Robin Hood (1973)
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
In a world populated entirely by animals, the rooster minstrel Alan-a-Dale narrates the tale of Robin Hood the fox and Little John the bear. After the duo steals a large quantity of money from Prince John (a lion), the prince puts a bounty on their heads and assigns the Sheriff of Nottingham (a wolf) to aggressively squeeze the population for taxes to replace what was taken.
To eliminate Robin, Prince John and his advisor, Sir Hiss (a snake) devise a trap: an archery tournament that will award both a golden arrow and a kiss from Maid Marian (Robin’s off-and-on girlfriend) as the rewards. Robin attends in disguise as a stork and wins the tournament but is immediately arrested. Little John and Robin’s other friends help him to escape, and together they have a big party out in Sherwood Forest.
Enraged, Prince John has the Sheriff arrest everyone who can’t pay their taxes. When the Sheriff attempts to rob the poor box at Friar Tuck (a badger)’s church, the priest fights back, and is subsequently sentenced to death in another trap attempt. Robin and Little John successfully infiltrate the castle and break Tuck and the other townsfolk out, but Robin is caught trying to steal from Prince John’s bedroom. He escapes by diving off a burning tower, and King Richard finally comes back from the Crusades, arrests his brother and the Sheriff, and sees Robin and Maid Marian married.
While Snow White was in production, Walt Disney had the idea to make some sort of movie from the medieval Reynard stories: folk tales of a trickster fox who outwits the other animals, which are typically seen as satires of the courtly love ballads or Arthurian tales of the day. He couldn’t crack how to make the character appealing to kids, however, and shelved the idea, bringing it out every now and then over the next 25 years to tinker with it.
Flash forward to 1970, while The Aristocats is in production. Executives at Disney were pushing for another adaptation of a classic tale, more in the vein of Sword in the Stone than the comparatively contemporary Aristocats. Disney writer Ken Anderson got the idea to combine Robin Hood (the sort of classic tale that they’d been looking for) with the anthropomorphic animals of the Reynard tales. His conception was quite different from the final product, however. He’d wanted to set the story in America, and use non-stereotypical casting like having a goat Sheriff. Director Wolfgang Reitherman nixed all of that, however, preferring a more traditional take on the material. He’s also the one who took out all the rest of the Merry Men. He’d recently seen Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and wanted a Paul Newman/Robert Redford-esque duo dynamic.
The studio had difficulties with both designing an entire cast of animal characters and with finding the right voices to play them. As a result, Robin Hood went so over schedule that the animators were forced to recycle tons of animation from previous movies. Animation had been reused ever since the xerography process had been invented, but this is the movie that really made it glaringly obvious. Audiences didn’t seem to mind, however. Like with The Aristocats, the movie was a hit, and especially so overseas. It grossed $18 million outside of the U.S./Canada, which was a company record at the time.
Robin Hood also has the distinction of being the first Disney movie released on VHS. Throughout the 60s-80s, Disney regularly held theatrical re-releases of its films, which is how a many of them eventually turned a profit. A lot of the original classics from the 40s and 50s made double or triple the box office that they had originally when re-released, even accounting for inflation. So the studio was very hesitant to release any of its movies on home video for fear of killing the golden goose. Robin Hood had only received a single re-release in 1982, and it hadn’t done very well, so it was considered as the best candidate for a test run on video.
My reviews are usually around 1000-1100 words long. I’ve already written 700 and I’m just getting to the review itself. I apparently have a disproportionate amount to say about what’s usually considered by modern critics to be the weakest of Disney’s 1970s films, and one of the weakest of the post-Walt, pre-Renaissance period overall. And I’ll freely admit that I see where they’re coming from. The animation is generally subpar for Disney’s standards, the recycling of animation is glaring, and a lot of the voice work seems out of place for the setting. But I can’t help it – I still wholeheartedly love this movie.
And before anyone asks, it’s not because I’m a furry.
We might as well get that particular topic out of the way now. While Robin Hood didn’t create the furry fandom, the film is probably more responsible than any other for attracting people of my generation to the community. It’s the single “furriest” movie I can think of before the debut of a certain other fox character from a couple of years ago, and was hugely influential on the development of the fandom (especially given its early release on VHS in the 80s, as discussed above). Seriously, this is the first movie for this project where I had to look up screenshots with SafeSearch turned ON.
Anyway, I personally grew up with this movie. I had the movie’s soundtrack on vinyl, and I’d play it on my Fisher-Price kid’s record player before going to bed while in elementary school. It’s probably the single Disney movie I’ve seen more than any other. I could probably have written out an even more detailed synopsis of the film before watching it, even with it having been probably at least a decade since I’d watched it all the way through. It’s as big a part of my childhood as He-Man, the Ninja Turtles and the 8-bit Nintendo were.
So I’ll confess to being completely incapable of being objective about Robin Hood. I can acknowledge the movie’s faults (and there are many), but I really don’t care about them. I still love it.
Anyway, let’s actually talk about the movie itself. The biggest complaint that most people have with the film is the recycling from previous movies. And there’s a ton of it. Little John is rather blatantly Baloo from The Jungle Book recolored brown, and it didn’t help that they cast Baloo’s voice actor, Phil Harris, for the role. There are also multiple examples of scenes where the same animation was duplicated over and over again from shot to shot. For example, I think we see the shot of the spear-wielding rhinos charging at the camera at least three times over the course of the movie, in three different scenes. And one entire song and dance sequence (“The Phony King of England”) is almost entirely made up of animation from previous movies. It probably wouldn’t be quite as apparent to me if I hadn’t watched all of them in rapid succession, but looking at it now I can’t help but see Baloo and King Louie dancing, or Duchess and O’Malley from The Aristocats.
The songs themselves are middle-tier Disney. Not as bad as anything from Sword and the Stone, but not quite as memorable as anything from The Jungle Book. One thing that I did find unusual about them is that the movie actually isn’t really a musical, despite having half a dozen numbers. It actually has a narrator, the rooster Alan-a-Dale, who sings most of the songs as commentary on the action. Only the aforementioned “Phony King of England” is actually sung by any of the main characters. And anyone who was around the Internet in the late 1990s will recognize the whistling tune that accompanies the opening credits: a sped-up version of it would go on to become the early Internet meme “The Hampster Dance”.
When it comes to the voicework, the movie is very much a mixed bag. I personally really like Bruce Beresford’s turn as Robin. He’s charming and intelligent, which Robin should definitely be, and Beresford gets multiple chances to play around with the voice when Robin assumes one of his many disguises. I also love Sir Peter Ustinov’s Prince John. He manages to lend the character a regal, aristocratic tone (as befitting his status as royalty), while also making him entirely pathetic at the same time.
Pat Buttram’s performance as the Sheriff, however…yikes. For some unfathomable reason, they decided to turn the character into a “good ole boy” Southern American cop. His accent wouldn’t have been out of place in Smokey and the Bandit or Dukes of Hazzard (and Buttram had in fact been a regular on Green Acres). Just…why? It completely took me out of the movie every time the Sheriff opened his mouth. And they doubled down on it by giving him two clueless vultures to act as his comedy “deputies.” When Kevin Costner has a more appropriate accent for a Robin Hood movie than your Sheriff, you know there’s been a mistake in casting.
And finally, there’s the ending. Or, more accurately, there isn’t. Robin Hood succeeds in freeing the citizens and stealing a decent portion of the treasury, but it’s just a single victory. Prince John and the Sheriff could come right back at him the next day. It’s not like Robin killed them or otherwise took away their ability to fight back against him. No, the movie only ends because it’s out of run time, it seems. King Richard just magically appears in the final scene, and sentences his brother and the Sheriff to hard labor offscreen. No buildup, no dramatic reveal. It’s the biggest deus ex machina that I can think of in the entire Disney canon, and it’s deeply unsatisfying. It’s about the only thing that I can actually remember not liking about the film even as a kid.
So yeah, this movie has a lot of problems. I didn’t even get into the animation quality itself, which manages to top Sword and the Stone for the worst of the “scratchy” xerography aesthetic so far. But damn it, I still enjoyed watching it again anyway. And I probably will continue to do so for years to come.
Animation: D+ (The animation is…serviceable. But it’s probably the nadir of the xerography period)
Main Characters: B (The Butch & Sundance shtick actually does work pretty well, even if Phil Harris is playing the same character for the third consecutive movie)
Supporting Characters: C (None of the supporting characters really get much to do, and the movie is content to let our prior knowledge of Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, etc. do all the heavy lifting)
Villains: B- (I’m still really annoyed at the Sheriff, but Prince John and Sir Hiss’s double-act is quite entertaining)
Music: C+ (A couple hummable tunes, and a late 90s Internet meme)
Overall: C (See, I CAN be objective about the movie if I want)