Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Robin Hood" and the Advent of Furry Fandom

Stuck without Internet for two and a half days, my wife and I ended up rooting through our movie collection for entertainment. We watched three movies from our childhoods - Anastasia, Robin Hood and Mulan. Mixed in with my realizations that Eddie Murphy used to be really funny and Christopher Lloyd makes an awesome Rasputin was the thought that Robin Hood might have consolidated most, if not all, aspects of furriness.

This carries significance to me as the writing half of an anthro webcomic. Neither Kuurion nor I are entirely on board with the idea that what we're doing is "furry," exactly - the term carries connotations that we don't completely associate with - but it's something we resort to as shorthand. Both "anthro comic" and "furry" are in Our World's HTML fields, and I don't think any search engine has used those things since AltaVista.

Robin Hood predates all but the most primordial aspects of furry fandom, and as such I think it had an unrecognized yet simultaneously outsized influence on the shape of things to come. First, though, some context.

PRODUCTION BACKGROUND


After Walt Disney died in 1966, the movies bearing his name went into a qualitative slump that lasted for more than two decades. The Onion's A.V. Club has an excellent review of the first movie made without him, "The Aristocats," which it describes as the beginning of the company's dark age. "Robin Hood" is the movie they made after that, allowing them to reuse footage. Here, watch:


My thanks to whomever made that video, which is honestly still best viewed on a screen not larger than a stamp. Still, the quality is good enough to tell the tale: That dance sequence was cobbled together from three different movies (the other two being Walt's last and first films, "The Jungle Book" and "Snow White.") The knowledgeable among you may have also remembered that Phil Harris, the voice of Little John (who sings "The Phony King of England") is also the voice of Baloo the bear from "The Jungle Book."
 
"If ever an entertainer was born to be a Disney character, it's Phil Harris," writes Noel Murray in that "Aristocats" review you still haven't read, and he makes a fair point. Harris just sounds so much like a Disney character. So much, in fact, that they reused him in all three of those films. In the "Aristocats" his made-for-AM radio voice works because he plays an alley cat (the refined female lead was Zha Zha Gabor), and it's pretty much the same case with "The Jungle Book."

Here, however, he plays the unwitting lead of an entire faction of people who, in 14th century England, have country accents.

Click on that to see the full-size version. If you haven't seen the movie: Yes, they actually have cards at the beginning explaining who the people are and what they're supposed to be. We're almost to the furry bit, but it's worth going through this because it's just so weird. Clockwise, from top left: Robin Hood (Brian Bedford, British); Maid Marian (Monica Evans, British); Sir Hiss (Terry Thomas, hissy); Lady Kluck (Carole Shelley, Scottish); Alan-a-Dale (Roger Miller, country); The Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram, country); Friar Tuck (Andy Devine, country); and Prince John, (Peter Ustinov, British). So, of the nine main characters in that picture (which I got from Fanpop; thanks, Fanpop, for compiling all those pictures into a grid) we have four who actually sound like they're from the United Kingdom, three who sound like they're from the Deep South, and one guy who talks like a snake because he's a snake.

Setting Sir Hiss aside, that's still half the major cast being from a wildly different time and place. Pat Buttram is Mr. Haney from "Green Acres," for God's sake, and Roger Miller is the guy who sings "King of the Road." None of this was ever given any contextualization, either. It's just a thing that Disney did, in addition to plundering their other films for footage. So how did this slap-dash collage become the place where the basic tropes of furriness first unified? Truthfully, from what I can tell, this was largely an accident, as the Wikipedia page can explain:

"Initially, the studio considered a movie about Reynard the Fox. However, due to Walt Disney's concern that Reynard was an unsuitable choice for a hero, Ken Anderson used many elements from it in Robin Hood.

"Robin Allan writes in his book Walt Disney and Europe that 'Ken Anderson wept when he saw how his character concepts had been processed into stereotypes for the animation on Robin Hood.'"
So that's where it started. Walt decided that Reynard the Fox wasn't Disney material and the concept art was reprocessed into something else.

CONTEXT


Disney is a cultural-economic monolith. Each of their animated features is conspicuously numbered, indicating the importance that each commands. Even if "Robin Hood" isn't the first Disney animated feature most people would name if pressed for a list, it would probably come up once they're past "The Lion King" and all the princess movies. Probably after "101 Dalmations" but before "Oliver and Company," but I'm only speculating.

As a Disney movie, "Robin Hood" will never go away. It's something each generation of American youth is routinely exposed to, like Playmobil people and chicken pox. People grow up, have kids, and reach for all the same things that they had when they were children. And some of those kids grow up to be furries. But why?

WikiFur (the furry wiki encyclopedia, as you probably guessed) says that furry fandom was born when the old "funny animal" genre expanded out of comedy and into drama. (Taking an additional step back, the original funny animal cartoons probably owe something in their popularity to the fact that furries are easier to draw than humans.)

"Robin Hood" is, in my mind, the first time anthropomorphic animals had been used visually in a dramatic situation, and every one of those points is necessary to the genesis of the fandom. The WikiFur "History" page linked above (and here) lists a number of works considered groundbreaking on the road to furdom, and "Robin Hood" is the first to meet all of them. While many other works contain multiple dimensions of furriness ("Kimba the White Lion" actually made it stateside several years earlier, and I only discount it because the characters aren't truly anthropomorphic), "Robin Hood" was the first to put them all together. The closest thing previous is this:

It's almost drama ("Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?"), it's visual, and it's anthro. But it's not really furry. Not even with the it's-awkward-but-we're-laughing sexuality that evokes virtually everything non-furries seem to think of furries. It also isn't actually a story, it's a parody of a story, existing exclusively as a mocking shadow of its subject. "Robin Hood" was more ambitious than that, although truth be told, "What's Opera, Doc?" might well be the better cartoon. After seven decades of sight gags, the funny animals finally got a chance to be something other than funny in "Robin Hood." The spectre of death is very real here, going against the keystone tenet that cartoons can't die, and the characters are shown with (generally) realistic emotions.

King John, the "Phony King of England" from the song, is, for instance, shown as a thumbsucking mama's boy trying desperately to overcome his own inadequacies through wanton brutality. That's not a three-dimensional character, but it's at least two-dimensional - earlier cartoon characters, like Daffy Duck, could only show frustration and fear. To move from frustration to overcompensation, and fear to self-conscious inadequacy, is akin (to switch analogies) to the step up from the three primary colors to the whole spectrum of secondary colors.

IMPACT
























Ultimately my argument of significance is built entirely on circumstantial evidence, but I feel like it's pretty good circumstantial evidence. And the significance also extends to the way furries look. I'm too tired to upload any more pictures, but actually click on any of the ones I have. Compare Robin against Bugs Bunny up there. Bugs is lanky, with smooth fur. Robin looks more like an actual anthropomorphized version of the animal he is - his fur fluffs out in places, something that has gone on to be virtually universal in furry art.

But he looks more human than Bugs, too, and that's the last and biggest part of what it means to be furry. Furry fandom - and its detractors - are so distracted by the animal half of things that both sides forget that it's the humanity that people need to be able to relate to. The exception to this rule being the assignment of breasts. That's another, probably somehow longer, essay. For now, it's enough to say that the human element, while less visible, is not diminished.

The last visual component is also the first thing you see, even if you don't notice it anymore: Anthro characters wear clothes. Donald Duck, a true funny animal, doesn't wear pants. And while this has been a font of cultural ridicule for Donald, we also know he doesn't have anything to hide. He's just feathers down there, which is a great source of relief for me and God knows how many other people. But Maid Marian has slight secondary sexual characteristics, and her lady-in-waiting, Lady Kluck, has cleavage. These aren't animals anymore; they're naked under their clothes.

"Robin Hood" was the place where funny animals stopped having to be funny, but it's also the place where they stopped having to be all animal, too. TV Tropes, which has covered all this ground before, calls this evolution "Anthropomorphic Shift" but in this case the shift all took place prior to the start of the movie. "Robin Hood" made a story about humans and told it with animals - but, crucially, the animals are still largely human. And that, simply, is where everything finally came together.



3 comments:

  1. This is gorgeous and will be wonderful for setting straight my "Republican who always votes democrat" brother, who cares not for the character, and says "They have fur, they aren't people. It's bestiality." right before watching porn involving japanese catgirls have a lesbian five-way with a trio of scaly alien girls with 7 breasts a piece and tentacles on their head, which, as he says, are "used to effect".... Are cat girls and odd breasted tentacle-lizard-girls any less wierd? No. No they aren't.

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    1. The worst part is that I don't digg the yiff much..... He pokes at me, though, regardless.....

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    2. YOU ARE A PIECE OF SHIT JOHN

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