The cliche is that Disney is all happy puppies, sing-a-longs and Hollywood endings. Yes, Disney did defend his work by saying “Everyone is a little bit corny.” However, his films did get away with more than we often give them credit for because of the way they end. There are many orphans in the Disney canon, be they so at the start of the film like Cinderella; or be the orphaned through the course of the film like in Bambi, The Lion King or Frozen. As I talked about in Peter Pan there were some frightening moments there regardless of the fact that the imagery was sanitized from initial conception.
That brings me to Robin Hood. As with many a Disney tale the bones of story are well known by all: Robin Hood robs the rich to feed the poor. Clearly to illustrate this you’ll have to see said poor. Not only that but if you look at the standard structure of a classic story things will have to get worse before they get better. They may not be images as marking as those of Dumbo’s mother being beaten and chained but they are strong and pervasive in this film.
This is the most literal example of a minstrel acting as a narrator and it is the perfect storytelling device for a tale such as this. Not only is it so because this story is set in England and it is a British tradition, but because they were crucial in spreading lore through oral histories it’s a natural conduit for this story.
Most of the reason that Robin is impelled to go on his crusade is that the people of Nottingham, under the Sheriff, who is doing Prince John’s bidding (while King Richard is off on a crusade). A majority of that bidding is about imposing and collecting usurious taxes on the people who can scarcely afford to eat.
These rates get worse as the story progresses and you see imprisoned children clergy. People are shackled about their neck and feet in debtor’s prison. Furthermore, there are serious threats of hanging an narrow escapes.
The misery of the plight these people must escape is further underscored that during these scenes, mostly during the montage underscored by the song “Not in Nottingham”, by the fact that it rains; it rains a great deal. Even the in the rain those in forced labor on the rock pile must still work. The only respite from the doldrums this film descends into is that we can sense what the ending will be, and the narrator, who we know will leave to tell the story in the past tense, is also jailed.
Not to mention that the climactic sequence wherein Prince John is robbed while sleeping and Robin Hood narrowly escapes is one of the most treacherous and most risky in all Disney films. It also, due to all that passed before it, is one of the more triumphant and makes the ending all the more exultant.
So you’re dragged through the mud and bask in the glow of a sunset at the ending as Robin and Marian ride off. Could Disney have gotten away with such images if not using anthropomorphized animals? Probably not, but to kids there’s scarcely a difference and it makes it a more memorable visceral experience.