Disney’s Robin Hood – (1973)
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Starring: Brian Bedford, Phil Harris, Monica Evans, Peter Ustinov
Screenplay by: Larry Clemmons, Ken Anderson
There are more portrayals of Robin Hood then planets in the universe; the only character that may have more variations is Hamlet. And why not – Robin Hood is the unquestioning brave hero of the people, a thief of “socialist” pride, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Now, considering that, at this time, there was no such thing as a “middle class,” I don’t think socialism even applies here. Still, it’s the essence that Robin Hood represents that seems appealing. He’s not robbing the rich; he’s robbing the greedy, power hungry, corrupt rich.
Of course, it’s a tweaked story of sorts; the person in power is not the “real” king but an impostor; and once the real king regains his throne, the power struggle is made moot. The rich are still rich, and the poor are still poor, but this time, the rich have the poor’s interest in heart. So it’s not that Hood was fighting to equalize the socio-economic nature of feudalism; he was being a crook until he got someone he liked. What does this tell us about today, about the public’s perception of a crooked Wall Street and a screwed-over public? What could be argued concerning Obama as the “Savior” of the people? Where is our Robin Hood of today? It’s interesting to watch this now, a movie from the 1970s, when there was another recession going on at the time.
But it’s a Disney cartoon, so let’s focus on that, shall we?
NOSTALGIC LENS: Disney smooth and more realistic depiction of anthropomorphic animal characters allowed for more character to be depicted than Warner Brothers’ or MGM’s wackier, just-for-laughs band of reprobates, and while I can’t say I liked one over the other, I can say I enjoyed them in different ways – two sides of the same coin, as it were. I enjoyed Robin Hood and its controlled pacing and enjoyable atmosphere, but while there’s nothing amusing about it, it seemed to have something going for itself, unlike the “padding for an hour before we pull the sword” nature of Sword in the Stone, or the “write everything just so it leads to ‘Everybody Wants to be a Cat’ song” in The Aristocats (and, uh, I don’t want to be a cat.) I have no idea if it holds up, though.
DOES IT HOLD UP: Robin Hood’s greatest strength is how organic it seems. There’s a sense that this world exists and its characters exist in it, and it completely lacks any indication of self-awareness. In other words, at no point does the movie imply that “this a movie with animals in it, and gosh darnit, ain’t they cute”? I can’t say for sure other movies that delved into any form of anthropomorphism had that controlled sense of itself. The Rescuers films made it aware by depicting the humans around them; so did An American Tail and its follow-up. Even modern films, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, seem to film around its CGI creatures with an obvious sense of self-recognition, as if to say, “See these cute animals do people things!”
That in itself says a lot, and even if it misses out on many of the generic Robin Hood staples, it breathes a life on to its own. Even the more outlandish moments seem to fit, as when Robin and Little John raid the royal caravan dressed as gypsies (with the hundreds of guards not noticing) and an elaborate, chaotic scene when a conflict breaks out at an archery contest. It comes together surprisingly well.
There’s nothing new to the plot here that isn’t in a hundred different Robin Hood tales. Greedy Prince John assumes power as the real King Richard disappears in the Crusades, taxing the poor with the Sheriff of Nottingham enforcing the law. Robin, in his good nature, robs the rich to provide for the oppressed, and a lot of various events happen when Robin tempts fate, gets caught, fights his way out, and eventually wins everything—the money, the girl, the battle, the contests, and so on.
With its dark but rich, detailed animation, awkward writing moments pass by as the characters and scenes fluidly move from moment to moment (although I think I caught a 5-fingered or 4-fingered moment on the Sheriff), which certainly helps legitimizing this world of animals. (In fact, the only out-of-place moment occurs during the opening credits, where the characters are introduced like “Robin Hood – A FOX” and “Maid Marian – A VIXEN”. Just in case, you know, you can’t tell what animals they are.)
In fact, the dialogue runs the risk of over-exposition, especially when Prince John and Sir Hiss over-explain pretty much every plot moment that occurs (including a silly scene where John just tosses money in the air yelling “Taxes! Lovely taxes!” I love how movies blindly make taxes the MacGuffin of evil, completely forgoing it’s purpose or reason in the economic stability of a region). But where it fails there, it makes up it with some amazing acerbic wit, as this exchange shows:
FRIAR TUCK: … someday you’ll be called a great hero!
ROBIN: A hero? Do you hear that, Johnny? We’ve just been pardoned!
LITTLE JOHN: Oh, that’s a gas. We haven’t even been arrested yet!
Well, I laughed.
The introduction showcased here shows both the movies strengths and weakness in one go:
But when the movie hits its stride and moves away from its more awkward moments, it becomes something real. This love montage sequence pretty much sums up the movie’s naturalism:
(Note 0:35-0:45. The poses, movements, and gestures in oh-so-subtle ways epitomize how organic everything is.)
IN A NUTSHELL: While I didn’t love it, you can’t deny how enjoyable it is, and how rich the details make Robin Hood breathe its own life. Early in the movie, a few kids sneak into the palace grounds, where Maid Marian and Lady Kluck have a lot of fun messing and playing with them. It’s a nice moment, two separate socio-economic classes coming together under a sense of oppression to enjoy themselves after being so isolated. And the beautiful animation, of various angles and playful banter just pushes it to almost a thing of art. Most “slice of life” live films lack that sense of control, especially with children involved, and considering that this movie continues that throughout its entire run, you almost have to admit that it’s a thing of art.
October 5th: Theodore Rex
October 12th: The NeverEnding Story