Robin Hood (1973) Review
What do I know about the film?
Post ’66 Disney was a strange time. When you cast a shadow as large as that of Walter Disney, trying to escape from underneath it is like forcing incubator babies to wrestle: Nobody wins. ‘Robin Hood’ was the first of their full length animated features that was not signed off by the big man and it suffered as a result. In what way? Well, first and foremost, financial restraints meant that the studio had to cut costs just to get the film together and it shows.
If for some reason you, like me, have decided to fill most of your spare time with watching Disney films in chronological order you will experience an odd sense of deja vu. Unless you are playing particularly close attention, this is unlikely to bother you. BUT…It is there. Disney reused a LOT of animation around this time and it makes my brain ache to contemplate how often I saw a facial expression, a movement, or shot that made me go…’Have I not…seen that before?’
I urge you to watch the below video (ignore the Christina Aguilera song that accompanies it, it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything) to see what I am talking about. Keep in mind: These are all examples taken from just ONE SONG.
The freakiest point for me is the comparison between Baloo and Little John because when I first found this video I was working on my Aristocats review and at one point I had three Phil Harris’s on screen at once.
So yeah, the whole thing is cheap as hell. Nextly, critics were waaaaay harsh on it and it is currently deemed rotten by rotten tomatoes, which considering ALL the Disney war films are considered fresh just highlights how much ‘Robin Hood’ was dragged through the mud. It is currently placed as the 5th worst animated Disney feature of all time. Now obviously I have not started reviewing it yet so it is too soon for me to say if this is fair (It isn’t. It isn’t even the 5th worst out of the first 21, let alone out of 53) this is just me providing some historical context. So why did this film, which was a box office hit, take such a beating?
Remember that thing I said about it being the first film without Walt’s blessing? Well, the critics were hungry to declare the studio artistically bankrupt following the death of their leader. They couldn’t wait to watch a cartoon about a clever fox and call it a pile of shit…Because…Errr…No I don’t get it either. Spite? Boredom? Are they what kids today call ‘haters?’ Well I guess I can relate. Writing scathing reviews can be a lot of fun…
Yes you. ALWAYS YOU!
But what really sealed the fate of ‘Robin Hood’ as an out and out flop (again, let’s brush over the fact that it was reasonably profitable) was the reaction from the studio. They didn’t believe in it and they were ashamed. Believing the bad press, they tried to bury ‘Robin Hood’ like when the Grammy people took back the Milli Vanilli Grammy. The Disney version of ‘Robin Hood’ was the lip syncing, voice snatching, dreadlocked pop duo nobody wanted anymore.
And yet, odds are if you are reading this, you have seen ‘Robin Hood.’ So what happened? Well it was, as TV Tropes puts it, vindicated by history, enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the 80’s and 90’s in particular when it was released on VHS. It is so closely associated with this era of Disney that I was initially surprised at how long ago it was actually released. In a different setting, in another era, not so close to ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pinocchio’ and the like, ‘Robin Hood’ could be enjoyed without the ghost of Disney hovering over it, moustache all a quiver, bellowing:
‘Whose idea was it to make Prince John that fey???’ And so it was relished. A lot. Oh man. Fans of this film really love it.
So how did it come about in the first place? Well it was going to be a film about Reynard the Fox but he was deemed a bad role model before he even had a change to prove he had changed and so it became about Robin Hood instead only they kept the fox idea. Writer Ken Anderson constructed the story and characters and was said to have wept bitter tears when he saw what Disney did to his ideas. So what was he particularity upset about? Well he wanted the Sheriff of Nottingham to be a Goat and Disney made him a Wolf, which Anderson felt was a bit of a cliché in terms of villainous animals. Yeah…What a terrible problem to have? In fairness, I hate it when people change my goats into wolves. It is the worst.
Who did this?
As I say, production was plagued with insecurities leading to the curious choice to pretend it never happened. I guess the Studio thought, what with the critical reception being mostly poor, they had hit rock bottom. Which is hilarious. Because I know what is coming…
But first: Let us away to Nottingham!
Did I see it as a child?
Yes I feel like I must have owned it, because I vividly remember the front cover of the VHS. I could describe it to you, but you know the old saying: One picture is worth more than my clumsy attempts at nostalgia:
This is it. See how easy that was?
The film begins with a chilled out rooster informing us that there are many versions of the forthcoming story in existence but the animal kingdom have their own version. And it is the only right one. Ha. It is like those people who say they respect all religions while nursing a smug smiles that tells you they secretly know they are going to Heaven and you are not.
So we are plopped into the middle of the story in some ways, as Robin Hood has been robbing from the rich to help the poor for quite some time when the story opens (the moral conundrum of engaging in criminal activity in order to ease the suffering of others is tossed under the rug very quickly, a decision that suits me fine) making him a hero to the people of Nottingham and public enemy number one according to the constantly humiliated and deeply unimpressive Prince John. After Robin attends an archery tournament in disguise in order to see his long lost love Maid Marian, the seething tension between the upper and lower classes can no longer be contained…And then the real fun begins…
Let’s start from the top: As the film began I settled in for the usual extra long Disney credit sequence and boring narrated introduction. And instead I got the fabulously soothing/cool/possibly high voice of Roger Miller as Alan-a-Dale as a Rooster informing me his job is to: ‘Tell it like it is…or was…or whatever.’ Right away I am in. The leisurely drawl, and the admission right there in the opening that the narrative device as executed by Disney is often bullshit, was enough to win me over.
And yet I got more: The opening credits are like an old school sitcom, with everyone getting a little intro card and the music…Well man alive, is the ‘Whistle Stop’ song not the most joyful thing? It sets the tone of the whole film, as well it might: it is laid back, fun, and utterly charming. So much so, I am going to post the whole intro right here for you to enjoy because it is too good not to share. It is a good litmus test because quite frankly if you don’t like this, you won’t like the movie either:
Oh and yes. That song did go on to be the Hamster Song. Let us speak on that no further.
And then we are introduced to Robin Hood and Little John with another FANTASTIC song. ‘Oo De Lally’ is just…Oh boy oh boy! I love the way they strut along to their theme songs like ‘Sing it bitches!’
They are enjoying their bromance so much they even go so far as to frolic in the water together. And then the song switches up a gear lyrically, while not remotely changing pace musically, when the pair are pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham and they go from ‘walking through the forest’ to ‘running through the forest…Jumping fences, dodging trees, trying to get away…’ What a day, indeed.
It is a triumphant intro followed by an excellently paced conversation between the buddies that tells us what we need to know without getting too bogged down in exposition. Keep in mind, not everyone is born knowing the Robin Hood legend: Some set up is necessary and it is executed with ease here and sold with the charm of Phil Harris and Brian Bedford (I love that Robin Hood is really very posh) as a banter filled conversation about how worried they should be about their current predicament.
As I said in the synopsis, the writers take the opportunity of a Bear and a Fox in a tree together to quickly bring up and then promptly ignore the ‘Is what we are doing wrong, even if we are doing it for the right reasons?’ question. Little John expresses minor doubts only for Robin to quash them breezily with insistence that they merely borrow…Great! Err what? Ok, but I actually appreciate that the Studio opt to stick to the light, happy, adventure and not preoccupy themselves with moral grey areas. Perhaps they were too scared to tackle the big questions without Walt telling them what to think but I doubt they could pull it off so I am happy they didn’t try.
Anyway, it is apparent whose side we are supposed to be on. The Sheriff cheerfully robs a young Bunny’s birthday money for taxes. Clearly we are supposed to be rooting for Robin and his people. Luckily, this is easy as Disney successfully manage to capture a community vibe in just a few short scenes and the way the characters interact is pretty great. They are all cheerful and mild mannered until threatened and then they hold their own. My favourite examples of this are Clucky, Maid Marian’s Lady in waiting, who shoos the Maid away from the violence pointing out it is not place for a lady before getting stuck in herself.
And then there is the benevolent Friar Tuck, who goes from belly bouncing the Sheriff out of his church to attacking him with a stick in a matter of seconds.
That escalated quickly…
Having characters that are prepared to put their lives on the line for what they believe in is quite compelling and it just adds to their likeability.
So back to Robin and Little John in their tree. The next scene isn’t a fantastic example of what works about the film, but I couldn’t not mention it. They notice the royal carriage passing by (would a solid gold carriage be able to move? Just asking for a friend) and decide this is a great opportunity for some classic Robin Hood manoeuvres. Like all good wacky capers this involves dressing in drag. Naturally.
What I love about this is how Little John doesn’t even attempt a woman’s voice. He is not 100% committed to these shenanigans. Now this is where things get laazy. So while Robin is distracting the Prince (by promising him a crown which, considering he is already wearing one, he gets very excited about) Little John takes the gold. Right in front of the Guards. Seriously. Look at what happens:
They are looking right at him! What? So did their first day of Guard Training go like this:
Leader: Any questions?
Trainee Guard: So We don’t move for anyone unless directly ordered?
Leader: That’s right.
TG: But what if a big bear in a wig with fake tits sticks a sword into the…
Leader: You hold your post, solider.
TG: Even if we can clearly see the coins flowing into his bra?
Leader: Look, do you want to protect the crown or don’t you???
Yeah so this bit is pretty goofy. Not going to lie. I found it funny though.
So we have capers, fights, jovial songs, fun characters…What else does ‘Robin Hood’ have to offer? Well speaking of fun characters, there are some great jokes to enjoy, no matter how old you happened to be. I actually really appreciated Hiss, Prince John’s (wait for it) snake asissssstant, mainly for some of the bizarre visual gags he got. While I am tired of Disney teaching children that snakes have hypnotic powers, I got a kick out of learning that Snakes can fold their arms when they are in a huff:
Spoiler: I didn’t do well in Biology
I was also tickled to learn that he sleeps in a cot at the end of Prince John’s bed. Excellent. But best of all…Oh man…I seriously LOVE flying snake. For reals. I could watch Hiss spying on the archery contest by making his tail fly with his head in a balloon forever and not get bored…
Happiness is a flying snake. Animal Fact.
Sir Hiss joins that great film tradition of being a put upon sad sack who often get physically punished for mistakes despite being demonstrably smarter than those above him. It sucks to be Hiss. So let us see him in a happier moment, playing with the money they have gleefully super taxed in a way that I genuinely still copy if I am ever given a stack of coins for some reason:
So now we are talking villains, what about Prince John? Welll…I am kind of on the fence about him. The oscar winning actor, Peter Ustinov, has an admirable go hard or go home approach to the character and the writing certainly aids this portrayal, what with him literally saying things like: ‘Power! POWER! Forgive me a cruel chuckle!’ and ‘My Gooooold!’ Yes. Ladies and Gentleman, the role of the main villain will tonight be performed by a camp lion who isn’t remotely threatening.
Tremble in fear…I guess.
How do I feel about this? I’m not sure. Apparently the actor was parodying his own performance as Emperor Nero in ‘Quo Vadis’ and I guess it kind of works. It is even possible to pity his pathetic nature and as a child I remember feeling bad for him whenever Hiss mentioned his Mother and he fell to pieces. However I do enjoy my Disney villains with a bit of bite and it would have been nice to see the Lion food chain it, once or twice (Lion eats Fox right?) rather than pussing out and just beating his snake instead.
See what I did there?
But the actor seriously commits and it brings some funny moments. Plus I like the idea that the downfall of the people of Nottingham comes after they write a catchy roast in song form called ‘The Phoney King of England.’ Soon the Sheriff is declaring the tune ‘a hit’ suggesting that they pressed it into a single shortly after the party, and the Prince is so furious in humiliation that he ups the already high taxes leading to pretty much everyone going to jail. It is a smart story choice, because it rings true: How many powerful people can you think of that are incredibly insecure, surprisingly sensitive to criticism and have no sense of humour about themselves?
Why doesn’t everyone in the whole entire world recognise what a humble genius I am?
The song that Alan-a-Dale gives us when everyone is locked up, ‘Not in Nottingham’ is nicely atmospheric and the scene that accompanies it is melancholy, as things are a bit grim but all hope is not lost. The whole sequence lets the audience see how the stakes are high for the third act climax without sacrificing the pre established tone of the film.
And the climax is great. Prison Break! Much better than the drag caper from earlier. I especially like Robin Hood’s plan of putting all the bags of money on a pulley system, an image that has stuck with me as the stand out scene from childhood. I like Robin’s obvious disdain for Prince John, as he mutters in his sleep. And then Robin gets greedy: He insists on taking ALL the money, including the bags of coins Prince John is spooning. This seems a tad unreasonable: I mean, some of it belongs to him right? In many ways, Robin Hood is just a greedy as the Phoney King. Although much smoother.
Anyway, his desire to leave no coin behind is his undoing as he ends up having to make a hasty getaway and then it all kicks off. And it is awesome.
Go Robin go!
Earlier, during the whole archery contest débâcle, Robin is clearly getting a kick out of taking a risk and smiles as he sword fights with the Prince. But throughout this sequence he seems genuinely worried and unsure how he is going to survive. The peril feels real, as he is forced to scale the tallest tower to get away from a quickly spreading fire set to trap him, as arrows fly up at his head, and finally he leaps into the moat below…Golly what a day!
The rotten tomato summary of the critical consensus has this to say about the film: ‘One of the weaker Disney adaptations, Robin Hood is cute and colourful but lacks the majesty and excitement of the studio’s earlier efforts.’ Which to me, sounds like a lot of the disapproval levelled at this film is straight up snobbery. ‘Fantasia’ did not do well at the time but because it is unique it has been historically lauded as a work of sure genius. While it doesn’t deserved to be stripped of that title I found it a slog to watch for the most part. That’s the truth. ‘Robin Hood’ was easy viewing. Does a lack of scale and majesty mean it is automatically worse? Hell no. Does a bucket load of charm make it immune to my nitpicking? Hell to the hell no…
What Doesn’t Work:
A wolf? As the sheriff? Should have been a nasty Goat…
I’m just fucking with you. The evil animal being a wolf didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment nearly as much as the over used voice actors. Now none of the voice actors do a bad job here. But I can only assume that Disney were cutting costs and/or risk again with the decision to use tried and tested performers for nearly all the characters.
Monica Evans, Carole Shelley, Patt Buttram, George Lindsey, J Pat O Malley, John Fiedler, Barabara Luddy and Phil Harris all had roles in other films both in the past and many in future films. Most of them were in ‘Aristocats’ and given that I watched the films back to back it was a little…Well…Let’s just say that Jim Cummings they ain’t. When they play another character it is more or less the same character and definitely the same voice. My love for Phil Harris has been well documented in previous reviews, but given this is the third film in a row where he plays a cool, laid back, musical dude, I was starting to suffer from Phil Harris fatigue.
You see, the same voice is forgiveable. But near identical characters is another matter. Baloo and Little John not only sound the same, they look the same and act the same. That is just lazy. I can ignore sloppy continuity in animation (and there is too much of that to mention here, but they were skint and harassed, I get it) but I am united with the critics about how this film really needed to be a bit tighter, and a bit different to what had come before. To do justice to what is a nice little story with some great moments. Write new characters, draw new faces… Use your imagination Disney people!
Easily the weakest link in this particular Disney chain is Maid Marian. We first meet her when some neighbourhood kids find their way into her shuttlecock court which is lucky because it means she has a rapt audience to explain what is up with her and Robin. See they were childhood sweethearts who have not seen each other in a really long time. That’s it. But that doesn’t satisfy the sexual appetite of the children: ‘Did he kiss you?’ One practically salivates. ‘Are you going to have children?’ asks another. What are you, her Grandmother? Nosy little pricks.
But their incredibly rude questions get Marian all nostalgic and horny. Hell, she is so hard up she takes the young Bunny pretending to be Robin Hood into the bushes for some above the clothes stuff (reverse the genders and tell me you are ok with this) before heading to the next scene where she moons over Robin’s Wanted poster which she has pinned up in what is essentially her locker.
So the fire has been rekindled in her foxy loins. So now what? Well…Nothing. Yep. She isn’t going to go look for him. She is just going to…Hope to run in to him again, I guess. Maybe they will both join the same checkers club or something. Wow. Super glad we got two scenes with this character she is clearly a woman of action!
And a paedophile. But let’s not linger on that.
So it is up to Robin to find her and stop her kissing children, so he disguises himself for the archery tournament which he knows she will attend because the prize is a kiss from her. Yep. That Marian sure does loooove snogging.
But after Hiss foils Robin’s disguise by sticking his head up his ass and immediately recognising him:
Robin is captured and is immediately to be put to death. But Marian won’t stand for it. After Robin confirms he does in fact still love her (No pressure mate) Marian pulls out all the stops to save her man. Well, she cries. And then Little John sorts shit out. As usual. After he holds Prince John at knife point and forces him to release his pal, Robin is all over Marian with: ‘I owe you my life darling.’ Which simply isn’t true.
And then, to truly cement her lack of worth to the story, Klucky tells her to get out the way and literally, LITERALLY, 1/8th of a second later she is like: ‘Help! Robin! Help!’ NOBODY IS TRYING TO KILL HER OR ANYTHING SHE JUST CAN’T HANDLE FENDING FOR HERSELF FOR THE TIME IT TAKES TO BLINK.
So after they all flee to the woods the reunited lovers share an uninspired love song uninspiredly named ‘Love.’ Well sigh. The story grinds to a halt, although I did enjoy the lyric: ‘Now you’re all grown up inside of me’ Just…wow. Ok. Then they are cock blocked by a surprise party…After which Marian is not seen until the very end when she and Robin get married. Pointless. Utterly fucking pointless. A waste of already hard to come by animation.
I always did like her outfit though.
Now before you point out that Maid Marian isn’t suppose to have a big role or cite some Robin Hood lore I know nothing about, keep in mind this version is narrated by a stoned rooster. Would it have killed them to give her some personality or a purpose? You could remove her from the story and lose nothing of worth. And anybody who thinks Maid Marian just can’t be an interesting character, Tony Robinson’s excellent children’s TV show begs to differ:
You should have seen how happy I was when I realised I had an excuse to use this…I hope it delights my readers from overseas
So Maid Marian was boring and their relationship, while it has its moments, was not developed enough. What’s next on the hit list? Well the ending. Remember earlier when I said Robin jumped into the moat? Well yeah, he survives after a brief fakeout and then it cuts to Alan-a-Dale reassuring us that: ‘King Richard, returned and straightened everything out’ Oh. Good…What?
In their defence, the film is over. Robin busts out his friends and lives to tell the tale and Prince John has flipped his lid and beaten his snake so…Story over? But it is abrupt and sort of odd to keep the whole King Richard returning and taking care of business off screen…It might have had a little more impact if he had been allowed to show up while things were all dramatic. In fact, that ending was story boarded and even had a bit more Marian to remind us she does in fact still exist and didn’t pass away from too much fun the night of the party:
So is the extended version better? Yes. It is still not great but at least it is an ending. The slap dash, everything worked out just fine thank you very much was never going to be very satisfying.
Oh and this guy is a benefit cheat. If he can dance, he can work:
So that was ‘Robin Hood.’ I am baffled by the fact that some critics really hated it. I mean, I can understand not being blown away by it, an earth shattering classic this is not, but how could you possibly dislike it utterly? It falls under the same kind of category as ‘101 Dalmatians’ in that it is unpretentious, quite good fun and at least it has the decency to have some exciting moments…Unlike other films I could mention…
Yes I mean you. I ALWAYS MEAN YOU. YOU KEEP ME AWAKE AT NIGHT!!!!
While many people of my generation herald it as a classic and the more traditional Disney lovers view it as a rare misstep, I land somewhere in the middle: I would watch it again as it is consumable, charming and kept me amused. While some of the choices they made, whether they were born out of necessity or lack of creative flair, stop it from being the cream of the crop for me personally, I would still recommend it happily to anyone who wants to see a snake fly, hear a rooster whistle and watch a fox sword fight. So everyone.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 2
The executioner, accompanied by a nerve wrecking drum beat:
He is available for birthday parties!
And, on a personal note, the arrest of Friar Tuck which really freaked me out as a kid.
Best Song: While ‘Phoney King of England’ is great and ‘Whistle Stop’ a joy, I have to give this one to ‘Oo-de-Lally’ as it remains one of my favourite Disney songs despite, or perhaps because of, its lack of pomp and circumstance. My only complaint is that it really needs to be longer. Even the Disney Sing a Long people have to play it twice to justify its inclusion:
Next Time: A willy nilly silly old bear…It’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh