The “Genre” of Animation: Disney’s Robin Hood, Fantastic Planet, and 1973 as a Locus Point for a Medium
This paper was originally written as the culminating experience for the Film and Media Studies graduate program at Arizona State University, completed April 15, 2021.
The animated film has been and is often regarded as a genre as distinct as horror, romance, or science fiction. While the animation classification may be paired with comedy or musical, the reality is that an animated film is more so a medium than a genre. For a long time most animated films did fall into a similar format, from the earliest days of silent cartoons through Disney’s sound innovations and their almost singlehanded cultivation of the feature-length animated film. But around the time that Disney’s domination in Hollywood and abroad was slipping to competitors and foreign markets, production, scholarship, and criticism of animation turned to the possibility of “mature” storytelling within the medium. These adult animated films emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and acted in a countercultural, “arthouse” faculty against the “invisible” Hollywood style of animation defined by Disney.
However, because of the very artfulness immediately evident in animated films, some of the links between mainstream and arthouse are more clear. Two examples, both released in 1973, serve as clear illustrations of the differences and similarities between the Disney style and that of the new wave of arthouse and foreign animation. They are: Robin Hood (Reitherman), indeed produced by Disney, and Fantastic Planet (Laloux), a French film based on the 1957 science fiction novel Oms en série (Wul). While these two films’ tones are entirely different, the embrace of more limited styles of animation, changed from the extravagant days of Disney’s biggest hits, reveal a collective new era for animated films.
The facets of editing and cinematography are used as primary modes of analysis of live action films, and they have their counterparts in the animated medium. Cuts and transitions are still of course present in animated films, and there is a “camera perspective” in the framing of whatever is on screen. But interpreted a little more loosely, the editing of animation can be seen in the motion of characters and objects and its fidelity. Cinematography, which is often evaluated for its depth and concepts of foreground and background, is matched by the colors, art style, and background illustrations of animated films. This analysis of Robin Hood and Fantastic Planet is focused on their approach to literal animation, which is the aforementioned motion of characters (actors) and objects (props) and its fidelity, and the style and worlds in which the actors interact.
Robin Hood was the 21st Disney animated feature film, seen in some ways as the beginning of a decade-and-a-half period of relative difficulty for the now monolithic studio. This was an artistic, critical, and financial difficulty, although Robin Hood itself was a box office success. “It was the biggest box office hit of any Disney animated feature to that time…[but] it is not beloved by animation critics and some Disney fans consider it one of the worst animated features made by Disney” (Sampson). The film famously reused animation from previous hits like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Hand et. al, 1937), The Jungle Book (Reitherman, 1967), and The Aristocats (Reitherman, 1970). This recycling was used primarily for select dance sequences, but even in other instances, Robin Hood displays a more limited style than the sumptuous films of Disney’s classic period in the late 1930s and early 1940s and its first “renaissance” during the 1950s. In this way, Robin Hood represents the evolution of the limited style innovated by television animation, from programs such as those produced by Hanna-Barbera. Disney even reused motion created specifically for Robin Hood within the film itself, as with multiple chase sequences. This recycling and reuse was implemented by tracing over the existing animation to save time. These mechanics of animation define Robin Hood, bringing life, albeit relatively limited life, to characters and worlds drawn in a new Hollywood style.
The Disney art style, mostly defined by how the studio illustrated humans, animals, and backgrounds, had shifted by the time of Robin Hood. There is not an exact way to describe its approach, but it was an approach that had been in effect, in the form represented in Robin Hood, since The Sword in the Stone (Reitherman, 1963), if not earlier. Robin Hood tells a story about the legendary medieval English figure with anthropomorphic animals; the titular character is a fox, Little John is a bear (modeled exactly after Baloo of The Jungle Book, another example of Disney’s belt-tightening and recycling), and so on. These human-like animals still have the big eyes and other exaggerated features that defined the Disney style, and while the backgrounds in Robin Hood carry the impressionistic detail of previous films, they are less detailed.
These formal elements are put to use in providing a light-hearted, musical comedy with high, dramatic encounters with dastardly villains. The storytelling is in the Disney mould, and its motion and illustrations keep the audience engaged with brightness and funny sight gags. While it’s hard to ascribe the invisible Hollywood style to an animated film, and there’s not much of a claim to be made that Robin Hood is realistic, the movie is able to prioritize a fluidity that doesn’t call too much attention to its technique and design. As Ken Anderson, story contributor to the film put it: “What we are selling in animation is personality of the characters. It makes no difference how stylized they are. We are not selling drawings or paintings. We are selling each character’s personality” (Sampson).
In contrast, Fantastic Planet represents the arthouse animation of 1973, focusing more on style and big themes than individual characters’ likability.. It is not only from outside the Hollywood system, but also from outside America. The French film (known as La Planète sauvage, literally “The Wild Planet”) certainly operated with a smaller budget than what Disney could employ for Robin Hood, even in its reduced state. Therefore, it isn’t a surprise that its animation is even more limited than Robin Hood’s. Fantastic Planet’s mechanics may have more to owe to the American TV cartoons of the 1950s and ’60s. For the motion of its characters and strange creatures, the film employs an almost cutout style. Everything moves in a jerky manner, stilted in a way. This is not to cast negative judgement on the animation, but to compare its technique to the relative fluidity of the Disney style. Fantastic Planet echoes an older tradition; “animation clings to the primal cinematic and precinematic invocation of the kinetic and metamorphic image, and breathes life into the inanimate” (Giddings 177).
More remarkable is Fantastic Planet’s incredible visual style. The colorful, surreal depictions of alien lifeforms, humanoid or not, technology, and architecture is unconventional, especially for animated films in 1973. Although they are not called such, Fantastic Planet’s “Oms” are humans, and their appearance is not necessarily realistic. But they are clearly the least radical thing in the film, by virtue of their relatable forms among many alien visuals, and there is a respect of the “uncanny valley” coloring their illustration. The Oms nearly look realistic, but not quite.
These formal elements, as opposed to Robin Hood’s, make Fantastic Planet an impressionistic, rather than realistic, experience. Besides its already exceptional visual style, the mechanics of the film’s animation serve to isolate it with an alien feel. It is not necessarily familiar or reassuring, which serves Fantastic Planet’s narrative. The film tells the story of the gigantic alien Draags’ subjugation of the human-like Oms, and its subjective commentary on human rights, the treatment of animals, genocide, war, peace, and more invite adult treatment of its themes. Fantastic Planet’s animation and visual style are themselves obviously notable, and by calling attention to mechanics and exceptional art, it attracts thematic interpretation on a scale much larger than Robin Hood. Fantastic Planet has certainly inspired more think pieces about its themes, as in the case of Liz Ohanesian’s “Is Fantastic Planet Just a Cool Movie or Is It Also a Commentary on Animal Rights?” As Ohanesian muses, “Though Fantastic Planet predates the trend for pet ensembles by a few decades, Terr has that same adorable-yet-uncomfortable look that you’ll often see in cute-animals-in-costumes photos.”
While the tones and themes of Robin Hood and Fantastic Planet seem about as disparate as they can be, they both use their method of animation and the style in which it is rendered to give a feeling beyond the immediate plot. In Robin Hood’s case, it is a sense of fun and happiness. In Fantastic Planet’s, it is a reminder of the problems that afflict Earth, not just an alien planet. Together, they are exceptional examples of the changing landscape of animated films in the early 1970s. They make a case for 1973 as an important locus point for two overlapping eras of the medium, with the decline of Disney’s artistic and financial success and the beginning of a new viability for stories outside the American studio’s mould. It is at this time that the animated “genre” came to be regarded as a medium that allowed for many different kinds of stories, and the variations of the basics that Robin Hood and Fantastic Planet implemented contributed to that change.
Giddings, Seth. “Fantastic Planet.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008, pp. 176–179.
Ohanesian, Liz. “Is Fantastic Planet Just a Cool Movie or Is It Also a Commentary on Animal Rights?” LA Weekly. 7 Jan. 2011.
Sampson, Wade. “Taking Another Look at Robin Hood.” MousePlanet. 27 May 2009.