(This review ended up being less about the story of the movie but more about the things I learned in my research and how I feel about individual scenes. I hope it works for you guys)
Robin Hood is a movie as soon as I heard it was on blu-ray I went out and bought it. I really do love it. That said, I do have to look at films a little bit objectively or what’s the point in even reviewing them? It can’t be all based on nostalgia even if that is a factor.
So, let’s talk about it.
There isn’t a ton of production info on a lot of these movies from the 70s. Honestly I poured through the internet trying to find out the thought process behind the writing, art, songs, etc in Robin Hood but found very little. However, I was able to piece some interesting tidbits together, and really enjoyed rewatching it again.
First thing to know is Robin Hood is the first movie to be made without any involvement from Walt Disney. (Walt had signed off on the Aristocats before his passing).
Released in 1973 Disney had moved its focus away from its animated division in the late 60s and all of their capital and energy was going into Walt Disney World in Florida. We are used to it now but at the time Epcot was a herculean task and another example of Walt Disney dreaming big!
But the budgets on the animated films suffered for a long time. We didn’t see Disney invest real money into a picture until 1985 with the Black Cauldron, which was also their biggest flop (kind of excited to see that one!).
Robin Hood didn’t always start out as a comedy. Lead writer and storyboard artist Ken Anderson (who is given writing credit on the feature even though he hated it) was commissioned by Disney to come up with a story based on Reynard the fox, a fearless creature known throughout France. He gave his drawings to Disney animators and I read multiple places he ‘wept when he saw that his “character concepts had been processed into stereotypes for the animation in Robin Hood”
It is the first Disney movie to have all anthropomorphic creatures. The Rooster says at the beginning it is ‘the animal kingdom’s version’ of the story. Not sure why they did it this way but there were shows and stories featuring all anthropomorphic creatures for kids successful at the time. On the anthropomorphic note doing this research I came across a group called the furry fandom which have an unhealthy love for anthropomorphic creatures. Let’s just say I have nightmares!😉
They also give us a really long intro with the character name, type of animal, and the celebrity voice which is new to Disney. Before Jungle Book Disney had not used celebrity voices, but had relied on talented voice overs actors like Verna Felton and Sterling Holloway. Even now when celebrity voices are very common I still don’t recall them having a character introduction like in Robin Hood.
Something surprising I learned in my research is Disney has admitted to recycling animation (I didn’t know you could do that) from other films to make Robin Hood. I’m not sure I really care but it is kind of disappointing.
This recycling or ‘limited animation’ is defined as- “Limited animation is a process of making animated cartoons that does not redraw entire frames but variably reuses common parts between frames
It is for this reason that Disney as a company kind of hates Robin Hood and many other films from this era, despite them being very popular. I’ve always thought it was interesting how little attention they get in the park and I think this recycled material explains why.. .
The thing I liked as a child and still like today about Robin Hood is its humorous script. There is a ton of funny dialogue like when Prince John tells the guards to ‘seize the fat one’ or when Little John says ‘who’s driving this flying umbrella?’ This scene at the tournament is full of classic physical comedy. We even get a pie in the face. Some may think that is cliche but to kids watching they haven’t seen those bits before and they are put together so well. It still makes me laugh:
There is also humor with Robin Hood and Little John dressing in drag to steal from Prince John. Again the scene uses classic comedy tropes including some sexy music but it works. I repeat it still makes me laugh:
One Disney site I found said Prince John’s humor had been based on The Smother’s Brothers, which makes sense. They were a very funny comedy sketch team that produced popular comedic albums and had The Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour from 1967-1969 but it was deemed as too edgy and taken off the air.
Listen to this bit and see if it reminds you of Robin Hood.
As I was watching it today I kept thinking about a Muppets sketch from the 70s I had seen a few days ago. It felt very similar in tone and cadence to Robin Hood and it made me wonder if the two were connected in some way? I did some research and found out Sesame Street started in 1969. Real work on Robin didn’t start till well after that date. I could be wrong on the Muppet connection but it just feels like a similar form of comedy. The Muppets are very bawdy in their humor, they have all different animals behaving like humans and they have sincere moments like Rainbow Connection. I think Disney saw the success of Muppets and decided to apply it to Robin Hood.
When I saw this clip my opinion was even more confirmed. From season 1 or 2 of Sesame Street:
I am spending so much time talking about the writing because I think that is what is special about Robin Hood. The animation clearly has problems but even if it is recycled, the humor still works.
The music is pretty good. Following the lead of the Aristocats and Jungle Book, they used recognizable singers including Phil Harris and country singer Roger Miller who wrote the songs and serves as narrator. (A folksy feeling soundtrack may also be a nod to the Smothers Brothers who played guitar and sang in their act).
The introductory song is my personal favorite and I pretty much have it memorized. It’s not a song that will change your life but I kind of like it.
The Love song is pretty 70’s corny so it isn’t my favorite. I do like Phony King of England song even if it is recycled animation. (What about you guys? Does knowing that make you like it less or do you not care?)
Another thing I like about Robin Hood is you get introduced to a lot of characters. In 83 minutes (long for Disney those days) we have little vignettes with the sheriff, Prince John and Hiss, Clucky and Maid Marian, and the rabbits and friends, etc.
I don’t know if there is a more morose moment in Disney than the ‘Not in Nottingham’ number because it affects so many people. I remember as a child being less interested in the last third of the movie and I still kind of agree with that assessment. The scenes with Nutsy are fun but the jailbreak we don’t really get any action that is better or different from the tournament scenes earlier so it is less engrossing.
That’s a pretty sad song but I like it. The score is nice by frequent Disney collaborator George Bruns. They use music for a lot of the sound effect cues so instead of a bonk on the head noise, it is a noise worked into the score.
There is also no attempt in the movie to give accents to any characters but Prince John and Hiss (who is totally a rip off from Kaa down to the hypnotizing eyes but he has a lot of great lines). Everyone sounds like they are from Chicago but it is less distracting than in the Aristocats because it wasn’t supposed to be London.
I love Hiss’s dialogue like “What cheek! Creepy? Buster? Long one? Who does that dopey duke think he is? or “Sire, you have an absolute skill for encouraging contributions from the poor”
Prince John is also funny with lines like “Yes, my reluctant reptile, and when our elusive hero tries to rescue the corpulent cleric” and “You cowardly cobra! Procrastinating python! Agravating asp! Ooh, you eel in snake’s clothing!” That’s pretty high vocabulary for a kids movie and it totally works. It still makes me laugh.
Clucky is one of my favorite characters. In one scene she fights off a bunch of rhinos football style and it is very funny. There is also a lot of sadness with Robin Hood with taxes, and people going to prison and one particularly cruel scene where the Sheriff steals the last farthing the church mice have given to the poor.
So what do you do with a movie like this? Is it an artistic masterpiece? No. Do I get why Disney is embarrassed by it? Kind of but not really. It’s not like in recycling they were stealing from other animation studios artwork. I get why it may not be your greatest achievement but if it makes people smile than that’s an accomplishment however crudely it is accomplished.
Maybe part of it is Disney had been the first so they didn’t have to recylcle ideas or formulas from any one else. They were then what Pixar was in the 2000s. Everything at the beginning had been so great, like Pixar, that when they are less ambitious it feels like a failure even if lots of people like the end product.
I guess when it comes down to it making kids laugh isn’t all that easy, and I think Robin Hood does a good job with that. I like the vocal performances. I like the action scenes. I like that the characters use big words and challenge kids a little bit with ideas of social justice and taxation.
So even acknowledging its flaws I still love Robin Hood and think it is one of the most rewatchable Disney movies. The artpiece films are amazing but a good laugh goes a long way!
Overall Grade- B+ (I’d give it an A but I do think that last act drags a little)
What do you guys think about Robin Hood?