Feminisney: “The Sword in the Stone” and “Robin Hood”

Disney ditches fairies to go legendary.

British legends lead to… mixed results.

New to this series? Figure out what’s going on here!

Doing a little movie hopping here to keep with a theme. The tales of these two British legends, the legend of King Arthur and the legend of Robin Hood, represent the last animated film released during Walt Disney’s life (The Sword in the Stone, 1963) and the first Disney animated feature film which did not involve Walt Disney in any way (Robin Hood, 1973). They also represent a really rapid departure from treating animation and technological advances in the field as a central focus for the films, choosing instead to focus more on complexity of character and plot (something that grew during Walt Disney’s time, but never seemed to be the major point of the theatrical fully-animated films). There’s a little bit to cover on how vastly different these films are as animated products and as stories, so let’s get to it.

The Sword in the Stone

The ending of the film comes at you fairly fast.

Based on the T. H. White story of the same name, the first part of his tetralogy The Once and Future King, this film focuses on the moment a rather ordinary kid, Wart, becomes King Arthur. Well, I say focuses on that moment. Actually, that moment happens with about 5–10 minutes left. Really, it’s just about Merlin thinking the kid is special and trying to educate him through a series of magical hijinks. How much room does that leave for feminism? …well…

Number of named characters with speaking lines: 7
Number of named female characters with speaking lines: 1
Does the film pass the Bechdel Test? Nope. Need more than one female for that.
Number of named non-white characters:
0
Number of named non-white female characters:
0
Number of openly non-heterosexual characters:
0
Number of openly transsexual characters:
0
Is there a heterosexual romance?
Squirrel Wart really got the girl squirrel interested in him somehow. (As did Squirrel Merlin with a big lady squirrel.)
True Love’s Kiss?
No.
Number of female mentors or rulers?
0
Number of named female characters wearing “men’s clothes” (pants instead of dresses):
0 (With 0 men wearing “women’s clothes”.)
Main character male or female?
Male
Number of named female characters saved from peril by male characters:
0
Number of times named female characters saved from peril by male characters:
0
Number of named male characters saved from peril by female characters: 1: Wart (sorta)
Number of times named male characters saved from peril by female characters:
Since there are so few named females, I want to note this one example. Wart is saved from the hungry wolf as a squirrel by the unnamed girl squirrel.
Number of named female characters breaking gender stereotypes with their actions (performing “masculine” feats):
0
Number of named male characters breaking gender stereotypes with their actions (performing “feminine” feats):
0

So, the movie has exactly one named female: Mad Madam Mim. She comes into the movie with a bit less than 20 minutes remaining. The only other female who speaks is unnamed and she comes in about 10 minutes before Mim.

Would you ever think you’re watching a wizard duel from this image?

While there isn’t really anything overtly sexist (I mean, it’s cool that Mim, the villain, is a magician on par with Merlin, the world’s most powerful wizard), there is no way this can be considered remotely feminist because… well, women don’t really exist in this world. (There’s also a weird moment where Mim is sexualized through her transformation into a woman with a thin, tall, buxom body. Sigh.)

But this film saw a lot of issues beyond its lack of female characters. It also doesn’t have much of a narrative. Only one character shows any growth (the talking owl Archimedes goes from curmudgeon to helpful curmudgeon). The villain shows up in the last 20 minutes. Your villain. 20 minutes. No development of WHY she’s the villain, other than “Because she’s bad!” Really, the film is a series of vignettes about Merlin turning Wart/Arthur into a variety of animals, supposedly for purposes of education.

What’s interesting is Walt Disney knew the first draft of the screenplay had little substance. The second didn’t add much, but it was enough for Walt to approve, obviously. I just wish the last film Walt was alive to see completed had more to it. But more on what his films, in life, focused on in a bit.

Fun Notes:

Merlin’s magic words are far more sensible than bippity boppity boo. And he packs better than Mary Poppins.

Considering Cinderella, Mary Poppins, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Disney’s great at making up words.

…that’s about all I got. This movie ends fairly suddenly.

Robin Hood

According to The Toast, straight ladies love them some Robin Hood.

Based on the legend of Robin Hood, the English outlaw living during the rule of King John while King Richard I was off fighting in the Crusades, this story may be one of the most prolific and retold bases for a Disney animated film… ever. Like, even Cinderella, an incredibly oft-told story, doesn’t feel like it comes close to the tale of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. But how does a group of men stealing from the rich hold up from a feminist viewpoint? Well…

Number of named characters with speaking lines: 15
Number of named female characters with speaking lines: 2 (Sadly, none of the three female rabbits are named, nor is the female church mouse.)
Does the film pass the Bechdel Test? Yes. Even though they do talk about Robin Hood, Maid Marian and Lady Kluck do briefly talk about their game of badminton.
Number of named non-white characters:
0 (They’re animals, so…)
Number of named non-white female characters:
0
Number of openly non-heterosexual characters:
0
Number of openly transsexual characters:
0
Is there a heterosexual romance?
Maid Marian and Robin
True Love’s Kiss?
No.
Number of female mentors or rulers?
Closest is Lady Kluck (lady in waiting for Maid Marian) as a mentor.
Number of named female characters wearing “men’s clothes” (pants instead of dresses):
0 (BUT! Robin and Little John both wear traditionally female clothes when disguising themselves to rob Prince John, which may be the last time such an even occurs in Disney films until Mulan.)
Main character male or female?
Male
Number of named female characters saved from peril by male characters:
1: Maid Marian (for a maybe 2, Lady Kluck)
Number of times named female characters saved from peril by male characters:
1: Fight at tourney (Little John drags Kluck into the woods to dodge arrows)
Number of named male characters saved from peril by female characters: You could stretch and say Maid Marian saved Robin Hood once.
Number of times named male characters saved from peril by female characters:
If you wanted to stretch, it’d be because she threw a pie in an archer’s face. But he was largely out of danger at that point.
Number of named female characters breaking gender stereotypes with their actions (performing “masculine” feats):
1 — Lady Kluck joins the fight and basically plays football
Number of named male characters breaking gender stereotypes with their actions (performing “feminine” feats):
2 — You see Robin Hood cooking and Little John doing laundry

So. This film manages to do markedly better in some quantitative criterion than Sword in the Stone, and indeed better than many Disney films. Women “acting masculine,” men “acting feminine,” the Bechdel Test is (barely) met… And yet, this film’s feminist credentials still kind of collapse upon scrutiny.

There are only two women and they aren’t given much to do. Maid Marian is treated as a prize to be won in the archery tournament. There’s a scene with kids in which the boy rabbit Skippy calls kissing “sissy stuff” and he is openly mocked when Marian kisses his cheek (implying that physical displays of affection are “unmanly”). So it seems the British films thus far in the Disney collection have been a bit underwhelming for feminism.

But I want to talk about what this movie signifies. As Dan LeVine wrote in the CineNation article about the most underrated Disney animated films, “This is one of the first Disney films where the stakes feel real”. To take that further, this is one of the first Disney films in this series where the characters feel real. The aforementioned Cinderella might have the most complex relationships in a Disney film prior to this, a la Cinderella and Lady Tremaine. But, this film shows surprising complexity and heart in most of its main characters. The romance between Robin and Marian doesn’t feel forced. In a couple of scenes with a few lines of dialogue and great animation and acting, we feel that these characters have history and that their love is real. And, the song about that love is possibly one of the best in the Disney movies, if not ever then definitely to this point in the collection.

Which Disney love song is better? This one or “Bella Notte” from Lady and the Tramp? Let me know what you think!

Even Prince John, who is presented to the viewer as a complete idiot that is too emotionally fragile and prone to temper to be intelligent, creates the archery tournament specifically to trap Robin, showing cunning we don’t expect from him. Friar Tuck, the man of the church, is willing to physically fight against cruelty and evil. Little John shows serious care for Robin when he thinks Robin has died. From a story and character standpoint, this may be the best of the Disney animated movies to its release date (1973). I certainly do not want to besmirch Walt Disney as a storyteller and pioneer in this medium (or film and television in general), but (some) of the films seemed to start improving on their complexity and maturity after his passing. Possibly marking a sign of the times and a changing society (Vietnam, Nixon, plus the commercial failure of Sleeping Beauty), possibly not.

And yet, it’s also one of the WORST animated movies Disney released to that point. See, while Disney lived, he pushed the technological boundaries of the medium. He basically created it with Snow White. He showed cartoons appearing with living actors in Song of the South. He utilized xerography in 101 Dalmatians and the artwork was often gorgeous. Now, while the medium was still pushed technologically after he died, to some degrees (The Great Mouse Detective has an early use of computer graphics in animation), it seemed to take a back burner to creating stories with complex characters and darker themes. Even in this film, we see tyranny and destitution, and a seriously dark third act that teases to the death of the hero. But, the animation is kinda garbage. Beyond the several continuity errors, the film is littered with reused footage from Snow White, The Aristocats, and The Jungle Book, as well as gratuitously reusing footage from within itself.

Little John is Baloo and Sir Hiss is Kaa from The Jungle Book, as well. Plus, seriously, way reused in-film footage, too.

It’s still a good movie, but it seems the death of Disney kind of put things into a bit of turmoil with how the company would tackle its signature films moving forward. While that may not directly deal with feminism, I think it’s interesting to note the changes of the story-telling and style, especially as more complex characters create a richer breeding ground for feminism in film.

Fun Notes:

This film has the absolute best introductory song (other than Hunchback of Notre Dame, of course).

I was actually referencing “Oo-de-lally,” but who can hate on the Hamster Dance? (Originally “Whistle-Stop”)

“Are we good guys or bad guys? Y’know, I mean, our robbing the rich to feed the poor?” Disney getting surprisingly philosophical all of a sudden, but the morality of Robin Hood-esque actions is a totally different post.

Look, I try not to get political in these (beyond the inherent politicism feminism apparently brings), but Prince John is 100% Donald Trump.

“There’s a law against robbing royalty.” I feel like there’s probably a law against robbing in general, but interesting spot Little John draws the line.

“Poppycock! Female bandits? What rubbish!” Is theft a gender role for men now?

Apparently, taxes in the world of Robin Hood are literally just taking every coin from those deemed too poor to have money.

“If I tattletale, I’ll die ’til I’m dead.” The child-friendly version of snitches get stitches.

“Death to tyrants!” Skippy’s quite the political activist, huh?

Sir Hiss definitely has fur in this movie. It’s… weird.

I kind of love how all the balloon sounds are clearly some dude blowing into a microphone.

This movie has probably one of the more entertaining Benny Hill “Yakety Sax” homages in film.

The music in this movie is some of the most underrated and underappreciated in the entire Disney collection. Especially the two songs by Allan-a-Dale (written and sung by Country Music Hall of Famer Roger Miller).

Turns out, Mumford and Sons covered this song. I feel like that’s actually a good sign. This song is good.

Next week, a slight timeline backtrack to a couple furry films, a la The Aristocats and The Jungle Book. Also, expect something new from me about the upcoming Academy Awards. Speaking of, don’t forget to fill out your CineNation Oscar Prediction form for a chance to win things!

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