We reach our fourth era of animated Disney history here in the Great Disney Reel Rumble Retrospective. We head boldly into the Bronze Age, tackling its first two films as Walt Disney Animation Studios wrestled with the loss of its titular visionary and where to go next.
The Bronze Age, also known as the Modern Age or even the more drastic Dark Age, ran from approximately 1970 to 1988 and is defined by the loss of Walt Disney himself. Without the company’s leader, others were left to pick up the pieces in the animation department and someone else had to make the calls on where the films would go. Naturally, this led to a great deal of experimentation. While experimenting is not a bad thing in and of itself, this period of trial and error resulted in a number of duds for Disney and is considered an era of decline for the department.
The studio strayed away from fairy-tale stories in this period. As in the Silver Age, xerography was the main animation style as hand-inked films were all but abandoned. It may have saved time and money, but it resulted in those dark, scratchy lines previously mentioned in this series, and they are very noticeable throughout the Bronze Age.
There was an overall lack of ambition with the stories as well. Big themes of love and virtue and magic were abandoned as films tackled a lighter tone and simpler stories. Many of these films have fallen by the wayside as a result, though perhaps unfairly. A few are still classics in the minds of fans, and they do have aspects to be remembered and appreciated. But at the time, only two of the films could be considered commercial and critical successes, and one was considered a great flop.
There was a general attitude that without Walt, these movies were just a money-grubbing enterprise to keep the idea of Walt Disney Animation alive and keep dollars flowing in. As a company Disney largely focused on theme parks and live-action films, which didn’t help diminish this idea.
The opening film of this era is The Aristocats. This film can trace its origins back to early 1962. Walt had tasked a few of his workers with finding some ideas for their live-action show, Wonderful World of Color, and one of them found a children’s book about a mother cat and her kittens lost in New York City. They decided it would make for a good two-part episode. With the recent success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was set in London, the team decided to transpose the story to Paris to add a little foreign flair.
A series of rewrites occurred, resulting in the story going through several iterations. Initially the story began as a competition between a butler and maid to eliminate the cats that were inheriting from their mistress. Boris Karloff and Francoise Rosay were in strong consideration for these roles. This script, however, was rejected by an unknown Disney executive in August 1962. The writers took it directly to Disney afterwards, and Walt himself approved it.
Cuts continued to be made, and the project was shelved for a time. It had to wait while production on The Jungle Book became a priority. Once director Wolfgang Reitherman learned of it, he suggested it as the studio’s next film, and Walt approved it for production and assigned Ken Anderson to make a determination on whether an animated film would be best.
Anderson and Reiterman worked together and pared the story down, focusing more on the cats and dropping the maid. Shortly before his passing, Walt reviewed the preliminary sketches and approved the film for production, making it the last one he ever looked at. Reitherman officially took over as director and wanted to emulate Dalmatians further by concocting a similar adventure hijinks story.
One of Walt’s final actions before his death was to contact Phil Harris and ask him to voice Thomas O’Malley. Eva Gabor was brought in as well. Louis Armstrong was initially cast as Scat Cat, but had to back out due to illness. Ken Anderson took over character direction, and as with The Jungle Book, he focused on letting the characters be shaped by their actors. Five of the legendary Nine Old Men worked on this project’s animation. This would prove to be the final film the Sherman Brothers did music for, having grown tired of Disney’s creative restraints.
In another emulation of The Jungle Book, The Aristocats released near Christmas in 1970. A decent success, it earned $10.1 million in the US and Canadian box office by the end of 1971 and finished as the most popular general release in Britain. The French also enjoyed being highlighted in the film, making it highly popular across the Channel as well; The Aristocats still rests as the 18th highest-grossing film of all-time in France. Critics were also favorable at the time, with largely positive reviews, though a few noted the film lacked originality. Most of the positive commentary focused on the great voice cast.
Reception has cooled over time, with most now noting it as one of Disney’s more middle-of-the-road efforts. While the music and talents still receive praise, The Aristocats lacks enough distinctiveness to be regarded as a classic. It isn’t as represented in other Disney media as many other films. Much later, there was an attempt at a CGI sequel by Disneytoon Studios, but after John Lasseter took over at Disneytoon, he cancelled all sequels in favor of original projects.
The next film, Robin Hood, can also trace itself back to a Walt Disney idea. Since the studio’s beginnings, Walt Disney had been attempting to adapt the legend of Reynard the Fox (an obscurity if there ever was one). He struggled with making it appeal to children and ultimately shelved it, though he also considered bringing it in as an animated section to Treasure Island before nixing that as well. Reynard was also considered as a villain in the adaptation of Chanticleer previously mentioned in the series, but as stated in that article, that was also canned.
The result of this fount of failed fox features reached its fruition, finally, following The Aristocats. With Walt gone, Ken Anderson sought out ideas for the next film and suggested adapting the legend of Robin Hood. Seeking to honor Walt and thinking a fox would make a good Robin Hood due to its slick, foxy skills, Anderson pitched the idea and was supported by others. Though Anderson wanted to set it in the Deep South to be like Song of the South, other executives were justifiably apprehensive about that idea due to Song of the South‘s growing bad reputation, and they kept the story in England.
Production soon began, though Anderson’s disappointments continued to mount. He wanted to experiment with character archetypes more, and he initially had the Sheriff of Nottingham as a goat to play against type. He also wanted to include more of the Merry Men. But Reitherman overruled him at every turn, resulting in the Sheriff as a Wolf and cutting all of the Merry Men except Little John.
With all of this disagreement, production fell behind and animators struggled to keep up. They reused multiple dance sequences from older films to make up for lost time, a feature of Bronze Age movies that contributes to their relatively poor reputation. Perhaps afraid of doing anything different, several of the same Disney cast ended up being called back, with Phil Harris returning yet again to play a big bear, as well as Monica Evans. Harris’s bear bears more than a little resemblance to Baloo, and a snake sidekick to the evil Prince John looks a lot like Kaa.
Other cast members were more atypical, with western staple Andy Devine and the great country singer Roger Miller being called for character roles. Miller also provided songs for the film’s soundtrack After his success as a southern dog in The Aristocats, Pat Buttram returned in a larger role as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Robin Hood received its premiere at Radio City Music Hall on November 8, 1973. Like The Aristocats, contemporary reviews were pretty favorable. For those who had criticized The Aristocats, this one was seen as a boost in quality. The tongue-in-cheek attitude was appreciated, as well as the catchy songs. Continuing the trend of foreign success, Robin Hood grossed $18 million overseas, setting a record at the time for Disney. Its domestic box office was also decent at $9.6 million.
The critical response has dipped slightly over time as writers have called the film’s humor and even music into question. The noted issue of reused animation has been a sticking point as well. That said, Robin Hood has maintained a devoted following among fans, and it has been noted as an influence on Zootopia as well as the furry community. It receive an Oscar nomination for the song “Love.” While no sequel has ever been made, and it doesn’t have a multimedia presence in the Disney canon, a live-action CGI remake is reportedly in the works.
As previously mentioned, The Aristocats story is fairly simple and apes prior Disney adventure/journey films. The film is more or less a collection of comedic hijinks scenes as the cats, kidnapped by a greedy butler, fight to find their way back home. The Duchess and her three children receive assistance from an alley cat named Tom O’Malley, and they deal with a variety of animals and other jazzy alley cats.
This is no complex tale, and its fairly episodic nature does limit its ability to deliver anything too resounding or poignant. Still, the bright, poppy music and Phil Harris’s charm as Tom do create several fun scenes. The jazzy cats create an over-the-top psychedelic scene, and several cutaways to Southern dogs trying to thwart and being thwarted by the greedy butler character are amusing as well.
Robin Hood‘s storytelling is also fairly middle of the road. Using the basic story of Robin Hood and his sidekick Little John fighting to protect the poor and downtrodden from the greedy Prince John, this film also features plenty of comedic hijinks. Robin Hood keeps thwarting Prince John, who retaliates upon the poor, who then marvel at the prowess of Robin Hood, rinse and repeat.
There are a few subthreads throughout. The romance between Robin Hood and Marian is hinted at, though it doesn’t have much happen until the film’s end. The situation for the townsfolk and Robin’s allies goes from bad to worse, with two potential hangings involved. Yet these turns are largely just setup the next comedic scene.
Neither have a story of any particular complexity or interest, but Robin Hood‘s story feels especially disjointed and arbitrary. The Aristocats at least offers a journey home as a throughline that keeps you interested throughout. Robin Hood could have been arranged in multiple different orders and felt the same. For that, The Aristocats takes the win.
Winner: The Aristocats
The Aristocats lacks in any all-time classic tunes. Several songs ended up getting cut as the creative team moved the focus away from music. Still, there are catchy songs that punctuate the soundtrack. The most famous, “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat,” is a jazzy and upbeat tune that likely serves as the most memorable part of this movie. The manic energy of the song is infectious, and as it explodes into a jazzy fanfare to close the film, it does capture a fun energy.
Also enjoyable are “Scales and Arpeggios” and “Thomas O’Malley.” The first tune serves as an introduction to the characters of the cats and their prissy living, and it uses simple musical theory in a literal and effective way. The second song is sung with plenty of character by Phil Harris to introduce his titular alley cat. It’s no “Bare Necessities,, but it has a few clever lines.
The soundtrack to Robin Hood makes extensive use of cast member Roger Miller, who provides a number of the film’s tunes. After the enduring earworm “Whistle Stop” that plays over the opening credits, the fun “Oo-De-Lally” serves as an effective introduction, opening the story as a folklore tale with country origins and hinting at the tongue-in-cheek approach to be taken. Quite a few songs throughout are all sung by Miller as his rooster narrator Alan-a-Dale strums on a lute, including the mournful yet infectious “Not in Nottingham.”
The Academy-nominated “Love” is splendid and pleasant, reminiscent of some of the great songs from Cinderella and other earlier Disney films. A funny tune not sung by Miller is “The Phony King of England,” which mocks Prince John with a number of clever lines set to fiddle. The spritely lyrics throughout this soundtrack help make it memorable.
While The Aristocats does a have a song or two of note, the soundtrack of Robin Hood is genuinely a fun time, and the use of Roger Miller is splendid. The strummy songs and peppy lyricism leave you humming long after.
Winner: Robin Hood
Due to that xerography animation, the backgrounds of France are full of dark, scraggly lines in The Aristocats, as are all of the characters. This creates a dirty look which, while functional in creating a dirty and scary Paris, isn’t quite as beautiful as earlier Disney works. Still, there is enough variety in the locales that the film remains fairly visually interesting throughout. From riverside fields to moonlit Paris, The Aristocats maintains some form of visual appeal.
The characters are also given plenty of expressiveness and uniqueness. Tom’s mug suits Harris’s voice as the friendly, sly alley cat. The variety of cat expressions and colorful eyes also help the characters stand out. The flamboyant designs of the alley cat band keep things visually dynamic as well, and the choice to pair character designs to voice actors pays off.
Robin Hood‘s animation also has strong characterization, though it too suffers from the same dark lines of Bronze Age films. That this film reuses animation from earlier movies is a given, and the designs of Little John and Hiss don’t bother to hide their debts to The Jungle Book models. The backgrounds and visuals are less unique than the plethora of locations and details in The Aristocats.
Still, the new character designs are excellent. Robin Hood and Marian do have highly expressive faces, and Robin Hood’s thin frame and wicked grins convey his character quite well. Likewise, Prince John’s heavy crown gives him a constantly sour look, and the animators cleverly maintain his paw while still giving him the ability to lift things as a human would.
This is a close category, as both films share many of the same strengths and weaknesses in their animation. However, the edge will go to Robin Hood. Despite the repeated animation, the film is colorful and bright and the anthropomorphic foxes and other critters are designed quite well.
Winner: Robin Hood
The Aristocats has a number of strong points, and despite being the beginning of a lesser age of Disney, it is a fairly decent film. Likewise, Robin Hood doesn’t measure up to many of the strong Golden Age or Silver Age films, but the Roger Miller soundtrack and witty script give it the edge and make it a little more memorable than its feline adversary. Robin Hood is the better movie, and people will still be singing along to “Oo-De-Lally” for years to come.
- Ranked #2,550 globally
- Wins 36% of matchups
- 11,509 users have ranked it 100,897 times
- 16 have it as their #1 film
- Ranked 32/64 in the Walt Disney Animation Studios filter
- Ranked #1,155 globally
- Wins 45% of matchups
- 18,100 users have ranked it 162,826 times
- 20 have it as their #1 film
- Ranked 9/64 in the Walt Disney Animation Studios filter
- Bambi (1942)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Cinderella (1950)
- Fantasia (1940)
- Peter Pan (1953)
- The Jungle Book (1967)
- Robin Hood (1973)
- Alice in Wonderland (1951)
- Pinocchio (1940)
- One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
- Lady and the Tramp (1955)
- The Aristocats (1970)
- Dumbo (1941)
- Sleeping Beauty (1959)
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
- The Three Caballeros (1944)
- The Sword in the Stone (1963)
- Melody Time (1948)
- Saludos Amigos (1942)
- Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
- Make Mine Music (1946)