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Introduction to movie. Bitter comment from Walt Disney. Batman joke. He’s been to Bahia. Have you ever danced with the Red Rooster in the pale moonlight? Columbo appearance. Batman joke. Batman joke.
Oh, sorry. Does it seem like I’m recycling a lot of material from other reviews? Well, when in Rome.
Robin Hood came out in 1973, in a decade when the Disney company was moving further and further away from its roots as an animation studio and becoming the massive, many tentacled, HYDRA-esque cartel bent on world domination that we know and love today.
The vast majority of the company’s earnings in this period came from the theme parks and merchandise. The studio’s live action movie division was also branching out into new genres like science fiction (The Black Hole) horror (The Watcher in the Woods) and hardcore pornography (Herbie Rides Again. I assume from the title). Meanwhile, the animation division was increasingly being treated like the weak sister of the company and Robin Hood is one of the best examples of this. This movie is infamous for its borrowing of animation from earlier Disney movies, in fact it’s probably got the most blatant examples of any film in the canon. Why is this? Well, because they were fucking broke. They had to make this thing on $15 Million, which sounds like a lot, but for a feature length animated movie is like trying to re-enact the moon landing with some aluminium cans and a few bottle rockets. And yet, I come here to praise Robin Hood, not to bury it. This movie, probably more than any other, perfectly encapsulates the Scratchy Era aesthetic: We got no money, we’re ugly as sin, but we got the charm and we got the tunes. Robin Hood has buckets of charm and some really great songs. It also has the kind of manic energy you would expect from a movie animated by starving hobos who were being paid in hot dogs.
Alright, so the movie begins with a storybook opening and we meet our narrator, who is none other than…
Sorry, sorry my mistake. No, this is not Panchito Pistoles, the Lord of Darkness. This is the movie’s take on Allan-a-Dale, voiced by country singer Roger Miller. He tells us that this is the real story of Robin Hood, and not the sanitised propaganda we’ve been spoonfed by the corporate media conglomerates. We get a rather cheap and cheerful credits sequence that pretty much just showcases some of the animation from the movie and isn’t really notable apart from the catchy music played over it by Miller and…holy shit!
Don Bluth? As in Don “legendary animator and creator of such masterworks as Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, Land Before Time, All Dogs go to Heaven and let’s not talk about what came after because it gets increasingly more depressing” Bluth?
No he didn’t, you did!
Bluth had actually worked for Disney before back in the fifties and contributed to Sleeping Beauty. He left and then rejoined the company in the seventies and worked on several pictures during the seventies and eighties before leaving with a large crop of animators to set up rival studio Don Bluth Productions but we’ll get into all that in later reviews. All I’ll say is, for an animator, going from Sleeping Beauty to Robin Hood must have been pretty jarring.
The credits over, we get our first song “Oo-de-Lally“, where Allan narrates a story of Robin Hood and Little John walking through the forest and getting hassled by the man. It’s a lovely, laid back number like almost all the songs in this movie. After escaping from the Sheriff’s wolves, Baloo,
I mean Baloo, I mean Baloo I mean, Little John (Phil Harris) asks Robin if they’re good guys or bad guys.
Robin replies that, while they may technically be outlaws, illegality is not automatically equivalent with immorality and that since they are living in a corrupt tyrannical monarchy where the law has been subverted into a tool for the oppression of the populace it can safely be disregarded and they can basically do whatever the shit they want. I’m paraphrasing slightly. Robin is voiced by Shakespearean actor Brian Bedford, who does a phenomenal job. I might even go so far as to say his Robin Hood is one of my all time favorite Disney leads. He’s witty, charming, cocky without being a douche and the character design is very appealing. There’s a reason this movie is considered a gateway to the furry fandom.
Meanwhile, Prince John (the great Peter Ustinov) is taking his money for a walk through Sherwood forest, accompanied by a platoon of Rhino guards and his royal advisor Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas). Ustinov is absolutely on fire in the part of Prince John. This is a very light movie, so John is far more comedic than sinister and Ustinov’s delivery is hilarious, He can take a line as simple as “I’ve got a dirty thumb” and make it pant-wettingly funny. And yet, later in the film he does manage to invest Prince John with a certain macabre menace. Ustinov is clearly having a blast with this part. John is trying on his brother’s crown in front of a mirror and loses his temper when Hiss refers to his brother as “King” Richard.
Hiss says that it was a mere “slip of the forked tongue” and the two reminisce how John concocted the plan to get rid of his brother. John bursts out laughing as he remembers how Hiss hypnotised King Richard to leave the country on “that crazy crusade”.
Their conversation then turns to the subject of Prince John’s mother. This causes some kind of psychological break in John as he starts sucking his thumb and muttering that “Mother always did like Richard best.” Hilariously, while the movie obviously plays fast and loose with history (the talking wolves of the period did not have Southern accents) this is actually true. Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Richard and John, really did favour Richard.
Hiss, who’s getting kind of freaked out by the whole thumb sucking thing, offers to help John break the habit with hypnosis.
But John’s having none of it and tells Hiss to screw off. Meanwhile, Robin and Little John are getting ready to rob John’s…um…the other John’s coach. They disguise themselves as gypsy fortune tellers and flag down the coach.
Little John thinks it’s a circus procession and when he realises that it’s the Prince himself he almost bails saying “There’s a law against robbing royalty.” Robin stops him in his tracks and cops a feel while he’s at it.
When it comes to fortune telling, Prince John is all over that shit and orders the coach to stop. Hiss is suspicious, saying they might be bandits but Prince John laughs this off because female bandits, as if. Prince John offers them his hands to kiss, which are loaded down with rings and gems.
While Robin tells the Prince’s fortune, Little John helps himself to the cash box. Prince John bursts out of the carriage in his underwear and realises that he’s been robbed, and who can’t relate to that?
Robin and Little John escape into the forest and the Prince’s entourage try to pursue but the wheels fall off Prince John’s coach because Little John stole his utterly pimpin’ solid gold hubcaps.
Meanwhile in Nottingham, the Sheriff is collecting taxes and we see how Prince John’s policies are squeezing the life out of the poor.
The Sheriff is voiced by Pat Buttram, and why yes, he does play this character with an Alabaman accent are you some kind of psychic?
The Sheriff tails Friar Tuck (played by Andy Devine) as he visits Otto the blacksmith to pass on some money from Robin Hood.. Otto is voiced by J. Pat O’Malley with a flawless Cockney accent because Dick Van Dyke can go screw. After shaking Otto down for his lunch money, the Sheriff crashes little Skippy Rabbit’s birthday party and takes his birthday present, a single farthing…
But then Robin arrives, disguised as a blind beggar, to give Skippy his birthday present; a hat, a bow and arrow and a membership in the National Archery Association, which will entitle him to discounts on ammunition including armour-piercing cyanide tipped arrows. It’s in the Magna Carta.
I also love the way, when the beggar reveals himself to be Robin Hood, Skippy’s sister coos “Oh, he’s so handsome!”
I’ve heard of girls being attracted to bad boys, but can we agree that being attracted to dangerous predators is taking things a step too far?
Skippy runs off to play with his
lethal offensive weapon new toy with his two sisters and his friend Toby, a bespectacled, mild-mannered dork who’s constantly being steamrolled by his best friend wait just a damn minute here!
Skippy “accidentally” shoots an arrow into Prince John’s castle grounds.
He sneaks into the castle through the…um…back gate?
And he meets Maid Marian played by Monica Evans, and her chicken in waiting Lady Kluck (Carole Shelley). You may remember from my Aristocats review that I was rather hard on these two actors. One might even say, ungentlemanly. But my problem was not with Evans and Shelley themselves, but with the fact that they were basically reprising their roles from another film. Here, they are both put to much better use. Shelley in particular is hilarious as the Scottish accented Kluck. Marian talks to the children, and they ask her if it’s true that she and Robin Hood were sweethearts. She says that they were, but oh, he probably doesn’t even remember her. He probably doesn’t even realise how much she still thinks about him. Probably doesn’t even know she exists. Certainly doesn’t know that she wakes up every morning caressing her pillow thinking it’s him and then breaking into soft, silent sobbing.
Cut to Robin, burning his soup because he’s thinking of Maid Marian. He confesses to Little John that he’s in love with her, but he can’t bring himself to propose because he’s an outlaw with nothing to offer her except charm, good looks, a killer wit, eyes you can just fall into…
Then Friar Tuck arrives and tells them that Prince John is holding an archery tournament and to the winner goes the greatest prize of all: First Base! Yes, Maid Marian’s lips are all to play for.
Robin disguises himself as a stork and enters the tournament while Little John disguises himself as…
Little John cosies up to Regular Sized John by posing as “Sir Reginald, Duke of Chutney”, and we get a scene of Phil Harris and Peter Ustinov riffing off each other because ours is a loving and benevolent God.
The archery contest starts and it quickly comes down to Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff gets a bullseye, and then trips Robin just as he’s taking his shot but Robin manages to correct the arrow’s trajectory by shooting it with another arrow. His arrow actually splits the Sheriff’s on the bullseye and Robin is declared the winner. And a good thing too, because archers can de damn competitive and this could have gone on forever.
But Prince John has seen through Robin’s disguise and has him arrested and sentenced to “sudden, instant and even immediate death.” Marian pleads for his life, saying she loves him and also, shit, he is literally the only other one of her species in this universe so killing him is pretty much genocide. Robin tells Marian he loves her with all his heart, and Prince John feigns compassion but says that traitors to the crown must die. Robin cries out that the crown belongs to King Richard. John goes berserk, does his best Queen of Hearts impersonation and the executioner is summoned.
But at the last minute, Prince John tells the executioner to back off because the
Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come has shown him the error of his ways because Little John sticks a goddamn shiv in his back. Robin is released but the sheriff susses what’s going on and suddenly all hell breaks loose with Robin, Little John and Lady Kluck taking on the rhino guards.
And it is awesome. It’s a fast paced, funny, exciting, fight scene that would have done Errol Flynn proud. And yeah, you read that right, Lady Kluck joins the fray, battling the guards and flooring the sheriff with a perfect judo throw. In fact, Klucky pretty much steals this entire scene, and it’s all great fun until one of the guards grabs her tail and something truly horrific happens:
Robin and Marian escape to the woods and we get our next song Love, song by Nancy Adams. It’s a beautiful, serene love song that in many ways feels like a forerunner of Can You Feel the Love Tonight? from The Lion King. It also helps that Robin and Marian work as a couple. They feel more authentic than, say, Cinderella and the Prince, or Snow White and the Other Prince. Partly this is the performances of Evans and Bedford, but the animation of their body language is superb, and really captures the sense of a young couple in love. Robin takes her back to the camp where all the townspeople have gathered and they have a big old hootenanny to the strains of our next song, The Phoney King of England.
It’s a good song, but this scene is better known for the fact that if it had any more recycling it would be carbon neutral. This is pretty much the most egregious sequence of reusing animation of any movie in the entire canon. In this one sequence (not counting other examples of recycling in the movie) I counted three swipes from The Jungle Book, seven from The Aristocats and eight from Snow White and I could well have missed some. And, to be honest, I normally don’t mind the recycling. I know some people who, when it’s pointed out to them, feel like the movies are “ruined”. I certainly don’t feel like that. Animation is an extremely expensive and time consuming art form so yeah, sometimes they have to cut corners. And hell, it’s not like they’re stealing. It’s their animation. But when it’s this blatant and condensed it does start to rub me the wrong way which is why I will be marking this movie quite harshly on its animation. To give you an idea as to how bad the reuse of animation was during the Scratchy Era, there’s a sequence later in the movie that is a lift from Jungle Book which was in itself originally lifted from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad.
A swipe within a swipe!
The Phoney King of England is so catchy that soon even the sheriff and Sir Hiss are singing it. When Prince John hears them he flies into a rage and crosses the line from everyday villainy to cartoonish super villainy…
…and orders super-quadruple-no-backsies taxes for all!
Cut to a few weeks later and pretty much all of Nottingham is now in jail for non payment of taxes. Allan-a-Dale sings one of my favorite Disney songs, the soulful Not in Nottingham. There’s an aching sadness in this song that’s pretty rare for Disney and Miller absolutely kills.
“We’d up and fly if we had wings for flying/Can’t you see the tears we’re crying?
Can’t there be some happiness for me?/Not in Nottingham.”
In the church, Friar Tuck is ringing the bell for mass, even though (a) no one is coming, and (b) he’s a Friar and Friars don’t say mass, priests do. Oh and (c), there were no Friars at the time this movie is set if you want to be pedantic. And I just counted every instance of animation taken from The Aristocats in this movie so you damn well better believe I want to be pedantic.
The church sextant and his wife donate their last farthing to Friar Tuck’s poorbox, but then the sheriff arrives because as we already know, there’s nothing he loves more than a last farthing.
The sheriff takes the farthing and Friar Tuck just loses his goddamn shit.
But eventually he’s overpowered and he’s led away in chains.
In the palace, Prince John is stewing in a silent rage. Hiss tries to cheer him up, telling him that Friar Tuck is in jail and John explodes that it’s Robin Hood that he wants.
The Prince has an idea.
An awful idea.
The Prince has a wonderful, awful idea.
Prince John tells Hiss that he’s going to lure Robin Hood out of hiding.
By hanging Friar Tuck.
In his disguise as the old beggar man, Robin learns of this plan from the sheriff as he’s constructing the gallows and tells Little John that their only hope is a massive, all or nothing jailbreak slash bankjob with a thrilling climax and maybe some partial nudity and explosions.
They sneak into the castle and Little John busts the prisoners out while Robin goes after the thing that really matters: the money. Robin sneaks into Prince John’s room which has been redecorated in the style of Scrooge McDuck. He then sets up a pulley system and starts ferrying the gold over to the prisoners in the tower over. Prince John wakes up and raises the alarm and the prisoners have to make a run for it. They manage to get out of the castle before the portcullis comes down but Robin is trapped inside.
Robin is cornered by the Sheriff in one of the castle towers. The Sheriff sets the place on fire and Robin has to climb higher and higher to escape the flames until finally, as Little John and Skippy watch in horror, he plunges into the moat.
They think he’s dead.
Turns out he’s not.
Cut to a few weeks letter and Robin and Marian are getting hitched, King Richard has returned home from the Crusade and Prince John, Hiss and the sheriff are breaking rocks in striped pyjamas. Richard (also played by Ustinov) remarks to Friar Tuck that he now has an outlaw for an inlaw. Because…he’s Marian’s…uncle? (Fuck does that work?)
Robin and Marian get in the wedding coach and, to the strains of Love, and they ride off into the sunset.
You know, some have made the point that my system of rating these movies isn’t always fair. I get that sometimes a movie’s final score doesn’t always reflect what my opinion of it seems to be and that by judging the film by the parts, I’m neglecting the sum. That’s probably more true of Robin Hood than any other movie I’ve covered. I absolutely adore this film, and I think it was a very worthy addition to Walt’s legacy, especially when you consider the constraints it was made under. Wolfgang Reitherman and the animators apparently didn’t think much of it, and considered the film to be something of an embarrassment. And it’s true that on an animation level, it’s quite shockingly rough. But I gotta be honest, if it wasn’t for the animation issues, this would be a serious contender for the top spot. See you next time.
So scratchy you want to give a flea bath. What’s that? I recycled that joke? Well, they recycled the animation. Over and over again. A low point in the canon quite frankly.
The Leads: 18/20
As I said, I think Robin is one of the most appealing Disney leads, and Marian is sweet if a little sugary.
The Villains: 16/20
Ustinov is hilarious as Prince John.
Supporting Characters: 16/20
Not the flashiest supporting cast but they’re all remarkably solid, especially Harris’ Little John and Miller’s Allan-a-Dale.
The Music: 17/20
My personal prejudice showing here, I just love the laid back acoustic vibe of this movie’s soundtrack.
FINAL SCORE: 73%
NEXT TIME: We close out the Scratchy Era with The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and wonder if “five” can really be considered “many”. Personally, I think we were gypped.
NEXT REVIEW: February 7th 2013