I’ve always had a great deal of fondness for Disney’s furry, lighthearted and unorthodox spin on the Robin Hood myth – starring a cast of quirky, anthropomorphic animals – to the point where I’d say it’s one of the standout films from the studio’s dark age. “Robin Hood” is one hell of a good romp (or a lark, as Robin himself would say), and as a comedy it’s one of the funniest films I’ve found so far in the Disney Canon. For the bulk of the movie, “Robin Hood” sports a folksy, friendly, laidback and almost ludicrous tone – with Robin Hood and his merry men outwitting their foes with dashing, daring-do, while Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham command the screen every time they appear – which befits a film with such a campy and grandiose premise. Examples include our heroes swindling Prince John out of his fortune in drag, or Klucky turning into a makeshift football star in the middle of a wild brawl. The overall fun nature of the movie makes for a very effective tonal shift when the comedy largely falls away and the film takes a dark, grim and bleak turn in the last act, as the villains start to gain the upper-hand.
“Robin Hood’s” story can mostly be broken up into five sections; two quiet interludes between three episodic, increasingly mad adventures Robin Hood and Little John have that come to a head in one of Disney’s longer climaxes – a fifteen minute set-piece where the duo have to pull off a jailbreak and a heist at the same time. Like many of the films from the xerox era (“101 Dalmatians“, “The Jungle Book“, “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh“), “Robin Hood” lives and dies on the charm, humor and overall likability of it’s colorful cast, rather than the depth and intricacy of the animation like the golden and silver eras of Disney animation. In fact, the movie’s greatest pro is probably the strong sense of community it gets across. The supporting characters have as much of a presence in the film as Robin Hood and Little John do, perhaps even more so. They’re all bonded in suffering, they all loathe their tyrant king, they support Robin Hood’s bravehearted rebellion, and by the end, there’s a sense that it’s not just Robin and Johnny fighting corruption anymore, so there’s a good number of heartwarming moments in the film. The amount of time we spend with this lively, spirited bunch also leads to a real sobering, lump-in-the-throat sequence where we see just what Prince John’s cruelty has reduced them to, up to and including little kids in chains rotting away in prison.
If we’re gonna discuss our jovial leading man, we gotta talk about dem fox eyes, because you never really know what to expect when it comes to Robin Hood’s expressions in this movie, and some of them are priceless (like this one, or this one, or this one). Robin Hood has always been a fascinating example of a morally grey character. He’s an accomplished young man from a noble background who chose to become a thief, a rake and a criminal, but did so to help his community when nobody else would at the time. He’s unflappably courageous, very reliable and dependable when his friends need him, and he has a great deal of compassion for the helpless (proving to be good with children). As such, Robin makes no bones about his status as a criminal, and is in fact rather proud of his outlaw reputation, wearing it as a badge of honor in the face of tyranny. He’s the best thief in Sherwood, and the daredevil in him loves the excitement of outwitting Prince John’s men, seeing it all as a clever game. Disney’s take on Robin Hood, a cunning red fox, stays true to the character’s roots by portraying him as a flawed but honorable anti-hero. The cheeky, charming, swashbuckling rogue has an Achilles heel: his recklessness. Throughout the movie, he presses his luck for various reasons until it finally runs out and nearly gets him killed during the climax (he just had to go back for that last, leftover bag of gold). Humorously, Robin is quite lovesick when it comes to his bonnie vulpine love, Maid Marian, and he consistently has some pretty nice chemistry with his girl, since they already have a pre-existing relationship instead of the film having to build one from the ground up. Dead or alive, Robin serves as an inspiration to the people of Nottingham, because he’s one of the few people who’s always willing and able to stand up and do what’s right, even at the cost of his own life (or through unorthodox methods). To wit, Robin is nearly killed during the climax getting a little kid to safety at his own expense.
Little John has a familiar voice actor, Phil Harris in his third consecutive role in a Disney film. Personality-wise, Robin Hood’s rowdy yet sensible right-hand man is quite a way away from Harris’ first gig as the hipster layabout, Baloo, or Thomas O’Malley, but the jazz star is as personable as always here. Robin Hood and Little John have a very affable, easygoing relationship, born out of years of friendship and shared adversity (particularly since Robin doesn’t appear to have any other merry men in this universe). They needle each other over little things and tease each other over girls, but Little John will always have Robin’s back when he needs him the most. Out of the daring duo, Johnny is the brawnier one of the two and more physically imposing, often throwing his weight around as a bear on their adventures, but he’s also more cautious and prone to worrying. Generally, Little John is a bit more down-to-earth and practical while Robin Hood is a little more zany and out there. Robin is the brains of the pair and the planner but he can be very reckless and he tends to think in the moment, so he needs someone to ground him sometimes, or offer a different opinion, or cover all his bases. Despite how Little John can get exasperated sometimes with his friend’s foolish courage, there’s never any indication that he regrets his decision to throw his lot in with Robin Hood, who quickly became his best friend and partner-in-crime, and there are many times when he clearly enjoys their crazy, wild adventures as much as Robin does (like the brawl at the tournament). I have to say, I like Robin Hood and Little John’s give-and-take hero dynamic in this film quite a bit more than I liked Baloo and Bagheera’s. The scene at the end, where Little John is led to believe that Robin was shot full of arrows and drowned, and he has to try to find a way to explain that to Skippy while he’s still hurting himself, will hit you right in the heart.
Maid Marion is Robin Hood’s mutual crush. Unlike her cruel uncle, the princess takes after her father when it comes to her kind heart and nobility. She’s a compassionate, big-dreaming fox vixen who treats her subjects well and knows where her heart lies when it comes to her uncle’s reign. Maid Marian and Robin Hood are childhood friends and old lovers who have been separated for years before now, though they would both love to pick up where they left off and can barely stay away from each other, despite the danger. Robin would risk being beheaded just to see her, and Robin’s new roguish occupation doesn’t stop Marian in the slightest from professing her love for him, eventually running off with Robin Hood and Little John to the sanctuary of Sherwood Forest. The strange thing about Maid Marion (and you don’t really notice it until the closing scenes) is that she disappears from the film in the third act, just as she’s being fully integrated into the plot and getting in touch with her adventurous side. Apparently, in one early draft of the story, Marion went to go find King Richard and alert him of his brother’s treachery, hence the Richard Ex Machina in the movie’s final minutes. There’s nothing saying she’s not still doing that offscreen in the final cut of the film, so it’s my own personal head-canon for absence. Maid Marion’s best friend and lady-in-waiting is Lady Kluck, a feisty, Scottish hen, who often takes on the role of an outspoken, older sister with the princess. I honestly really like this character, because she’s kind of nuts and she’s always willing to help her friends in a fight. I think I also kind of ship her and Little John now, which I did not expect to happen, but the chemistry is definitely there.
Friar Tuck, by tradition, is one of the more helpful figures in the village and one of Robin Hood’s biggest supporters, to the point of being an unofficial merry man. The friar is a proud man of God but he too operates in shades of grey, and when it comes to the question of being lawful or good, he definitely believes in the latter. He does what can to help out his neighbors and keep the village afloat, while offering Robin Hood and Little John helpful life advice. In some ways, the holy man is a welcome, genial grounding force among the side-characters. But the friar has his shortcomings. He has a fiery temper that eventually lands him in quite a bit of trouble when his patience for injustice is understandably pushed past its limit. In a surprising turn for Robin Hood adaption, Friar Tuck is actually put at risk in the last act. Namely, he’s put in grave danger of being executed so Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham can lay a trap for Robin, forcing our heroes to hastily put together a plan to rescue him. Other supporting characters include Alan-A-Dale, a minstrel and a musically-inclined rooster that serves as the movie’s narrator, offering up some witty commentary between acts. Amusingly, Alan can never seem to decide whether he’s part of the story as well or just the narrator, since he ends up rotting in the jail with the others during the climax. There’s also Skippy Bunny and his friends, some plucky but nosy village scamps who look up to Robin Hood and Maid Marian and have a few encounters in with them in the second act. I tend to consider the kids the weakest members of the supporting cast, since they don’t add much to the movie besides the cuteness factor and could easily be excised, though they are funny.
On the shady side of things, “Robin Hood” notably has three antagonists. There’s a deranged, tyrannical manchild, a lowly, often abused adviser who assists him, and a corrupt, egotistical lawman who empowers him by carrying out his dirty-work. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a brutish blackguard and an overweight hick of a wolf in this universe; he’s actually one of my favorite characters in this film because his cheeky, smarmy remarks and his constantly lazy drawl fit right in with the folksy tone of the movie. Pat Buttram lends the slick, detestable, wily Sheriff of Nottingham his best feature, dat southern accent (it adds a surprisingly large amount to his character, and it’s also hot). As the muscle of the villains, the burly, corrupt thug marches around Nottingham as the face of Prince John’s oppression, enforcing his laws. He’s often snarky and smug, but when he greedily taxes from the poor and destitute (he evens steals from the blind, just in case you had any doubt that he’s a dick) he tends to pours on a false sort of cheeriness and geniality, making an effort to appear charming either to taunt them or amuse himself. As a high-ranking thug on a power trip, the lupine is the toughest and most charismatic of the film’s three villains (though not the funniest, that would be P.J.), and he’s nearly as much of a personal rival to Robin Hood as Prince John is. The Sheriff is very prideful and has quite a high opinion of himself, which Robin Hood and Little John exploit more than once to pull the wool over his eyes (he also has to deal with two men under him who really don’t have good heads on their shoulders, allowing his character to be seen in a rare sympathetic light). However, he can be a genuine threat when he wants to be, as Robin and the audience discover when he catches the fox hero on an off-day and nearly kills him during the climax.
Every time I watch this film, I love Prince John more and more as an antagonist. When it comes to malevolent monarchs, Prince John is the classic, jealous second son. Destined never to rule legitimately, unless he had his brother killed, Prince John is a spoiled brat who grew up in his sibling’s shadow and wasted no time stealing King Richard’s kingdom and his position while he was off fighting in the crusades. The interesting thing about him is that in hindsight he’s a more pathetic predecessor to the villain from “The Lion King“, Scar. An envious, cowardly, power-hungry braggart who wants to dispose of his dear brother so he can have the throne all to himself. Prince John has a fiery, explosive temper when it comes to the topic of his inferiority complex, which usually leads to him abusing Sir Hiss (and sometimes the Sheriff), but he’s a coward to his core. Peter Ustinov chews so much scenery as P.J. (you can tell he had a blast voicing this whiny, unstable manchild) that he’s a thoroughly enjoyable villain. For most of the film, old John is worrying because of the power he wields more than his overall personality. However, as the movie progresses and his humiliation from Robin increases, we see him slip further and further into obsession and insanity, wanting Robin Hood dead, to the point where he becomes a genuinely frightening and deranged foe in the last act. Poor Sir Hiss is Prince John’s sycophantic head lackey and a shameless kiss-up. Despite that, he’s the only sane man of the bunch that no one ever listens to, and perhaps if they had the outcome of this movie would have been very different for our heroes (he certainly wises on to Robin and Johnny faster than PJ and the Sheriff). He often, hilariously, winds up being the film’s punching bag and pushed around by the prince (like a certain running gag involving John’s late mother).
Times were tough for Disney when this film was produced and corners were cut, so the animation isn’t nearly as polished as previous efforts from the silver era. The outlines on the characters are noticeably sharp and rough, and like all films from this period animation is reused in places. It’s mostly noticeable during The Phony King of England” – which borrows from “Snow White“, “The Jungle Book” and “The Aristocats” – but also with other things like the repetitive way characters move sometimes. Other than that, the animation is actually really good for it’s day. The character movements are quite fluid – delightfully frenzied at times – and the backgrounds are perfectly atmospheric. Prince John’s stronghold is both regal and imposing, Nottingham is desolate and downtrodden, and Sherwood Forest is a safe haven straight out of a fairy tale. The rustic look of this film almost suits its scruffy charm, much like “Oliver and Company’s” rough, grungy aesthetic. The jailbreak climax is a standout sequence for the animation team, which somehow remains cold, on-edge and unsettling throughout the entire rescue until tensions finally boil over when Robin is trapped inside Prince John’s castle.
Nowadays, I think this film is the reason why I’m rarely ever bothered by anachronisms in Disney movies. I’m pretty sure “Robin Hood” takes place in a universe where anthropomorphic animals not only rule the earth, but medieval Nottingham is located in the deep south; partly because of all the southern accents and partly because of the twangy country music soundtrack. It’s actually endearingly ironic. Disney usually loves to insert characters with British accents into anachronistic time periods and places (like “The Jungle Book”, for instance), and when they actually have a film set in merry old England, the movie’s style is more noticeably American than usual. Blending two distinct cultures the way “Robin Hood” does feels like it really shouldn’t work, but somehow it works splendidly, especially when it comes to the soundtrack. “Whistle Stop” puts the movie’s walk and run cycles to good use, giving the audience a taste of what’s to come. “Love” is a spellbinding, understated and wistful hymn. “The Phony King of England” livens up the film with a classic hoot-n-nanny while Frank Miller’s crooning in “Not In Nottingham” takes it to it’s a lowest point of despair. Lastly, “Ooo-De-Lally” is something of an earworm, derived from Robin’s constant catchphrase. George Bruns’ plucky, underrated score also gives the film a playful liveliness befitting a movie that doesn’t take itself entirely seriously (my favorite cue is the fanfare used for Prince John’s army).
“Robin Hood” isn’t as much of a show-stopper as some of the bigger names in the canon, but this cult classic from the 70’s is an excellent pick when you’re in the mood for something fun and breezy. It’s also most likely the best movie Disney produced during their twenty year dark age period.
* I think we were all shocked the day we realized “Whistle Stop” spawned “The Hamster Dance”.
* “Robin Hood and Little John walking through the forest, laughing back and forth at what the other one has to say. Reminiscing this and that and having such a good time. Oo-de-lally, Oo-de-lally, golly, what a day!”
* “Rob? That’s a naughty word. We never rob, we just borrow a bit from those who can afford it” “Borrow, eh? Boy, are we in debt”.
* “Don’t overdo it, Hiss. There… this crown gives me a feeling of power. POWER! Forgive me a cruel chuckle. Power“.
* “Your name will go down, down in history” “YES! I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT!”
* “I’ve been robbed” “Of course you’ve been robbed!”.
* You fools, you just trampled the prince! Do you want to have your heads lopped off?
* The evil and ruthless (but still kind of hot) sheriff is also a big bad wolf. Disney, stereotyping animals? Never!
* “Now, now save your sermon, preacher. It ain’t Sunday after all”.
* “How do I look?” “Not much like Mr. Robin Hood” Ouch, that’s why you didn’t get to use the bow first, nameless bunny.
* “He snitched on us”.
* I love the way that scene progresses between Marian and the kids. One minute, they’re all scared stiff of the Lady Marian and worried about being caught trespassing. The next minute, they’re flapping their gums about how they’re friends with an outlaw, asking her very personal questions about her love life (“Did he ever kiss you?”), and pressuring her about whether or not she and Robin are ever gonna have kids. Things escalated very quickly.
* “Marry her? You don’t just walk up to a girl, hand her a bouquet and say ‘hey remember me, we were kids together, do you wanna get get married?’ It just isn’t done that way” It is in a Disney princess movie.
* “My trap is baited and set, and then revenge. REVENGE!”
* “Oh no, forgive me but I lose more jewels that way”.
* It took decades, but Disney has finally given “Robin Hood” a proper soundtrack release with “The Legacy Collection”. Hallelujah! Now, how about “The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh”?
* “Oh, by the way, I hear you’ve been having some trouble catching old Robin Hood” (oooohhhh) “He’s scared of me, that’s what it is! You see he didn’t how show up here today! I can spot him through his phony disguises”.
* “Not so hard, you mean thing!” Hate sex.
* “Help, Robin, help!”
* “KILL HIM!!! STOP THE GIRL!!!”
* “Love. It seems like only yesterday, you were just a child at play. Now you’re all grown up inside of me. Oh, how fast those moments flee. Once we watched a lazy world go by, now the days seem to fly. Life is brief, but when it’s gone: love goes on and on!”
* Sheriff, going to Prince John’s castle singing a song that’s meant to mock him might not be such a good idea. I’m just saying.
* “Man, oh, man. That Prince John sure made good his threat, and his helpless subjects paid dearly for his humiliation, believe me. Taxes, taxes, taxes. Why, he taxed the heart and soul out of the poor people of Nottingham. And if you couldn’t pay your taxes, you went to jail. Yep, I’m in here too”. That sucks, man.
* “Things can’t get any worse” Why Friar, why on Earth would you say that?
* “GET OUT OF MY CHURCH!” Kick his ass, Friar!
* “Wait a minute, is the safety still on old Betsy?” “You bet it is, Sheriff” “That’s what I’m afraid of. You go first”.
* “Quiet Friar, we’re busting you out of here” “Thank God, my prayers have been answered” The Friar might be a man of God, but he’s not ready to die just yet.
* “Praise the Lord, and pass the tax rebate!”
* So, um, during the jailbreak, how did they leave the little bunny girl behind?!
* Why is the bunny mom okay with her kid running off with Robin Hood and Maid Marian on their honeymoon?
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