For 20 years I’ve been living a lie. Before today, I had believed I’d never seen Robin Hood all the way through. In my mind, I’d seen the first 20 or so minutes, then gave up due to my general disinterest in movies with talking animals. No, that all changed today because apparently I’ve seen this movie, all the way through, BEFORE. In watching it again, I kept saying “I remember that. I saw that.” When it was over, I’d seen it all before. With that, there’s a reason I didn’t remember much prior; it’s not that memorable of a movie. The voice work is good, as it usually always is in Disney films, but the plot recycles far too much, right down to animation sequences and jokes. The anachronistic choices never define a time or place outside of Robin Hood and England (although the abundance of Southern accents belies that point). The movie isn’t terrible – even the worst Disney movie is generally watchable – but a general blah structure only holds so much enjoyment.
The legendary story of Robin Hood (voiced by Brian Bedford) is told with the aid of animal counterparts. The rascally outlaw finds himself stealing from the villainous Prince John (voiced by Peter Ustinov) in order to help the poor people of Nottingham.
I had low expectations for this movie based on my past experiences with it. I have revised my prior opinions on quite a few movies during my Disney Vault time (just see my review of The AristoCats last week), but I doubted that would happen here. For starters, I’m not a fan of the Robin Hood myth, in general. The story is well-tread with clearly delineated good and evil, so that it’s left up to the actors to make or break it. It’s similar to my views of Little Women; you can’t judge the plot since it’s been done to death, so you have to leave it up to the acting and general entertainment value. With that being said, the voice cast is phenomenal, combining first-time Disney actors and veterans of animation, and there are some fun jokes and sequences. It’s just not all brought together to make a cohesive story. There felt like a lot of moments where characters were running around, either towards or away from something.
Originally, Disney had plans to do a movie around a similar character to Robin Hood: Reynard the Fox. Much has been written about the lengthy development, and eventual disbanding of the Reynard the Fox movie. The film was so far into production that animation had been drawn up and scripted. Unfortunately, the story was never able to sufficiently convince the audience that Reynard was a good character. Thus we ended up with Robin Hood who holds similar comic sensibilities to Reynard. Both are rascally characters who could be seen as heroes or villains. Regrettably, I think this film is as close as we’ll come to a Reynard movie. I will say that Brian Bedford brings the perfect sense of English gallantry to the role of Robin Hood. His voice is light and akin to Errol Flynn, but he’s not overly Shakespearean. The character of Robin is a rascal, but only to those who have it coming (essentially all the bad guys). The character is paired up with Little John who’s Baloo with a little hat on. Making the connection stronger is the fact that resident Disney fun-guy Phil Harris provides the voice. Harris always brings frivolity to his voice work, and Little John is no different. He’s funny, snazzy, and furthers the anachronistic tendencies of the film by using a lot of jazz words (and his love for words ending in “britches”). Unlike Jungle Book or AristoCats, Little John is really second fiddle to Robin Hood, nor is he as quippy as in prior outings. The strongest voice, though, is Peter Ustinov as Prince John. Ustinov would do a few Disney movies and he’s deliciously smarmy as Prince John. The man/lion has mommy issues that create a lot of fun, although he’s not at all a threatening character.
The problem is that the evil-doers are the “aw shucks” yokel characters. In this case, it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham as voiced by Pat Buttram who we also saw in AristoCats. The characters that are meant to be villains are so bumbling, that it’s hard to feel threatened by them at all. In The AristoCats, the contrast between human and animal made you fear for the animals safety, since the humans were seen to be all-powerful. Here, the Prince and Sheriff are strictly comedic, so there’s no real momentum to the action since Robin is always four steps ahead. It could explain why there’s so much filler meant to entice children.The second banana feeling extends out to the plot and animation. The animation, in general, is nothing special. It’s on par with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. The colors are lush, but look too polished and copied. It makes sense, since about 40% of the animation is recycled (I’m guessing). The march of characters at the bottom of the opening credits is reused, and Marian’s dancing during the party sequence is the same dancing employed by Snow White and Duchess from The AristoCats. Furthermore, the character of Sir Hiss is the exact character as Kaa, right down to him attempting to hypnotize Prince John. It made me think that the Reynard movie was planned so far in advance, that when it was dropped the animators were forced to cobble a story and use as much existing animation as they could. It also explains the hodge-podge mixture of American and English actors that are assembled, as well as the 1970s soundtrack in parts. The former issue really bothered me the most, although it shouldn’t have since the Kevin Costner version is just as bad.
We do open with the storybook, and I continue to praise Disney for connecting these movies back to their literary origins; hopefully, inspiring children to seek out the books. We don’t have a narrator introducing the story, rather the rooster known as Allan-a-Dale (voiced by Roger Miller). In a complete transformation from the credits we’ve seen previous, this series of opening credits shows the cast of characters with their names and voice actors displayed. It’s similar to live-action movies of the Golden Era as well as acknowledging the voice actors contribution to the films. It’s an intriguing change, that makes the audience believe these characters exist in some form, although I took offense to have Maid Marian labeled “a vixen,” unless the word means something I don’t know. Running below the credits are a series of comic gags, which I figured might be used to entertain the kids during a sequence that has words they might not be able to read.
The general feeling in this, more than any other movie previously seen in the Disney canon, is that it’s a picture best for children and children only. I mentioned the comic gags during the credits, that the animation looks like a Disney cartoon, and there’s a gaggle of child characters we spend far too much time with. The kids are a group of tiny bunnies, and a turtle, that run around and try to re-enact Robin Hood’s adventures. They’re cloying characters that made me think I was watching a television show on the Disney Afternoon. The desire to please children makes sense when you look at the film as a whole. Keep in mind, I wouldn’t deign to call this a musical which is a sharp divergence from past precedent. The only songs sung in this movie are in moments of frivolity, like Robin’s party, or by Allan-a-Dale. There is a love song for Robin and Marian, but it’s sung over their courtship scenes. The only time characters actually engage in song is during moments where singing is necessary to the plot. I understand some people don’t like unprovoked song sequences, but in a movie that tries so hard to please little kids, it felt like another thing that had to be excised so children wouldn’t get bored.
Robin Hood was as I expected it to be. The lively plot is as good as any past Robin Hood story, and the vocal talent is stellar, as always. The desire to please children, the wanton recycling of animation, and the undefined sense of place leaves the plot lacking cohesion, though; the script feels slapped together. The worst that can be said about a Disney movie is that it’s “okay,” and Robin Hood is simply that.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.