being "hokey". How these particular figures were singled out to be removed in a ride which, let's be fair, is not exactly known for realism, is unknown. I personally think they set an appropriately whimsical tone at the start of the ride which is more fantasy than reality, but what do I know. Anyway, a scene Marc Davis had designed for the end of the MK Jungle Cruise was repurposed to sit alongside the Walt Disney World Railroad, and one of the baby frogs was reutilized for this purpose:

The crocodiles are still there, but the fiberglass ambphibian has been missing for the past few years as of this writing. Let's hope it one day returns as an unlikely but still interesting remnant of early Magic Kingdom history.

Oh, and if you yourself have home movie footage of Walt Disney World, please consider getting it restored through Todd at RetroWDW's ImageWorks service. The results are beautiful and, best of all, the resulting footage will appear online and add to the growing treasure trove of material. The Jungle Cruise frogs are cool, but they're just one of hordes of early WDW mysteries which can be resolved. Thanks to international renown, a colorful local fanbase and a cadre of researchers who got started in the 1980s, Disneyland in California is very well documented and the reference material is only growing by the day. When the production team behind the recent Disney film Saving Mr. Banks wanted to re-create the look of Disneyland in the 60s, they went to fan sites like Daveland and Stuff From the Park to draw material. Walt Disney World's past is still clouded in time. So if you have the material, do your part. We can build a visual and textual history to rival any other. There may be another Year of the Frog waiting, collecting dust in your own house.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Music of the Matterhorn

When we're inside theme parks, our perceptions change radically. Things which may seem to be noteworthy anywhere else - a perfect sky, for example - become not so important, a mere backdrop to the fabricated reality. One of the sensory perceptions that seems to fade is background detail. When I was young, I'd drive myself to distraction trying to picture every detail of the parks in my mind and become worried I'd not really experienced them if I couldn't - especially the color of the sidewalks. And one of those details that seems to especially fade rapidly for people is background music.

I've noticed that people mostly tend to be dimly aware of musical genre and style inside the parks, and less aware of specific selections. In this way the parks simulate the sensation of watching films: when we see a Western scene on TV we usually hear Western-style music, and Frontierland follows suit. The mind smooths right over it. We're aware that appropriate music plays on Main Street, but most people would not be able to select song titles off a list.

But there's one exception to this, it's a background music loop that everyone notices: the yodeling music.

This may be because of sheer force of novelty. It's very rare to be in an environment in which yodeling is unavoidable, so it's the sort of thing that leaps out at you when you do hear it. Combine this with two attraction queues in which the wait was usually quite extensive - the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Skyway - and you have a situation where people are going to remember that yodeling, whether they want to or not.

There are, depending on how you count them, three or four distinct Jack Wagner created loops in this category - I call them the "Swiss" loops, and they all share a common, though largely unexplored, ancestry. Hopefully in the future I'll be able to fully explore the subject, but in the meantime let's take an intimate look at the most famous of them: the queue loop for the Matterhorn Bobsleds from 1978.

How Many Swiss Records Can You Have?

This loop comes to us through an authoritative source, which is Wagner himself - it survives as a physical reel to reel magnetic tape. It's circulated in various versions and various states of completeness through the years, the best of which was recently available through Walt's Music. "Best" may be subjective here, as most of the copies of the loop itself - which is a scarce 18 minutes and consists of polka-style music with Jack's overlaid safety announcements - is severely deteriorated. As park testimonial it's invaluable but as a listening experience it's somewhat unpleasant.

For a long time these existed as one chunk of musical material, all apparently from a single, unknown source. The one lead which existed was that one of the tracks was known to have been recorded by Fred Burri, Disneyland's in-house yodeler, and available on his record "Folk Music and Yodeling".

Thanks to Michael Sweeney, RocketRodsXPR, Pixelated, and others at MouseBits.Com, a fuller picture of the Matterhorn queue loop may be assembled.

I think the foundation of this loop is probably the Fred Burri LP, which, if I had to put money on, was probably used as the Matterhorn music in the years before the 1978 rebuild and Jack's loop came in. Jack appears to have gone to some lengths to match and complement the feeling of his selections to the Fred Burri recordings. The Fred Burri record wasn't released by Disney, but under Star Records, but they seem to have ended up with the rights somehow anyway: a Fred Burri selection was released as part of the 2005 "Musical History of Disneyland" box set.

The other two records were already in Wagner's back catalog of music due to his use of them at the Magic Kingdom in the early 70s, and both were courtesy of Capitol Records. Jack used to work for Capitol and had an amiable agreement with certain people inside the company. The records are A Visit to Switzerland and Music of the German Alps.

Disneyland - Matterhorn Bobsleds
Queue Music - 1978 - Comp. Jack Wagner

01. Im Chuchichäschtli
     Fred Burri and the Matterhorn Musicians

02. Alpaufzug Luzarner Chilby [edit]
     Fred Burri and the Matterhorn Musicians

03. At the Source of the Rhine
     Bundner Landlerquintett - A Visit to Switzerland

04. Naughty Boy Ländler
     Landlerkapelle Oberland - A Visit to Switzerland

05. Obervazer-Schottisch
     Bundner Landlerquintett - A Visit to Switzerland

06. Am Trachtefescht
     Fred Burri and the Matterhorn Musicians

07. Schi Scha Schatzeli [edit]
     Fred Burri and the Matterhorn Musicians

08. Der Klarinettenmuckel
     Alfons Bauer - Music of the German Alps

09. Schneidig Voran
     Alfons Bauer - Music of the German Alps

10. By the Bonfire
    Landlerkapelle Barner Mutze - A Visit to Switzerland

Thanks to Michael Sweeney, Pixelated, and Theme Park Audio Archives, I was able to rebuild the 1978 loop in Stereo with much higher aural quality than had previously been available. All of the edits and spacing is closely modeled on Jack's edits as preserved on the Walts Music copy.

Note that this version is slightly longer than the existing source tape copies. I had similar problems in synching up other Wagner loops for reconstruction, but both of these other reconstructions were based on live recordings by Mike Lee. This leads me to suspect that the process of transferring from reel to reel to result in the looping audio cartridges used in park resulted in a slight speed up. Or, for all we know, Jack's turntable just ran slightly too fast!

What is noteworthy when you have the entire source LP playing is how judicious Wagner was in selecting his tracks. A great deal of these 60s "Swiss" LPs consists of "Nature-Yodels", which are spare and almost dissonant to the ear. He definitely knew what he wanted, and edited the Fred Burri tracks to match. Often Fred will sing a few verses (or more) - Wagner dropped it all and got right on with the Yodeling.

Fred Burri, by the way, seems to still be around, although retired. Perhaps if you live in the Seattle area you can hire him to play your next birthday party?

The Alfons Bauer LP is an odd case. Bauer seems to have been promoted to capitalize on the momentary popularity of the zither due to the 1949 film The Third Man, and there's surprisingly little of him on his record. A more apt byline would probably be "Alfons Bauer and his 50 Friends". Regardless, the whole record is up on Amazon, split up not by individual song but by side, which is suspicious to say the least. At least nobody can say it's a bad value!

"A Visit to Switzerland" LP is made up of tracks from various performing groups, as are many of the other "Swiss" LPs Wagner worked with. In Swiss folk music, the name of the group changes depending on how many people are in the group and what instruments are used so that, in this example, a landlerkapelle is different than a landlerquintett. One way to translate Landlerkapelle Barner Mutz would be as "The Berner Bear Band".

Very little information about these artists seems to exist online, but what does exist strongly implies that Capitol was licensing these tracks from local music producers for fairly cheap, as the music was already ten to fifteen years old and had depreciated in value. Some of these tracks, recorded in the 40s, repackaged in America in the 60s, and combined into theme park loops in the 1970s - they still play at Disneyland and Walt Disney World today.

That has to be the most bizarre path to a kind of immortality on record. Who would suspect, generations later, their yodeling would be heard by millions each year - in Fantasyland?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Walt Disney World in Late 1978: Part Two

Boxes of old slides can be full of surprises. I tend to decide to purchase if the seller happens to scan an unusual view, but even the least ambitious amateur photographers of the 70s tended to take a few weird ones. Almost everyone at some point was compelled to break the flash photography rule or take some blurry photos from the train.

So I was pleased to find mixed into the 1978 slides a good number of photos of the Walt Disney World Village. Amateur photos of the Village are exceptionally rare; and while some of the most beautiful professional photos Disney ever published are of the Village, it's valuable to see another view of the place.

Each shop outside the Village had a beautiful handmade sign, and maybe the most distinctive was for Sir Edward's Haberdasher.

Behind the sign, incidentally, we can see sections of the original densely wooded parking lot. Sir Edward's was a menswear store in a very conservative style:

Here's the Empress Lilly from the boat marina. Captain Jack's sits off to the right. This photo, besides affording a glimpse of the Village Marina's old craftwork lanterns, shows how very different the effect of the Lilly once was. Situated where it is, surrounded by trees with nothing but a vast Florida waterway stretching out ahead of it, the effect is beautifully romantic. This was lost in 1989 when all of those trees were taken down for Pleasure Island.

The original winding, pastoral walk to the Lilly. Not even the waterwheel remains today.

Our lady friend returns from last week, less artfully composed. She's standing in front of the Pottery Chalet, which was a sort of housewares super store. The front area as well as a rear interior courtyard was all pots and plants. In the 80s it because the Christmas Chalet and was levelled in the 1990s. World of Disney stands there now.

Entering the Village from the Parking Lot. This appears to be the back of Sir Edwards's, meaning that's the bathrooms on the right. Originally, many of the buildings in the Village were connected by airy verandas and covered walkways like those seen here, allowing products displays to spill outside the confines of the store. The design of the Village was executed by a young team inside WED and is little heralded, but I think the architecture and emphasis on natural colors works beautifully well in the natural Florida environment.

Walt Disney World, and the Village in particular, was instrumental in shaping a stronger sense of food culture and sophistication in Orlando. In the late 60s, just about the best you could get in Orlando was Maison et Jardin in Altamonte Springs and the Columbia downtown. Orlando was a takeout-and-deli town.

Disney, simply by showing up and opening things like gulf coast-inspired continental dining rooms, the Gourmet Pantry where one could buy Kobe beef, and French-Colonial dinner palaces with floor shows changed the local food culture forever. Even today, Orlando boasts an amazing variety of food experiences. Whatever you want, you can get it, and usually in very high quality.

This is probably, more than anything, the thing that may not have happened in quite the same way had Walt Disney lived. Walt liked good food, but his limited palette and eating habits always embarrassed his cronies like Card Walker and Donn Tatum. Those guys were the fine dining mavens and they are the ones who brought that expectation with them from Los Angeles.

The Village opened the first serious wine shop in Orlando: the Vintage Cellar, where Art of Disney is now. They imported the best and brightest available to a swamp, no matter the cost. It was part of the show to the Disney people; to a nascent Orlando food scene it was a gift from God. The demand for wine at this store was so great that Disney began to offer case discounts. They hired an in-house wine expert to give weekend lectures and tastings, and they sent out monthly fliers to the "Cellar Dwellers" club, announcing new shipments and vintages - with quantity limits.

All of these things come rushing to me when I see photos like this of the Village. It's just one example of many. It's not easy to remember that Orlando was once a sleepy town like Ocala is today - incidentally, another place Disney was interested in moving to in the 60s. It was a cow town with an urban center. People liked it that way. Disney's arrival could not have been more disastrous to old Orlando had it been an asteroid.

Walt Disney World may be a cultural juggernaut and a base commercial operation, but it had ambition and beauty, and it changed people's lives. Disney may have abandoned EPCOT, but they did shape a city with projects like the Contemporary, the Village, and World Showcase. I wish Disney had those ambitions today.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Walt Disney World in Late 1978: Part One

Searching through old Disney photos and slides and home movies is often more disheartening than it is fun. Just as the average tourist often returns today with little to show than some shots of the castle, a flash photo of their group's row in a dark ride, and twenty bad photos of fireworks taken on a smartphone camera, so too were the tourists in the early days of Disney fairly uninspired.

Fathers hampered with the limitations of slow lenses and expensive film often shot only the reliable photos, which often meant a view down Main Street, maybe something on the Jungle Cruise, a monorail, and possibly one of the Magic Kingdom's many bands. You expect to get those; everything else is velvet.

What I have to share today is a rare thing: shots from an ambitious, possibly even professional photographer, with a good camera, in the Magic Kingdom in November of 1978. Not every shot is promotional-photo-worthy perfect, but it's rare to simply even see vintage WDW photography of this caliber. Our photographer had a good eye for composition and an interest in architecture, making for much more interesting viewing than your typical vacation snaps. There were too many slides to share everything, but here's a sample of the best and brightest of a remarkable, unusual document.

Let's begin with a batch of images from the Jungle Cruise.

The Gorilla Camp hasn't changed too much in the past 44 years, although there is something to be said for the stark simplicity of the scene's original propping, the simple green crates reflecting an era before the "vintage" theme was applied to the attraction. The mother/baby gorilla figure in the back left of the scene is out for repairs, giving us a clear view of the "WED SAFARI" stencil on the crate. Many of these boxes are still in the scene, now painted to look like vintage wooden crates, and of course the rear box got changed to read "WDI SAFARI".

This is much the same as it is today and, hopefully, as it always will be.

The Sunshine Pavilion with her original authentic thatch - the thatch currently on the building is dye-cute metal. It looked a bit more massive back then before the trees grew to their full height. Note some sort of refurbishment work occuring near the entrance.

I'd also like to point out the worn paint on the handrails in the foreground; visible wear and tear is not a phenomenon exclusive to the last 20 years at Walt Disney World.

The Magic Carpet in Adventureland was a tiny back alley of a shop offering Middle East goods. This was inside the "inner courtyard" of the circle of shops which made up Tropic Toppers, Traders of Timbuktu, Oriental Imports, and the Tropic Shop. In later years, Oriental Imports, The Magic Carpet, and Tropic Shop would be combined into one long store, called Elephant Tales. This store later closed to become a stock room in the early 2000s when Traders of Timbuktu was removed and the space in front of the shop become Argabah Bazaar.

This drop dead gorgeous facade, by the way, is still at Magic Kingdom, but like a lot of things at Disney today it has a giant cartoon tent in front of it.

Again, a view almost unchanged today. Notice the giant patch of fill concrete in the foreground - I bet there was once a funny story about that.

The Ancients fife and drum corp march past the original "walk inside" version of Sleepy Hollow Refreshments, back when its main claim to fame was cold sandwiches and cookies.

The Ancients doing their thing in what now seems to be an amazing number of trees. Splash Mountain would dominate the horizon of the top photo today. WDW has re-engineered the planters in this portion of Liberty Square at least three times to relieve guest flow during parades.

Two especially nice close-ups of graves outside the Haunted Mansion's original family plot. By the time I was going to Walt Disney World, these had been painted in a much more realistic stone wash and subject to enough Florida weather abuse to genuinely shock me, upon working the attraction, that they were actually hollow fiberglass.

As you can see, the 1971 originals looked less than convincing. The new set of gravestones outside the house as part of the controversial interactive queue, by the way, are all genuine stone.

Our only real view of Fantasyland today, but it's a dilly. In the background we can see how throughly forested the area was before the mass removal of trees in the late 90s. This angle also gives us excellent views of the original, much superior color schemes for the Small World tent facades in the 70s, before everything began to drift pink and purple in the 1980s.

Most interesting to me in a clear view of the cobblestone paths that used to zig zag through Fantasyland. The area is a giant sea of red concrete now and the results are unfortunate.

A terrific view of the Flower Market, Bicycle Shop, Hallmark Shop, and Chinese Laundry on Center Street. These guys are usually called the "Fantasyland Pearly Band" in company literature, but the unknown photographer here wrote their name on the slide as the "Jambayala Jazz Band".

This one is usual: it's a view of the spreading trees of the Hub from inside the planter. I'm not sure exactly what the photographer was going for here, but it's sufficiently unusual enough to share.

Our photographer took a few candid park guest photos, including one of a young lady in a hijab, and this is the most interesting to me... grandpa standing by his nephew's stroller wearing the "Youth" size Mickey ears. It's both universal and uniquely Disney.

And early morning view of Main Street, followed by....

...a gorgeous early evening view looking the other way. This framing strongly recalls early Disney promotional photos, enough to suggest that our photographer saw it on a postcard in the Emporium and rushed out to replicate it. I love the sense of the waning Florida evening light and the unstaged boy in the corner sipping a Coke.

Come back next week for a visit to the Walt Disney World Village through the lens of the same photographer!

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Age of Not Believing: Week Ten

 "The Age of Not Believing" is a movie review series tracing the history of Disney in the years following the death of Walt Disney. It covers three films a week in an effort to see all theatrical Disney films released between January 1967 and December 1973. The entire series can be found here.

June 20, 1973 - One Little Indian

That kid's face on the poster pretty well summarizes how appealing this movie is.

On February 27, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in a bid to raise awareness of their cause and protest the ineffectual American government. It was, in a larger sense, the start of a new era in the United States for an awareness of ongoing discrimination against native peoples.

The Western, the traditional carrier of the Americans vs. Natives dramatic conflict, was dying out, and even if it hadn't been, the general perception of the Wounded Knee protests as a turning point would have made the form totally untenable, except in revisionist westerns.

As it is, Hollywood wouldn't even touch the subject until the early 90s wave of "enlightened" Westerns which either featured exclusively white on white violence (Tombstone) or extended the treacly branch of peace (Dances With Wolves). Disney themselves fanned the flames by producing Pocahontas in 1995, a star-crossed lovers fantasy which just so happened to be set against the backdrop of the European colonization of North America. This time the general American population protested loudly, while some Native groups gave the film a tentative thumbs up for its message of cross-racial cooperation.

Back in 1973, while all this was just beginning, Disney was producing a low budget Western called One Little Indian. Do you think they were using these political events to tap into the zeitgeist and produce a film of lasting meaning? Nope. This is a movie where a guy gets dragged by a camel crotch-first into a cactus.

Starting in medias res, One Little Indian is a well-shot and fast paced adventure that never colors outside the lines. The film is structured as a chase, with military defector James Garner being pursued by a villain who's so poorly sketched we're not even sure why the guy goes to such great lengths to catch his prey. But this is a Western and the driven, obsessive villain has been around since the earliest days of these "oaters".

The One Little Indian of the title, incidentally, isn't so much an Indian as a kid on the lam effecting a handy disguise. There's some vaguely defined objective to his quest - he has to get to a reservation where his mother awaits - but the film blows past this so quickly it never registers as a real end goal. Meanwhile, James Garner is set to be court-martialed for refusing to destroy an Indian village; he's captured and hung but the not-Indian boy manages to destroy the gibbet and save his life. Perhaps seeing an opportunity to cut twenty minutes out of the film, the commanding Army officer decides he's already been hung once and spares his life.

This, incidentally, did happen in real life often enough, but never to my knowledge with this result. Usually they'd go back and keep trying to hang the convicted until it worked.

The real star of the movie is Rosie the Camel, the tempestuous steed Garner chooses to escape with. In what appears to be an awkward attempt to append a Disney cute-crazy animal story to a mediocre Western, Rosie gets the bulk of the better scenes and even dies in the final reel. Although One Little Indian is fast moving and never unpleasant, this conceit just plain doesn't work. We don't care for the camel half as much as the
film thinks we do. Even the poster has the camel as the star, as if the idea of a camel in a Western is inherently hilarious. These are the sort of conceptually mediocre touches that consistently drag Disney product down. "Oh ho ho, look, a camel in a Western!" "Oh oh boy, Tim Allen has a spider on his head!"

Bernard McEveety is back in his final film, and to be fair he acquits himself much better than he did in Napoleon & Samantha. Many shots in One Little Indian have a pleasantly Fordian quality, and Jerry Goldsmith (!!!) turns out a decent score which classes the whole enterprise up a good deal.

About halfway through the picture, Garner runs across an isolated farm where Vera Miles and her daughter Jodie Foster are packing up to leave on the next stagecoach following the death of Miles' husband. For an extended sequence at the dinner table, the rest of the film melts away... the not-charming kid, Rosie the camel, the deserter subplot, the need to watch this Disney movie and the entire Age of Not Believing blog series vanishes and we see Garner and Miles, two good actors playing a scene with humanity and warmth. It's old-fashioned film values that work as well today as it did in 1973. It's the sort of simple pleasures that more Disney films could stand to have.

November 8, 1973 - Robin Hood

The early passages of this review concerning the context and development of Robin Hood is indebted to Andreas Deja on his blog Deja View, which is a treasure trove of animation history and theory. I'm honored to be able to present some of his observations and material in this new context.

Robin Hood is very much the inverse of The Aristocats. Aristocats is full of good material that never coalesces into a satisfying whole. Robin Hood is a mixed bag of the inspired and the mediocre which somehow becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

I really like Robin Hood, but I'm not really sure why. It's wildly inconsistent. The story is an absolute mess. Of all the Disney feature films, this one feels the most like a Saturday morning cartoon.

Yet posterity has largely reflected my inflated opinion of it. It's the only of the Disney 70s films to be still widely watched. If you asked people to start listing Disney movies they'd eventually hit Robin Hood, well behind the major 90s hits but still ahead of something like The Fox & the Hound or The Rescuers. It's well remembered and it's one of those Disney movies that gets a new video release every few years without having to be retired to the "Vault" to artificially inflate demand.

What's more, in speaking to others about this film, I got fairly near-unanimous agreement: it was generally well liked and mostly acknowledged for not being very good. So, we must ask: what is it about this particular film that manages to overcome its limitations - and the toxic reputation of Disney in the 70s - to work, generation after generation?

We'll get there, but first, I'd like to go back in time to discuss what made this movie what it is. To say Robin Hood was a troubled production may be a mild understatement: it was a mess.

In his episode of the early 80s Disney television show "Disney Family Album", Ken Anderson describes the genesis of the idea this way:
"I thought I'd put everything together. What did the animators most enjoy doing? They most enjoyed working in the manner we did on Song of the South. Where could I get animal creatures that were somewhat like Song of the South and in what kind of a picture? Sort of a charade - a burlesque of some well known fantasy story - like a Robin Hood - ah ha!"

A great deal of Anderson's early development work on Robin Hood is very interesting. Ken worked hard on getting a variety of shapes and forms into his characters - Robin is a small, scruffy fox who is virtually loomed over by the villainous Prince John. The Sheriff of Nottingham is fat but forward-heavy and tall whereas Lady Cluck is short and bottom-heavy wide. Nearly all of the Robin Hood characters have brilliantly iconic silhouettes - shapes that define and sell their personalities.

Ken's early design for Robin has a youthful appearance: a hat too large for his head, thin neck, and long nose (he also wears pants, which the final Robin does not, because what's better than a pantsless criminal?). This early model sheet has the cavalier attitude down pat - I especially like Robin shooting arrows with his feet. In a 1973 interview Milt Kahl casually revealed that they went through eight different models for Robin Hood in the film, and three different voices - Tommy Steele, Brian Cox, and the final choice of Brian Bedford. This early version is clearly the Tommy Steele version.

Now, as cute as these Robins are, to me the champion in the film Robin Hood is Milt Kahl, who animated Robin and Marian and had his fingers in a lot of other character designs and actions as well. Milt's early passes on Robin retained Ken's youthful fox, with an effect that reminds me a bit more of a character we'd see in An American Tail than in a Disney film from 1973. To his credit, Milt fought to push Robin in an older, more handsome direction - with a thicker neck, less pointed nose, and more mature body language. Milt also went to great lengths to retain the sense of an anatomy of a real fox, which he was relatively alone in the production for insisting on. Robin Hood carries the picture on his confident shoulders, which I'm not sure the jangly Tommy Steele version could have. Milt's perfectionism saved the picture.

Equally brilliant although less frequently seen onscreen is Kahl's Maid Marian. A worthy companion of Kahl's other great leading lady - Lady of Lady and the Tramp - Marian manages to be vivacious and romantic despite remaining 80% covered in a ludicrous outfit the entire run time (if you think it's easy to draw over-dressed characters, try it sometime). Kahl improved Anderson's interesting design - which fluctuated radically between a two-eared headdress and a typical princess cone hat - by adding a virginal veil framing her entire upper body, suggesting flowing feminine hair and simultaneously handing himself a nightmare technical job of having to animate loose material flowing and shifting weight. Despite being a floating face and hands inside a dress, Marian has the screen presence of a star. Robin's festive reds and greens contrast and compliment Marian's oranges, pinks and purples. The two have real screen chemistry and are the two most accomplished and interesting character designs to hail from the animation unit in the 70s.

 As a production, Robin Hood is just plain unfinished. In the opening sequence, the animation unit hearkens back to past glories of the Walt era with the traditional "storybook" open; but this turns out to be a ruse. The book that opens is the classic story of Robin Hood - not the story that will be told - and we zoom in, past the text, towards the ornamental rooster at the top of the page. The zoom ends with an abrupt cut to an animated image, strongly suggesting that a planned transitional effect where Allan-a-Dale would've come to life on the page during the zoom was budgeted out for time or money. That's in the first minute of the film, and it's a fairly accurate summary of what's coming.

Past Disney animated films had cut corners. In 1959, Walt wanted to shutter animation production entirely in the wake of the failure of Sleeping Beauty, and the 60s films are full of small scales and smaller ambitions. But Robin Hood has an unprecedented amount of stuff that's recycled, reused, or just plain old jettisoned. The most infamous of these is in the "Phony King of England" number, which has new animation here and there but is mostly made up of action reused from The Aristocats and Jungle Book. There's a small cottage industry made up just of YouTube videos showing splitscreens of these recycled shots, so there's no reason for me to go over them again here.

(Milt Kahl)
What's interesting to me isn't that these shots are retraced animation, it's the suggestion they supply that this sequence was not intended to appear in Robin Hood at all. Written by Johnny Mercer, an enormously talented songwriter with no Disney credits until this one, it's written in a way that suggests an imitation of Roger Miller's three effective folk songs fused with a hoedown sensibility that comes out of nowhere.

"Phony King of England" is funny and effective and it peps up the end of the second act very nicely, but the actual production of the number remains suspicious, especially in light of a discarded expanded (and greatly superior) ending presented on the Robin Hood DVD and Blu-Ray. Not presented on the discs but shown in episodes of Disney Family Album are snippets of animation for this sequence, so we know it at least entered production. At some point it was then removed for a streamlined ending which reprises the exact same "is he dead or isn't he" gag from the end of The Jungle Book and jumps directly to the wedding. To me, "Phony King" looks suspiciously like a late addition to bring the running time back up from this deletion and add a song for Phil Harris. Or, a less conventionally "Disney" film was pushed into a more conventionally successful shape with a low-stakes finale and crazy song.

Maybe one of the most intriguing things about Robin Hood is its complete refusal to play by the traditional beats of the Robin Hood legend. Robin doesn't even have a band of Merry Men in this one; he spends all of his time bumming around in the forest with Little John. There is no traditional quarter-staff fight over the stream; Robin and Little John begin as friends. Instead of a disguised criminal, Friar Tuck is an actual Friar with an actual church and congregation. Will Scarlet is nowhere to seen, having been cut with the rest of the merry men. The geography doesn't even make much sense: we see Prince John, presumably a fixture in London, traveling into Nottingham to collect taxes. Then a castle in Nottingham, housing Maid Marian, suddenly seems to belong to John, as if he's based out of Nottingham. Most versions make it clear that the Sheriff of Nottingham is the local governing official and so the castle presented in the film belongs to him; the Disney version treats the Sheriff as more of a police captain, ie the Sheriff in the traditional American old west style. The film plays less like a standard Robin Hood telling and more like somebody's half-remembered, half made up version of the story.

In a way, however, Disney's alterations go far in making the Robin Hood story less of a specific historical fantasy and much more of a fairy tale, their traditional genre. Nearly every previous screen version of Robin Hood eventually becomes a story of politics; Anglos versus Saxons, rural areas versus city areas, and noble born versus low born. The Disney version dispenses with all that and basically turns the story into a Western. Robin is the good, disguised avenger, like the Lone Ranger. Prince John could easily be a corrupt governor or a congressman. Allan-A-Dale is basically just Roger Miller, voice of the people and wandering folk singer, Bob Dylan surrogate. There's even a stage coach heist. Supposedly Woolie Reitherman disposed of the Merry Men because he wanted Robin Hood and Little John to be like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the process of making this alteration, the film was successfully deformed into an entirely different generic convention. This is why nobody balks at a hoedown in the middle of the movie: it's the same old trope in an unfamiliar setting.

Pretty much the one thing that was carried over intact from the traditional Robin Hood tales is the archery tournament, and in his one case Disney's Robin Hood is very, very close to the scene in the 1939 film, close enough to suggest that somebody remembered it well or had seen it recently. The procession of archers, the disguise, Lady Marian in the box, the splitting of the arrows, and Robin's capture and escape are represented faithfully, even if Errol Flynn did not have a chicken who can double as a line tackle against rhinoceros.

Even so, the Disney Robin Hood gets up to some pretty strange capers. Remembered from the 1939 film was Robin's disguise at the tournament; the fox Robin is practically a master of disguise. Making good use of the potential for crazy outfits and weird accents, the Disney animators turn him into a veritable Professor Moriarty of Sherwood. Ken Andersen's concept art for Robin's disguise as a stork is a visually wonderful contrast between a short Marian and absurdly tall stork; the final animated form simplifies this greatly. Elsewhere, the Disney animators introduce the traditional vaudeville comedy convention of the drag act to the myth. Robin Hood seems to appear in absurd disguises and with crazy voices more often than not. Singular to the Disney version, this hasn't caught on in any other telling of the outlaw myth.

Given all of the above, why does the darn thing work at all? What makes Robin Hood more easily digestible and more popular than any other Disney film of its decade?

That simplicity has drawbacks, but it has benefits too. With the situations entirely stock, the film narrows in on the animated performances like a laser beam. Despite the myriad charms of the film, I think the performances in Aristocats are pretty weak. It's hard to remember a single unique thing
about O'Malley, for example. Robin Hood has terrific heroes and three great, unique villains in a story and setting that's just so-so. Roger Miller's opening "Whistle Stop" tune sets just the right lazy mood: Robin Hood is, as ever, just an excuse to hang out with Robin in the forest. There's no danger because there's no stakes and the arrows always miss.

There's the fact that Robin Hood is easily the most approachable of the Disney films for very very young children. It's the first Disney film I can remember in complete detail. There's nothing really scary and the storytelling is easily comprehensible. Most other Disney films put kids through the emotional wringer, but Robin Hood is lazily companionable.

In the process of extracting a narrative skeleton from Robin Hood, Disney created something new: the idea of Robin Hood as a stock fantasy situation. Largely presented as a historical epic since the pioneering 1922 Doug Fairbanks movie, Disney's version paved the way for a million generic Robin Hood stories since. Muppet Babies Robin Hood. Backyardigans Robin Hood. Veggie Tales Robin Hood. Take your pick. This is why Disney's film feels like a Saturday Morning cartoon to us today; we grew up in the wake of this vastly simplified version of the tale.

Yet really the remarkable accomplishment here is that Disney made a film where talking animal characters have as much on-screen gravity as human characters. Marian is severely underused but she has the charm and magnetic screen image of a beautiful woman. Robin Hood himself was the first animated crush of many young women. This is a real accomplishment on the part of Milt Kahl, suggesting that animation had moved beyond requiring human characters to create audience sympathy. These animated animals are thoroughly human, and thus attractive. They're the first non-human animated characters to have..... sex appeal.

And once we hit on that, we come to the reason why, in the Age of Not Believing, Robin Hood must come last: in a sea of tepid comedies, unadventurous adventures, and tedious formula, Robin Hood is, against all odds, the one film to have a genuine artistic legacy: modern anthropomorphic art.


At this point I have to break the article with a bit of a warning. I'm going to venture down a path that a lot of Disney fans try their best to ignore: the real links connecting the Disney film Robin Hood to the modern-day Furry community. Indeed, just talking about the Furry community is unreasonably difficult, given the various ways in which salacious bad press has gathered around what's more or less just another nerd subset. For several years that was one of my social scenes, and although I did not then nor do I now easily identity as such, I still have many friends who are self-professed Furries. They're not deviants, they are warm, intelligent, interesting people.

The Reputation.
I'm going to try to do this as even-handedly and fearlessly as possible. If you've come this far with this blog series without giving up, you've faced much tougher challenges. This is only about 70% as tough as sitting through Boatniks, for example. Still, this is a crucial part of Disney history that most fans try to rush past, lest the beatific reputation of their company be tarnished. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's a complex and interesting story.

It's worth pointing out, to begin with, that in 1973 there was still no truly commonly understood genre as "furry characters". Indeed, it's very hard to draw a firm line in the sand between Robin Hood and, say, Lady and the Tramp to say "this is where the idea originated". Robin Hood is still very much in the traditional "funny animal" style of Brer Rabbit or Donald Duck - human-like animal critters who could talk and wear clothes. Bugs Bunny is another early "funny animal" who is alarmingly close to the modern understanding of "furry", but then again even Bugs' early design and attitude is a rather obvious lift from another Disney film - the 1935 Tortoise and the Hare.

What can be said about Robin Hood is that its characters mostly do not resemble the strongly humanoid body types of modern "furry" characters, putting them more firmly in the "funny animal" category. Kahl fought to keep Robin's shape expressively foxlike: he has cute short legs and a long, gangling midsection that bounces expressively when he moves. Allan-a-Dale and Lady Cluck are extravagantly avian, and look and move nothing like people in animal suits. Just about the most
humanoid morphic element of any character in the film is its visual treatment of female characters: Robin and Little John don wigs in their gypsy disguises (nowhere else to we see any indication that female characters in this animal world have long hair in the human fashion). Little John also dons fake breasts. Later on we see Lady Cluck, who has an ample bosom, despite being a chicken. Putting boobs on birds may be an unlikely first, but this film went there.

It's interesting to visually compare the designs of Robin Hood with those of their nearest precedent, Song of the South. The animated character designs for Song of the South were done by Marc Davis, who had just come off several years working on Bambi trying to find the appropriate middle ground between animals and people. He went in a super cartoony direction with Song of the South, focusing on contrasting sizes and body types to create three comedy characters in a parable setting. His Brer Fox is basically a lanky guy in a funny hat with a fox head. Fast forward to the 1970s, and Davis is still more adept at anyone at using funny animals in unique ways, although this time it's in theme parks - at Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings. Of course, perhaps the link between Davis' approach and Robin Hood can be attributed to Ken Andersen who worked with Davis on Chanticleer, an aborted "first pass" at an animal-only fantasy at Disney.

Davis sketch - note "real" bear up top.
So it's fair to say that Robin Hood isn't really a "furry" movie in the strictest sense - it's still a funny animal movie, a tradition that runs through the 19th and 20th centuries very strongly. But it's absolutely a turning point, and not just because Lady Cluck had boobs or because Maid Marian was attractive. It's the first time that humanistic animal characters were used in a dramatic situation without undermining its effect.

Now, yes, I know, I've already characterized this film as low stakes and companionable, but at the very least we can say that we are concerned that Robin may not survive his leap into the moat in a way that we are not when, say, Goofy falls off a building. The animals of Robin Hood are both identifiably human and identifiably mortal. And they did set precedents. When Don Bluth left Disney in the late 70s he took the tricks developed in Robin Hood along with him. For Disney, Robin Hood was a one-off fluke and they went back to animating funny but anatomically correct animals in The Rescuers and Fox and the Hound, films much nearer the style of Bambi or Lady and the Tramp. Bluth, conversely, took the confident waggle and body shape Milt Kahl gave Robin and used it for the heroic Justin in The Secret of NIMH.

At that time Disney was still pretty much the only game in town and Robin Hood the only real example of a certain type of funny animal. In discussing their upcoming film An American Tail, Steven Spielberg told Bluth that he wanted it to be a film of humanoid animals, and the example he used was Robin Hood. Bluth begged the contrary - he wanted it to be a film like The Rescuers. Spielberg had to go see The Rescuers first, and then he agreed. It's a little known but telling anecdote from an era when Spielberg was trying very hard to position himself as "The Next Walt Disney".

Back to our main story here, The Secret of NIMH was a seminal event in the nascent furry community, as was the release of Animalympics in 1980. Hopelessly counter cultural to the end, it's hard to even find a timeline of events about the development of the Furry community, but a quick look at this useful article on the Furry Wiki shows that the community was still calling itself the "Funny Animal Fandom" in the mid 70s and wouldn't even develop the word "Furry" until the late 80s. This places it evenly paced with the development of other early nerd groups like Trekkers and comic fans in the mid-70s, and there's always been a lot of messy overlap between Furries, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, D&D, and, yes, Disney fans. We're all part of the same cultural stew.

How did furries organize enough to start developing 'zines by the late 70s and conventions by the early 80s? In the pre internet world how did enough people find each other with an interest that's always been sort of an awkward secret? Well, we can thank Disney for that too.

In the process of researching Walt Disney World I've spoken to enough people who were there and seen enough old photos of Funny Animal Fans at Disney to have gotten an idea of how this happened. First, some context. Back in the early seventies, what we now know as the Entertainment department wasn't as carefully monitored or controlled as it is now: practically anyone who could fit into one of those character suits was pressed into service at one time or another. The daily "parade", known as the Walt Disney Character Cavalcade, was presented throughout the 70s and basically consisted of whomever they could find to throw in an animal suit piling into various Main Street vehicles and heading down the street just doing whatever.  I've spoken to a woman who worked in the Tomorrowland Terrace who left twice a day to be Peter Pan in the parade; she'd run around the parade route, run into shops, whatever.

This means that anyone who was young, clean shaven, and enthusiastic could get a job at Disneyland or Walt Disney World and if if your particular dream was to wear an animal costume, then Disney needed you even more. It was a mecca for young men with a certain set of interests, literally the only place you could be paid to dress up as characters like...... Robin Hood. Furries are famous today for hand-making elaborate mascot outfits and this is the root of this part of the fan community. After all, getting a Starfleet Insignia shirt and Spock ears was no huge feat in the 70s, but where else could you actually be Goofy?

The Furry community coalesced from there, out of these pockets of like-minded individuals who found themselves doing the same thing for the same reason at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.  It's no big secret in Orlando that the city is a prominent Furry Community hub, and one of those reasons is because, them as now, people move across the country for an opportunity to get paid for wearing a Pluto suit.

(The other big component, lest I be accused of dispersing incomplete information, was Sci-Fi conventions. The mid-70s Star Trek cartoon prominently featured Lieutenant M'Ress, a shapely woman with a cat head and tail. The first "Funny Animal Fandom" APA, Vootie, showed on its cover a furry Mister Spock. Themed room parties held at Sci-Fi conventions developed into full-scale specialist events.)

This history is also Disney's history. Although Funny Animal Fans and, later, Furries, are a bigger thing than just Disney, it's rare for a corporate entity to be so heavily involved in the creation of a massive fan group. And Robin Hood is just the middle act of the evolving history of Disney's impact on Furries starting with the Silly Symphonies, on to Song of the South, then Jungle Book and Robin Hood, then The Disney Afternoon and The Lion King, to whatever the next touchstone will be. It's just one word and facet for a part of a basic art genre - anthropomorphic art - that's been around for millennia.

Looking on from the Disney community side of things, I will say this. One thing the Disney community often craves is validation. After all, Disney is often synonymous with "dumbed down", and cartoons with "juvenile". That's why you see Disney people drawing connections to fine art, or urban design - subjects which already have polite company's "seal of approval". To this way of thinking, insisting on the links between Disney fans and the Furry community is counter productive, given the reputation Furries have not just in the wider world, but in other nerd groups. But just like the views that see only infantile simplicity in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or lowbrow carnivals in Disneyland, these views are reductionist and wrongheaded. Even years after the company's ascent to successful corporate conglomerate and cultural touchstone thanks to a wave of Disney films in the 90s, Disney's still kinda an embarrassing thing to like.

I suggest that it's time the early history of the furry community and the influence of Walt Disney Productions on the notion of what a "funny animal" was and what they could be in the 20th century be folded back into the Disney historical narrative. Once we accept that not all furries are crazed sexual deviants the links between Disney and Furry become less creepy and more fascinating. Could John Hench have foreseen the world of the "fursuiting" community his character costumes for Disneyland would help create when he first sat down at the drawing board in the sixties? Could Walt?

Robin Hood and Maid Marian and the film and world they inhabit still stand tall in the Furry pantheon for good reason - they're wonderfully realized characters. The links between the film and the Furry subculture flatter the film, not demean it. The Disney Animation staff made such compelling people out of those animals that even today they can stir interest and recognition in people who otherwise have no interest in anthropomorphic animals.

Hey, it's okay, you can admit it. We're all a little Furry for Robin Hood.

This concludes the main series of posts in The Age of Not Believing. The next post on this blog will be a look back at the entire series, with rankings of best and worst films. There will also be a bonus film review - Superdad. See you then!

Phil Harris, Andy Devine, and Robin.