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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Monday, November 15, 2010

“Borrow? Boy, Are We in Debt”

           If I had to choose the most underrated Disney film of all time, it would definitely be Robin Hood.  It’s a film that receives very little to no attention from Disney today: the DVD barely had any special features, there hasn’t been a soundtrack issued since the film was released, and the most I’ve ever seen of the film in the parks is when they occasionally have a Robin Hood face character walk in the parades.  And yet, every time I’ve mentioned this flick to a person, their reaction was something like this: “Oh, I love that movie.”  I have yet to meet someone who has disliked this film, but I can’t get a track of “The Phony King of England” to save my life.
            Why is that?  It probably has something to do with the fact that there are some circles that have named the time period of 1970 to 1989 “the dark ages” for Disney animation.  Basically, most people think that the time after Walt’s death and before the release of The Little Mermaid was filled with mostly mediocre movies.  So the few gems that came out during that time, like Robin Hood, get brushed aside with the rubbish.  Which is a shame, because I loved Robin Hood as a kid, I love it even more as an adult and I know that I’m not the only person who feels that way.
            For one thing, Robin Hood caused an Internet phenomenon.  You’ve visited the Hamster Dance website at least once in your lifetime, right?  Well, that really funny song is actually a sped up version of Roger Miller’s “Whistle Stop,” the song that played over Robin Hood’s opening credits.  The opening credits are, in fact, one of my favorite parts of watching this film for me, especially when my mom is around.  She can tell me exactly who each of these performers were; when Andy Devine’s name popped up, she got this big smile on her face and said, “He was a comedian that your grandfather just loved.  He was this really big guy who had such a high voice and he thought that he was so funny.”
            I admit that I am really attached to this movie because it was one that my sister and I watched together a lot as kids.  It apparently had a big impact on both of us, if this exchange that occurred just last year is any indication:
Ginger and Breanna are setting up the dinner table with one of Ginger’s vet school friends.
Ginger:  … Robin Hood and Little John are walking through the forest, laughing back and forth at what the other one has to say.
            Breanna:  Reminiscing this and that and having such a good time
            Ginger and Breanna Together:  Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly what a day.
            Ginger’s Vet School Friend: … You’re both dorks.
            That’s not all.  There have been occasions where I have used the term “oo-de-lally” as an exclamation.  I’m not ashamed of this, because it stems from a pretty awesome song.  Robin Hood I think marks the first time since Peggy Lee wrote songs for Lady and the Tramp that a famous singer/songwriter wrote and performed songs for a Disney film.  Country/Folk singer Roger Miller was responsible for three of the songs in Robin Hood, “Whistle Stop,” “Oo-De-Lally,” and “Not In Nottingham.”  Besides “The Phony King of England,” I think that Miller wrote the best songs for the film: “Oo-De-Lally” (obviously) and “Not In Nottingham,” although the song “Love” (which I’ve never really cared for) is the one that got the Oscar nomination for Best Song.
            The voice cast is a huge reason that this film works so well.  Robin Hood is the final entry of the Phil Harris trilogy.  Harris voices Little John, a character kind of, sort of similar to Baloo, though this bear is brown and significantly more cautious and practical than his jungle born counterpart.  Harris brings his usual warmth and charisma to the role and his jazz singing talents are what make “The Phony King of England” enjoyable. 
            Though Harris returns to playing a supporting character in this film, my God what a lead he has to play off of.  I’ve heard people criticize the recent Disney male voices for being too boyish, but there’s absolutely nothing bad to say about Brian Bedford’s performance as the title character.  He makes this fox version of a very famous character – who has been portrayed by Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Cary Elwes, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe – sexy.  For one thing he, unlike other Robin Hoods, can speak with an English accent.  He also manages to be playful and jovial, and proves himself to be very versatile when Robin adopts different disguises and different voices.  But his voice is just deep enough to be decidedly adult, so when he declares his love for Maid Marian… well, it’s a very swoon-worthy moment.
            But as the cliché goes, a hero is only as good as his villain.  Fortunately, Prince John is the other big standout character of Robin Hood.  Definitely more comedic than menacing, Prince John still manages to pull off some nefariousness.  Peter Ustinov (who also impressively voiced King Richard) outdid himself, with a couple of amazingly quotable lines: “This crown gives me a feeling of power! Power! Forgive me a cruel chuckle. Heh-heh-heh. Power.”  In a way, he’s similar to another lion villain, Scar, in the way that he doesn’t want his brother’s name mentioned in his presence.
            He also has a sidekick that he can bounce one-liners off of in the form of Hiss. There are some gags with Hiss that I really love.  When he says the line, “Snakes don’t walk, they slither.  So there.” it’s accompanied by some really great animation; the way he folds his coils over the edge of the basket looks exactly like someone leaning on their folded arms when they’re pouting.  When he’s flying around the tournament in a balloon and using his tail as a propeller is clever; the sound his tail tip makes when it spins is really cute.  But Hiss’ big LOL moment came when he’s shoved into the ale barrel and pathetically says, “Please! Please! I don't drink!”
            It would be really easy to write off Hiss as a Kaa rip-off, what with them both being snakes with an affinity for hypnotism.  They did in fact reuse animation from The Jungle Book for Hiss, and this would not be the only time in the film that performed this practice.  Wolfgang Reitherman was famous for reusing animation; he thought of it as a way of showing off his knowledge of Disney animation. There was one scene that stands out in particular for being composed almost entirely of reused animation.
            
         I speak of course of “The Phony King of England.”  A lot of people criticize this scene for making such an obvious use of some really famous pieces of animation.  Before you rush to criticize, keep in mind that animated films are not an easy undertaking.  Animators can find themselves pressed for time and money, so making use of Disney’s extensive animation library is a practical solution.  Personally, I think the animation fits the scene well, and I think that it’s kind of fun for a Disney geek like me.  It becomes almost like a pop quiz to see if you can say which film each piece of animation originated from.  There are some obvious pieces from The AristoCats, notably of Duchess dancing and Scat Cat and his band playing.  A lot of Little John’s animation in this scene came directly out of The Jungle Book, but what blows my mind is that Reitherman went back and used animation from Snow White for most of Maid Marian’s dancing.
            I thought that this fit Maid Marian’s character very well, as she is technically a princess.  Maid Marian was actually a really lovely character: hopeful, romantic, and blessed with a sense of humor.  She is prone to her damsel moments, but her character is so likable that I can forgive her for her one moment of “Robin help!”  All of the Disney princesses are almost sickly sweet, but Maid Marian manages to be incredibly nice in a believable way; the scene where the kids sneak into Prince John’s backyard and she and Lady Cluck start playing with them is really indicative of this. 
Her interactions with Lady Cluck are great.  They’re both so playful and jovial with each other, and yet it’s clear that these two love each other dearly.  Monica Evans and Carole Shelley provided their voices and serve as the source of chemistry between the two characters, as they had been paired up before as Abigail and Amelia in The AristoCats.  Lady Cluck is a wonderful supporting character that proves to be such a force of life.  While she can be maternal and wise towards Marian, most of the time she’s got this big, broad sense of humor and proves that she can hold her own in a fight.  When the tournament devolves into that massive fight scene, some of the funniest moments happen with Lady Cluck: “Run lassie!  This is no place for a lady!” “Seize the fat one!” and pretty much the whole football scene.
The tournament is probably Robin Hood’s signature scene.  So famous that Mel Brooks’ paid homage to the tournament scene in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  But if you asked me, one of the strongest scenes in Robin Hood was one of the saddest ones.  “Not In Nottingham” was an incredibly moving sequence that’s similar in tone to the “Closer My God To Thee” scene in Titanic, in that they are both montages of people comforting each other in the face of total despair.  I’ve always loved the part where the mouse appears so grateful to have a crumb of biscuit and then proceeds to share said crumb with his family.    
Of course, the quiet scenes are a vital calm before the storm in a film like this.  With a title containing the words “Robin” and “Hood,” it can’t be anything but an action film.  I’ve called Wolfgang Reitherman the Michael Bay of Disney animators before because he was always the go-to guy for action sequences, with him being a former World War II fighter pilot and all.  Robin Hood has plenty of them, from the scene when Robin robs Prince John at the beginning, the archery tournament and subsequent chaos, the jailbreak sequence (“Yep, it's one of the prettiest scaffolds you ever built, Sheriff.”), and finally Robin’s final confrontation with the sheriff in the burning castle.  The first three are more lighthearted and comical in tone, but the big finale is as dramatic and pulse pounding as they come. 
Audiences thought that Robin Hood was pretty exciting too, as it was a successful film financially earning about $9.5 million (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood_(1973_film)).  With this in mind, I still wish that this film received more attention than it does.     It’s one of my top ten Disney films, and I hope that there will come a day when Disney recognizes the unsung popularity Robin Hood possesses.  Until then, I’ve got more Disney goodness to watch.  Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly what a day.



4 comments:

  1. I too sometimes use "oo-de-lally" in conversation. I have long wondered if Disney gets any money from the Hampster Dance (which is spelled wrong for some reason). I also really like this movie, having viewed it SO many times on video as a kid. It's another of those few boy-related movies in the canon, like Peter Pan. I know of many boys who've done the "spiders, snakes and a lizard head" thing from this movie. Also like Peter Pan, it sort of feels like it's in two acts. Pan kind of breaks after the Tiger Lily rescue, and Robin Hood breaks after the Phony King of England.

    I do like Hiss as a character, despite the Kaa rip off in some places. And of course Prince John is just wonderfully fun. I used to be a thumbsucker, so I guess I feel a kind of affinity for him. Actually, one kid in high school used to call me PJ. True story. What menace doesn't come from Prince John we get from the Sheriff of Nottingham, so they balance out.

    The movie is somewhat episodic, but I like that it builds. From a minor robbery to a full blown jailbreak and raid of the castle. That moment with Robin Hood's hat when it looks like he's dead is just great, and I love the look on his face when its suggested that he could have swum twice as far.

    The animation here is unfortunately a very mixed bag. For every wonderful touch like that, there's a plethora of reused animation. I'm okay with a little reuse or an homage, but I'm sorry the amount in this film is inexcusable. It's one thing to rip off Snow White in some parts, but the stole MOST of that scene, and what didn't come from that came from the film that IMMEDIATELY PRECEDED this one. I love the song, so that helps (and the puppet show is brilliant), but Robin Hood is the biggest offender for stolen shots. It's not just that sequence, it's the whole film. Even ripping off itself and causing continuity errors. I don't think it helps showcase good work; I think it undermines the good work being done specific to the film. It works if you've not seen the other movies before, but when you know them it's annoying.

    I love the folksy score. We forget that this came out in the era of the singer/songwriter, so when Alan-a-Dale says a minstrel is "kinda like a modern day folk singer" that means something. I like the folk songs and think that in its own way it makes the movie contemporary. I agree that "Love" is a slight song. I like the melody, but the lyrics are inane -- and possibly dirty? "Now you're all grown up inside of me"?? Fun fact: the song can be heard in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

    I love when "Not in Nottingham" segues into the sextant mouse playing it on the organ. That whole scene in the church is heartbreakingly wonderful. My father is a minister and we've recently been, well, bullied by the powers that be, so there's something cathartic about when the Sheriff comes in and steals from him and Friar Tuck just yells "Get outta my church!!" And then starts swinging at him! Andy Devine is one of those actors you don't see much beyond '30s comedy, and his work here is great.

    I do think the football gag, though funny, is a little out of place in this film. A bit too contemporary and American (this is supposed to be England after all). It's the sort of thing DreamWorks would do these days.

    I am not ashamed though to say that this movie has my favorite screen Robin Hood. He's suave, he's funny, he's impulsive, and he can say "Marian, my darling, I love you more than life itself" and it doesn't sound cheesy.

    The richness of gags with Prince John, the different kind of feel the film has, the way the movie uses Skippy and his friends to introduce us to Maid Marian, it's a solid movie. Easily better than Aristocats any day. Though if you'd ask me what I think the MOST underrated film is, we haven't gotten to it yet. Still, I'd agree this one is right up there.

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  2. Growing up, Robin Hood was definitely a favorite of mine. It's an adventure/romance that has comedy and even drama on the side.

    "Not in Nottingham" is so sad and it leaves an impression on how badly the citizends in Nottingham really had it. However, it also shows how people come together during hard times to support one another.

    And of course, then there's Prince John. I've gotta say, I think it's hard not to actually like him. As a funny character, I mean. Pretty sure my favorite line from the entire movie is when he goes, "I've got a dirty thumb." A random thought, but I love how Little John is not little in the least.

    My absolute favorite character though is Lady Cluck. She's funny and playful and she's one heck of a toughie.

    I also love the music in this. I feel that it has a very folksy feel to it, which I feel is apporpriate for Nottingham.

    I must agree with you all that this is one of those definite underrated movies. I hope that someday it comes out on blu-ray or something similar because I plan on adding this one to my movie collection for sure.

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  3. Thank you, Thank you for your comments on what is probably my most favorite Disney movie. I adored this movie as a little kid and it has influenced me to this day (this and the Chronicles of Narnia). In fact, as a result of loving this movie, I got interested in Medieval history and and I ended up majoring in history with more of a focus on the Medieval era. Now I just wish it would come out on blu-ray and get the respect that it deserves.

    Btw, I just found out about your blog and I am enjoying it immensely. This is fun to go through all 50 Disney animated features :).

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  4. It's funny, this movie is so underappreciated and yet so loved by Disney fans. It's full of action, which means we enevr had to force my two brothers to watch it with us girls as kids. Robin himself is very dashing, and Maid Marian is very sweet. I love the scene where she's playing with the kids in the garden--she's very genuine. Another personal favorite is Friar Tuck's beat-down on the Sheriff of Nottingham as the little mouse-priest and his wife cheer him on. "Seize the fat one!" is funny as well. Anyone ever wonder how Maid Marian, a fox, could be a relation of King Richard the Lionhearteed (unsurprisingly, a majestic lion)? I mean, they have to be relatives if he can joke at Marion's wedding about "getting an outlaw for an inlaw" (I think he's supposed to be her uncle or something, but don't quote me on that). Interesting interspecies family, that one; and here I was thinking that royals tended to stick to their own kind!

    Some little things--the hodgepodge of regional dialects and accents is a bit jarring at times. Disney gets blasted for the extended sequences of reused animation, and though I can understand that they had budget issues at the time, I can also see how viewers felt cheated. This was a great film, though, and should definitely get more credit than it does from Disney & Co. Ooh-de-lally!

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