Should I Watch..? 'Robin Hood' (1973)
What's the big deal?
Robin Hood is an animated family comedy film released in 1973 and was the twenty-first feature film produced by Walt Disney Studios. Loosely based on the legend of the same name, the film is set in a world of anthropomorphic animals and sees outlaws Robin Hood and Little John engaged in a battle of wits with the cruel Prince John and the greedy Sheriff of Nottingham. The film's voice cast includes Brian Bedford, Phil Harris, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Monica Evans, Pat Buttram and Roger Miller. Produced and directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, the film was a success at the US box office with takings of $32 million and remains popular among Disney fans. However, the film has seen a shift in reaction from critics who were initially pleased with the film but have since soured on it, citing the frequent recycling of animation cels as evidence of corner-cutting and budgetary restraints.
What's it about?
Narrated by Alan-a-Dale, the film introduces us to legendary English outlaws Robin Hood and Little John who have been a thorn in the side of authority by stealing from the rich and giving their ill-gotten gains to the poor. Residing in the depths of Sherwood Forest, the two have been constantly evading capture by the troops of Prince John who lays claim to the throne while his brother King Richard is away fighting in the Crusades. Alongside his serpentine sidekick Sir Hiss, Prince John arrives in Nottingham and orders the Sheriff of Nottingham to increase tax collection from the already impoverished citizens.
Distracted by his love for Maid Marian, Robin is urged to enter an archery contest organised by Prince John - unaware that the event is a ruse to merely expose and capture the outlaw. As the Prince's desperation and cruelty becomes ever more evident, Robin becomes a symbol of resistance to folk like Friar Tuck who begin to fight back against John's forces. But how long can Robin stay free from the hangman's noose and do he and Marian stand a chance of ever being together?
Prince John / King Richard
Sheriff of Nottingham
Release Date (UK)
15th December, 1973
Animation, Comedy, Family
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Song
What's to like?
Audiences are living in a new golden age of animation, unlikely as that may sound. Between the digitised glory of Pixar's output and the recent revival of popularity in anime led by the fabulous Studio Ghibli, it's easy to dismiss the work put in by Disney over many years. Yes, they had ups and down but for the most part, their films are some of the most finely crafted pieces of cinema you were likely to find. Robin Hood is a good example, combining the wonderful artwork of traditional illustrators and painters together with modern techniques to streamline the process. The film avoids looking grubby as 101 Dalmatians did - the visuals are clean, crisp and colourful by contrast and are much improved.
The film also boasts a talented voice cast although not everyone acquits themselves as well as others. Ustinov, for example, is a perfect fit for the scheming would-be monarch with mother issues and Thomas also does a great job as Sir Hiss. Harris, merely replicating his appearance as Baloo from The Jungle Book, is a good contrast to the more straight-laced Bedford as Robin but I personally enjoyed Buttram's Southern drawl as the Sheriff of Nottingham a great deal. The film is a mix of action, comedy, romance and musical and there is bound to be something to entertain most viewers. It also flirts with a slightly dark tone in places and I remember as a child, when I first watched the film, fearing the worst as it appeared that Prince John might actually win the day.
- Reitherman was one of the so-called Nine Old Men, a core group of animators within Disney who worked on many of the company's greatest films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves right up to 1977's The Rescuers. The others were Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnstone, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery and Frank Thomas. This would be the last film that all nine of them lived to see.
- Evans and Shelley were originally paired up in both the Broadway production and the movie of The Odd Couple but this wasn't their first time teaming up for a Disney film. They also appeared together as Abigail and Amelia (the geese) in the 1970 film The Aristocats.
- Roger Miller's opening theme, 'Whistle Stop', was sped up and edited as part of the notorious 'Hamster Dance' meme - one of the Internet's earliest memes featuring a page filled with hamster GIFs. The page's popularity even saw the track remixed and released as a single which peaked at number 4 in the UK in 1999.
What's not to like?
So why isn't the film a much loved classic like many other Disney films? There's no doubt that the film lacks much of the magic and charm of earlier Disney efforts like Dumbo and Cinderella and this is mainly due to the film's uneven pacing. Robin Hood veers wildly from frenetic comedy to plodding drama - compare the joyous and comical carnage of the archery contest to the scenes of an oppressed and rainy Nottingham, populated by the poor and weak. It makes following the film harder for younger viewers who will get turned off by the slower scenes and who will undoubtedly miss the film's political messages, such as they are in a film with a character called Lady Kluck.
I understand the reasons behind the recycling of animation (not to cut costs, as many people think) and to be honest, it isn't as distracting as you might think - it isn't as bad as a Hanna Barbera cartoon, for example. And to be honest, characters marching or running together would look very similar anyway. But there is a sense of characters getting recycled from other earlier films - I've already mentioned how much like Baloo Little John feels like (which isn't so much a bad thing) but it makes the film feel lazy in places. Sir Hiss is also basically Kaa from The Jungle Book and while Friar Tuck is a more original character, I wouldn't have known he was supposed to be a badger just by watching the film. It also lacks any really memorable moments or songs and it leaves the film feeling a little hollow.
Should I watch it?
I'm delighted to find that Robin Hood is still as good as I remembered, offering a visually interesting and enjoyable romp through the classic tale of England's favourite folk hero. It's classic Disney with talking animals, comedic action sequences and a soppy love story all blended together and served in a 'ye merry olde England' fashion. But it does lack a little of the classic Disney magic and doesn't do much to stand out from the rest of the company's output at the time. And nowadays, it looks even more dated.
Great For: younger viewers, lovers of the Robin Hood myth, fans of classic Disney
Not So Great For: anyone who can't stand hamsters, Nottingham residences wondering why their community features so many people with Southern accents, short attention spans
What else should I watch?
Disney entered a difficult period in the Seventies and Eighties with a noticeable decline in quality in the films they released. It was only after the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 that Disney's renaissance began with a string of hits like Aladdin, Beauty And The Beast and the massively successful The Lion King. Most fans seem to be divided between the early hits and more recent efforts like Frozen, Zootopia and Moana. Ultimately, it depends on your age - the younger you are, the more recent films are more likely to be appreciated. After all, even the lesser films released during Disney's fallow period are being reappraised by people of my age.
As for the character of Robin Hood himself, he is no stranger to appearing in films as he first popped up in a silent film way back in 1912. Among the more notable films featuring Robin are the 1938 classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn in his most famous role, the big-budget pantomime that was Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and the Mel Brooks parody film Robin Hood: Men In Tights which continues to highly regarded among his fans.
Questions & Answers
© 2020 Benjamin Cox