The 100th anniversary of the Walt Disney Company has arrived with the requisite amount of fanfare, from special merchandise and food items at the Disney parks to a new studio logo in front of its movies. 2023 also marks the 50th anniversary of a specific Disney animated movie that may not get the same level of corporate self-congratulation: 1973’s Robin Hood, which adapts one of the most recognizable English adventure stories of all time with a full cast of anthropomorphized animals. The film’s half-century mark is an appropriate moment to consider how it’s one of the earliest examples of a Disney story resonating with a marginalized community. Though the studio has been slow to create stories about non-white characters, with Robin Hood, it accidentally made a film that hit hard with furries.
“Robin Hood was undoubtedly my entry point into the furry community,” says Katav, a Chicago-based Ph.D. candidate studying the Hebrew Bible. (Katav is their furry identity, and their preferred way of being identified in this piece.) Though not all fans of anthropomorphic animal art associate that fandom with sexuality, or associate Disney’s Robin Hood with sexual awakening, Katav does, and they note that a specific image within the film seemed to unlock a personal longing. “More than anything, I wanted to be [Robin] in the scene in which he’s tied up. So as I was exploring my sexuality, this definitely came to mind.”
Part of the unique qualities that made Robin Hood a furry media mainstay comes down to the fact that the title character — a dashing, jovial hero who robs from the rich and gives to the poor — is a fox.
“Robin’s role as an inspiring fox was huge. You could (and still can) see his influence in the art. He certainly had a big impact on my own art,” webcomic artist Leaf Dubois says via email. Dubois also notes that one reason for Robin Hood’s appeal among furry fandom is because of Disney animation’s famous attention to how animals look and move. In the days of one of the studio’s earliest animated features, Bambi, Walt Disney arranged for the animators to observe live deer, in the hopes of making their animation more realistic. That focus on detail gives Robin Hood’s anthropomorphized animals more of a sense of physical reality.
“Disney animators have always studied their subjects well,” Dubois says. “If you look closely, you’ll see animal body language in how the characters behave. An anthro animal might move their ears and tail expressively, twitch their whiskers, or unfurl their claws menacingly. These details are outside of the human experience.”
The experience of tying Robin Hood to a personal identity within the furry community occurs in different ways. “It was an organic development that occurred over time,” says Christopher Polt, assistant professor of classical studies at Boston College. “Something that was significant to me as a kid was, Robin Hood takes place in a world where it’s just anthropomorphic animals. It’s not like a lot of other Disney films, [where] you can always see people nearby. There are talking animals, and they’re anthropomorphized to a certain extent, but [in most other films] they are not living in their own universe.”
Katav approached the film similarly through their childhood experience. “Robin Hood was very much my window into a world where animals spoke and acted like people do. These were characters who could do people things — shoot a bow, dress in drag, play badminton, etc. — but they still could be a beautiful array of species. In my conservative upbringing, this was a window into a world otherwise, a world like our own but different, where there could be more and freer self-expression.”
The title character of Robin Hood specifically continues to resonate for Katav because of the way he represents a unique kind of masculinity. “To me as a gay man, Robin represented a more admirable type of masculinity than the excessively hetero masculinities I was raised with,” he says. For him, the quintessential idea of the Robin Hood myth — fighting back against injustice through decency and empathy for those in need — extends beyond the character’s foxy nature. “Even though he’s in love with a woman in the film, he represents a type of man that I could strive to be: fluffy and passionate about justice.”
Dubois concurs. “Robin […] fought to make the world more equitable,” he says. “He’s fiercely loyal to the ones he loves, and he did it all with charm and grace. A kid couldn’t ask for a better or more handsome role model.”
There’s also the plain fact that some sequences in Robin Hood are laser-focused on the openly sexual attraction between Robin Hood and Maid Marian. The sequence scored to the song “Love,” as the two characters take a twilight walk in Sherwood Forest alongside fireflies and near waterfalls, emphasizes their romantic connection without dialogue and through effective facial animation.
“I think what makes the song so beautiful and sexy is eye contact,” Polt says, referring to a moment within the song where Robin Hood and Marian share a glance at each other in extreme close-up — which also translates to looking directly at the audience, as the camera cuts between the two characters. Polt also notes how another all-animal Disney animated film has a similarly charged musical sequence: The Lion King and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” in which a grown Simba and Nala frolic in the jungle before exchanging a very loaded look. “Both of those scenes are sexual awakening kind of moments,” he says.
Robin Hood’s status as a touchstone for the furry community is fairly familiar to those outside it. “I see occasional recognition from non-furries,” Katav says, pointing to Katie Notopoulos’ 2015 Buzzfeed article “18 Times the Fox in ‘Robin Hood’ Was Weirdly Hot” as one example of how “crushing on Robin is not purely a furry phenomenon.”
Though some of the outside commentary on the furry community is generally well-meaning, as in that article, Polt has experienced a fair amount of bigotry and judgment. Earlier this spring, a tweet of his went viral enough to garner the disdainful attention of Fox News, after he assigned his students to choose a fursona (their own personalized anthropomorphic animal identity) to share with the class. Months later, he maintains a calm air, having seen both positive and negative reactions to the furry community, and to Robin Hood’s place within it. “You can talk with people and… agree that Robin is gorgeous and has a wonderful personality,” he says. “Or you get people who [say], ‘Ew, gross.’”
The potential antipathy toward furries from wider audiences has eased off somewhat as genre-based geek culture has become more mainstream, but it hasn’t entirely gone away. Aside from Polt’s recent experience with conservative commenters, there have been recent instances where conservatives try to weaponize furries into anti-trans talking points, leading to nonsensical stories that end up being debunked by Snopes and the like.
But over the last 15 years especially, more and more animated films have focused on anthropomorphized animals, and audiences have found it easier to connect with them, from the lead characters in DreamWorks fare like Kung Fu Panda and Puss in Boots to the culinary hero of Ratatouille. And considering their shared affinity for foxes, it’s no surprise that both Polt and Dubois cite another recent Disney film starring a raffish fox.
“There’s little doubt that one of the most furry-friendly animated Disney films, Zootopia, took inspiration directly from Robin Hood,” Dubois says. One of Zootopia’s directors, Byron Howard, has openly acknowledged the debt his 2016 film owed to Disney’s classic.
“When you have a fictional world like the world of Zootopia, where everybody is an anthropomorphic animal, it’s much easier to transport yourself into that setting,” Polt says. Many Disney films are intended to be transportive, asking general audiences to identify with nonhuman characters and enter their worlds. For members of the furry community, that request creates a stronger and more specific connection to films like Zootopia and Robin Hood, even as those films’ creative aims are otherwise different.
The actual release-day anniversary of Robin Hood isn’t until Nov. 8, which leaves Disney with plenty of time to prep some kind of celebration, though based on the company’s past track record with anniversary dates, any official acknowledgement of the 1973 film will likely amount to a remark or two from its various social media accounts. Though a few years ago, The Hollywood Reporter broke the story that Disney was exploring a live-action/CG hybrid remake of Robin Hood with director Carlos Lopez Estrada, in the vein of remakes like 2019’s The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, there hasn’t been any further movement on that front. Some may disagree, but the charm of Disney’s hand-drawn animated films is that they aren’t photorealistic, so any remake of Robin Hood in that style may be a little misguided.
That said, a live-action remake wouldn’t diminish the impact that the 1973 Robin Hood has had on furries. From the outside, the film is a laid-back adventure known as much for reusing visuals from earlier Disney movies as for its powerful connection to unlocking personal identities in one subset of fandom. For those of us who aren’t part of the furry community, it may be surprising to realize just how much of an impact Robin Hood has had. Katav states it best: “I don’t know what would have become of me had I not found furry [fandom]. I’m only partly exaggerating when I say that Robin Hood saved my life. Love for this movie showed me a community of people like me.”