The Great Disney Blogathon: Robin Hood (1973)
|March 3, 2015||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
There’s a lesson to be learned from Robin Hood, but I’m not sure what it is. It might be that even at their lowest ebb, a great studio can still make great art. It might be the power of knowing when you can coast and get away with it. It might be that characters who have been beloved for eight hundred years can make even weak material sing. Suffice to say that Robin Hood is a mess of flaws, cliches, and shortcuts – and still remains a charming, entertaining movie and a well-loved favorite of many.
Robin Hood, of course, has been adapted for the screen many times – even Disney got in on the action, with a live action version in 1952 – and seems a natural fit for the Disney animated treatment. However, there doesn’t seem to have been much thought given to the idea until just prior to Robin Hood going into production. The twist of making all the characters animals comes from Disney’s occasional attempts from the 30s on to adapt the Reynard the Fox stories for animation. Reynard was deemed too gory and amoral, and thus became Robin Hood instead.
And then, well, it kind of seems like the story department took a really long coffee break? There’s no real plot to Robin Hood, nor any story developments audiences weren’t long since familiar with. (Robin, dude, seriously. It’s been eight hundred years. Stop going to archery tournaments. IT’S ALWAYS A TRAP.) It’s a series of four vignettes, connected by the thinnest of threads and with no real rising stakes. Aside from the heartbreak of “Not in Nottingham” (we’ll get there), the emotions in the movie aren’t particularly deep. It feels like they adapted four ballads and called it a day.
The animation is nothing to write home about either. It’s, you know, it’s good – the Disney house style is appealing as ever and no one knows character design like the House of Mouse – but there are no dazzling sequences, no cool effects, no efforts whatsoever to bump the lamp. This movie is also semi-infamous for recycling animation. All the post-Walt films up to now had done it, but it’s particularly egregious here, especially in the “Phony King of England” scene. Marian’s animation is lifted by turns from Snow White and Duchess, while Little John, of course, takes his from Baloo. Worst of all, some animals have their anatomy contorted to fit the characters they’re traced off of – you can see Lady Kluck’s wings grow longer to ape (ha!) King Louie when she’s dancing with
Baloo Little John, and a rabbit suddenly develops super-racist faux-Asian features after the Siamese/Chinese drummer cat from The AristoCats.
No, the movie lives and dies not on story or animation, but on character. Disney wisely picked some of the most enduring characters in literature for this story, but we have to give them credit for a very skillful adaptation. The character choices just feel right. Of course Robin’s a fox. Of course Little John’s a bear. They’re so fitting it borders on cliche, but without ever quite crossing the line.
That said, when you watch the movies chronologically, Phil Harris’s shtick tends to wear a little thin after three straight movies of it, especially with all the blatant recycling of Baloo animation on Little John. Pat Buttram and George Lindsey, as the Sheriff and Trigger respectively, are also basically reprising their shtick from The AristoCats. Peter Ustinov, however, is an unmitigated delight as Prince John, and steals every scene he’s in.
Both John Grant and Leonard Maltin dismiss the film’s hero as a bland and static character, neither particularly engaging nor seeming capable of growth or depth. This is how you know that Grant and Maltin are straight dudes. Literally the first thing in my notes from rewatching this movie is: “Robin is super hot and we all have to deal with it.” I don’t know if it’s the devil-may-care attitude, Brian Bedford’s light, tweedy voice, or the adorable little fangs, but Robin easily takes the Hottest Animated Dude Competition, Anthropomorphic Animal Division.1 Seriously, Robin – and, to a lesser extent, Marian – are infamous for making almost everyone just a little bit uncomfortable with what babes they are. Foxes were a good choice for more than one reason.
(Grant is not totally immune. As he says of Marian, “What is intriguing…is that the animators have succeeded in making a vixen have the screen presence of an attractive woman. In part this must be due to her voice, supplied by Monica Evans, but this cannot be a total explanation. One must simply applaud the skill of the Disney animators.” Poor, confused, lust-fogged Grant.)
As engaging as Robin is, Grant’s not wrong when he points out that he’s not a particularly deep character, nor does he seem capable of much personal growth. Somehow, though, it doesn’t really matter. Between the vignettes, the fable quality added by the animal cast, and static personalities of the characters, the movie feels like a sort of cheerful purgatory. Alan-a-Dale says this is the way things “really happened,” but it seems much more like a timeless metaphor. You can start the movie at any point and stop it at any point and still get much the same effect. I know I’ve appropriated this quote for the wrong Disney movie before, but this has all happened before, and it will all happen again. So what if Robin’s never going to grow or change? He’s Robin Hood. That’s already enough.
Finally, I should note the music, which is totally different from any previous movie. “Love” is pretty standard folksy 70s fare, but the rest is country – and though Disney would someday wholeheartedly embrace drenching its movies in country music no matter how out of place and anachronistic, it was a new direction at the time, and one that wouldn’t be repeated for decades. It works very well, with Roger Miller’s three songs (“Oo De Lally,” “Not in Nottingham,” and the instrumental “Whistle-Stop”) in particular blending the Olde Tyme-y setting with a folk tale vibe to create a laidback, pastoral effect. Though “Love” was nominated for an Oscar, the true standout, I’d say, is “Not in Nottingham.” For a movie without much emotion, “Not in Nottingham” manages to be the saddest Disney song until Toy Story 2 destroyed us all with “When Somebody Loved Me.” (And its melancholy is not the least bit dampened by the fact that a bird is singing about wishing he had wings.)
If I could use only one word to describe Robin Hood, I’d go with “easygoing.” It’s not a Disney Great by a long shot…but it’s tremendously likable through and through, and there’s something, well, comforting about it. Between the low-stakes plot and mediocre animation, it’s a great movie to have on in the background while you’re doing something else. That sounds like faint praise, and maybe it is. I’m still not entirely sure what the lesson of Robin Hood is, you see. My brain tells me it’s really just okay at best, but my heart tells me I like it anyway.
That Robin Hood. He’s a trickster, all right.
- Human Division Top Five, in reverse order: Li Shang, Flynn Rider, Prince Naveen, Aladdin, Dmitri from Anastasia. That’s an official Disney Blogathon ranking and not to be argued with! Also, if you’re suspecting I might be a sucker for thieves and con men…*ahem* ↩