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.
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.