On Robin Hood

Like The Last Unicorn, FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I can trace watching the 1973 Disney animated film, Robin Hood, all the way back to Cambridge. According to the Pop Matters review:

For some strange reason, Disney’s Robin Hood tends to get the cold shoulder, even from fans of Disney animation. And that’s not fair. Disney’s Robin Hood(which just got a 40th Anniversary Edition release on Blu-ray) is woefully underrated; it’s full of whimsy, adventure and heart. If you’re not familiar with the 1973 movie, trust me, for a film about a cartoon fox shooting arrows, it’s more on target that you’d think. Except for maybe, just maybe, Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938, it’s the best version of Robin Hood to hit the big screen.

Robin Hood was created during the dark days of Disney animation, that awkward, underwhelming period after Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and yet long before the much-celebrated “Disney Renaissance” that started with The Little Mermaid. To make matters potentially worse, it was the first feature-length Disney film to begin production after Walt’s passing, meaning it didn’t benefit from the wizard’s magical touch. However, the movie is affectionately and adequately directed by celebrated animator Wolfgang Reitherman (101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, etc.) who had worked for Walt Disney since 1933.

In this Disney adaptation you still follow the exploits of Robin Hood and his trusted companion Little John as they outfox greedy Prince John to save the good people of Nottingham, only all the characters are anthropomorphic animals. Robin Hood and Maid Marian are sly foxes, Little John is a brown bear, Prince John is a scrawny lion, Friar Tuck is a badger, and so on.

If you grew up watching Robin Hood, you’re bound to be attached to the film, but nostalgia aside, its visuals just don’t contain the shimmering hand-drawn richness that the epic Disney classics that preceded it just two decades prior (like Peter Pan or Sleeping Beauty) did. Robin Hood was especially low-budget for a Disney film, which assumedly left Reitherman and his artists with plenty of challenges.

Consequently, it’s painfully obvious to fans of the medium that some character movements and brief sequences of animation are directly lifted from The Jungle BookSnow White, and The Aristocats especially during the dances in Sherwood Forrest that accompany the song “The Phony King of England”.

That being said, those visual shortcomings aside, it’s a colorful and jubilant film full of winning performances. Brian Bedford gives the titular fox a pleasant blend of mischief and gracious dignity. Peter Ustinov provides a marvelously funny personification of the thumb-sucking comic villain Prince John who, in times of calamity, yells “Mommy!” quite loudly. He’s the movie’s most defined character and as despicable and selfish as he is, he’s humorous enough to produce genuine laughs each time he sucks his thumb or bickers with the courtly snake Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas). The villainous duo’s domestic bickering nearly steals the entire movie thanks to such stellar comedic quarreling.

Plus, while Little John is essentially the loveable Baloo from The Jungle Book with a fresh coat of paint and a fondness for cross dressing, Phil Harris’ easy-going baritone is irresistible. Only Broadway star Carole Shelley manages to overact during her vocal turn as Maid Marian’s attendant Lady Kluck.

Legendary singer-songwriter Roger Miller (best known for “King of the Road”) provides the voice for Allan-a-Dale, the rooster who acts as the picture’s narrator, which gives this adaptation an endearing, quirky, downhome country flair. The charismatic voice acting from Pat Buttram (Green Acres, Ken Curtin (Gunsmoke), and George Lindsey (The Andy Griffith Show) also makes the picture sound like its not set in England but instead in a some sort of medieval South.

Miller, in addition to being an affable narrator, provides three genius tracks including “Oo-De-Lally” and “Not in Nothingham” which manage to punch up scenes more perfectly than any lute-playing rooster should be able to get away with. “Not in Nothingham” has enough grit and woe to have been a Johnny Cash record. Meanwhile, it should also be said that a sample from Miller’s “The Whistle Stop”, which nicely opens the film, was used to create the inexplicable Internet phenomenon known as the Hamster Dance; so there’s that.

All in all, the talented cast adds tremendous life and personality to a group of memorable, but especially static characters. With these incredible vocal turns, bright and brisk dialogue carries the film through all the thumb sucking and swordplay.

And while it’s by no means a weighty film, it does make certain that the inhabitants of Nottingham are hungry and struggling due to of the crushing taxes demanded by Prince John, giving families the opportunity to discuss some interesting social questions about tyranny, class and poverty if they so desire. At the same time, children probably won’t notice how cruel the Sherriff really is nor that Friar Tuck is quoting actual Scriptures that about social justice; they’ll be too busy having a good time.

The challenge that comes with watching any Robin Hood tale during adulthood, or many Disney cartoons for that matter, is that you’re sure to expect certain sequences while having a moderate idea of how the story will progress. But there are still a few clever scenes in Robin Hood that could even please those adults that might be wary of such animated fare.

From it’s opening sequence that has Robin Hood and Little John running through the forest evading arrows, it’s a likeable, lighthearted romp with charmingly conventional animation that never robs you of its entertainment value. The heroic duo’s amusing robbery of Prince John’s caravan plays somewhat like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, which has the heroes posing as flirty, fortune-telling gypsies so they can make away with the villain’s gold. Slapstick humor and bumbling beasts abound.

Plus, take the time-honored addition of the archery contest in the Robin Hood legend. In this version, after the Sheriff of Nottingham causes Robin Hood to misfire, Robin fires off a second arrow into the air to spike the first arrow and send it toward the Sheriff’s arrow, thereby splitting it in two! There’s just enough whimsicality in scenes like this to add some fancy flair. And when the archery contest builds to a swashbuckling fight that suddenly references the endless tackles of a spirited football match, the pleasure’s completely yours for having seen it all.

There are plenty other entertaining inclusions in the movie too that will especially captivate kids, from Robin’s sly use of different disguises to his rapport with Nottingham’s youngest residents to the gushy romance with Marian. Sure, it lacks a glass slipper fitting or Pride Rock moment to make the movie especially iconic. But laughs and smiles remain plentiful even when the stakes are raised near the film’s climax like when the dim-witted vulture guarding Nottingham Castle manages to yell, “One o’clock and all’s well” even though it’s three o’clock and everything’s dreadful.

All things considered, Robin Hood carries with it a sense of community, kindness, comicality, and mischief that’s missing from many animated films from the same era. At the same time, it has enough thrill of adventure to remind you why the tale of Robin Hood became such a beloved legend in the first place.

According to The New York Times review:

Once upon a time in Sherwood Forest there lived a fox named Robin Hood who, with his good friend, a sportive brown bear named Little John, stole from the rich to give to the poor.

Nearby Nottingham was occupied by elephants, rhinos, hippos and snakes, who were the escorts, advisers and chums of the evil Prince John, a scrawny lion whose crown was too big and who, in moments of national crisis, sucked his thumb and pulled his ear lobe. Nottingham Castle was run by incompetents. Guard duty was left largely to a dim-witted vulture who liked to yell “one o’clock and all’s well” when it was often three o’clock and everything was terrible.

An all-animal/bird version of Robin Hood? Good grief! But then, why not?

The legend about the bandit of Sherwood Forest has survived more than a dozen screen adaptations, including “Son of Robin Hood” (1959), which was really about a daughter, and 165 half-hour television films.

Walt Disney’s multigenus, animated film version, which opened yesterday at Radio City Music Hall, testifies to the legend’s elasticity and durability. It should also be a good deal of fun for toddlers whose minds have not yet shriveled into orthodoxy.

The visual style is charmingly conventional, as gently reassuring as that of a Donald Duck cartoon, sometimes as romantically pretty as an old Silly Symphony. Roger Miller, the composer (“King of the Road”) and humorist, provides the voice for Allan a Dale, the rooster who acts as the film’s narrator, thus giving this “Robin Hood” a decidedly odd but not unpleasant country-and-Western flavor.

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3 thoughts on “On Robin Hood

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