“Too late to be known as John the First, he’s sure to be known as John the Worst!”
Justin’s rating: Golly what a film!
Justin’s review: Growing up in the pre-Disney animation renaissance (which began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid), my childhood memories of Disney films were more attached to the scattered efforts across the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Out of all of them, I think that the ones I saw and liked the most were 1963’s The Sword in the Stone, 1973’s Robin Hood, and 1977’s The Rescuers. They weren’t the great sweeping musical epics that, say, The Lion King turned out to be, but I still hold them very dear in my heart.
And, it turns out, they’re still pretty good movies. Recently, I sat down to watch Robin Hood with my kids and ended up laughing and quoting through the whole thing with them. Forget your dour Russell Crowe versions, I say that this is the best Robin Hood interpretation to date. There’s a sense of old-fashioned, high-spirited fun that is backed by colorful characters, expressive animation, a minstrel-sung soundtrack, and many of the major beats from the Robin Hood legend.
What really makes this film stand out is that each of its characters is a different kind of animal that symbolizes his or her personality: Robin is a clever fox, Maid Marian a vixen, Prince John a scrawny lion (and his advisor a snake), Big John is a bear, Friar Tuck is a badger, and so on. Disney clearly had a great time coming up with the characters and plopped them down into a medieval world full of color and music. Just like Disneyland, come to think of it.
Even with the lighthearted look, the themes of Robin Hood are surprisingly dark at times. This animal-populated version of England is deeply oppressed under the reign of the illegal Prince John, who overtaxes everyone and rules from a perch made solely of his ego. The poor are made poorer through the efforts of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and even while Robin Hood tries to bring them relief, his actions prompt even harsher reprisals. By the final act, a clergyman and little bunnies are walked to the hangman’s gallows, and if that’s not as grim as they come, I don’t know what is.
Yet Robin Hood doesn’t get too down or let injustice go for too long before being answered. We cheer along Robin and his band of merry men as they continually pull one over on John and the Sheriff, and I like how he takes a young rabbit as a protegeé even as the action heats up. And as much as I love Alan Rickman’s overacting, I have to say that a lion sucking his thumb and having severe mommy issues is just as good of a Prince John as any other.
What can I say other than it’s one of those timeless classic Disney films that holds up great today as it ever did.
Deneb’s rating: Three and a half golden arrows out of four.
Deneb’s review: You know, there are times when I think our standards are set too high as a culture. We don’t just want good stuff – we demand masterpieces. The flawless gems are cheered and celebrated; the slightly rougher ones fall through the cracks and are forgotten.
It’s a shame, because a lot of good stuff goes unnoticed that way. But thankfully, there are always places you can look for them. Flea markets, used bookstores – or, for that matter, sites like these. I mean, what is MRFH if not a way to draw attention to movies you might not normally hear about, or haven’t thought of in a long time?
Which, handily enough, brings us to the movie I’m reviewing – Disney’s Robin Hood. (And speaking of flea markets and MRFH, I found my copy at the former and am now reviewing it on the latter. Small world, huh? Small, cyclical world.)
The film opens with a few pages from a book of Robin Hood legends, and for a moment it looks like we’re going to get a standard version of the story. That’s when our narrator, the Rooster (Roger Miller) breaks in. (OK, technically he calls himself Alan-a-dale, but he’s credited as “the Rooster”, and he is a rooster, and I’ve always thought of him as “the Rooster”, so that’s what I’m calling him.) He claims, more or less, that while there are oodles of different versions of the Robin Hood tales, they’re all poppycock. Here we’re going to get the version the animals tell, “the way it really happened.”
So yeah, we’re getting Robin Hood as enacted by animals here, which is about as non-standard a version of it as you can get short of those in-name-only versions where he’s a gangster or a cyberpunk or an alien or some such. Not much time is wasted on set-up, as it’s pretty much the same old situation we’re used to from other retellings – the setting is England in the time of King Richard, who’s away in the Crusades while his brother, Prince John, rules with an iron fist and blah blah blah. Let’s move on.
So Robin himself (Brian Bedford) is somewhat stripped of his usual gang this time around – it’s basically just him and Little John (Phil Harris) living in Sherwood Forest, robbin’ the rich and givin’ to the poor. (We never find out how all this started, by the way – most Robin Hood movies are origin stories, but here ol’ Rob’s been doing this for a while now and everything’s already moving along nicely. Refreshing, really.) As it happens, Prince John himself (Peter Ustinov) is passing through Nottingham just then to oversee the tax-gathering – and naturally, no self-respecting outlaw could let an opportunity like that pass them by, now could they? Nope. Time for stealing back a little of that purloined wealth.
Now, no self-respecting royal is going to take that lying down, so Prince John hangs his hat in the local castle for a while, with plans to catch that upstart outlaw and see him dangle from a gallows tree. Meanwhile, the outlaw in question is starry-eyed with thoughts of Maid Marian (Monica Evans), the King’s niece and his old girlfriend from years past, who currently also lives in the castle and is thinking similarly starry-eyed thoughts about him. (Marian’s exact relationship to Prince John, incidentally, is somewhat sketchy. I mean, he’s Richard’s brother, so that would make him her… what? I mean, unless there’s another brother in the family, all signs seem to point to him being her father, but he’s a lion and she’s a vixen so… yeah.)
From thereon in, the plot is simple – the Prince tries to get his bejeweled paws on Robin Hood, and Robin escapes. Rinse, repeat. In between, he moons over Marian and redistributes the wealth to the good folks of Nottingham, who are being bled dry by overtaxation, as enforced by the bullying Sheriff (Pat Buttram).
Will our hero get the girl, vanquish the villain and bring peace and happiness back to Nottingham once and for all? If I told you the answer was no, would you believe me? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Let’s get the blindingly obvious out of the way first thing – if you’re looking for a historically accurate (insofar as such a thing is possible) retelling of the original tales, you are not going to get anything close to that here. This movie is so jam-packed with anachronisms it’s splitting at the scenes. (Ooh – that was an accident, actually, but see what I did there? I think I’ll leave it in. “Splitting at the scenes” – heh.) For one thing, the prevailing accents in Nottingham are not British, but backwoods-southern USA. For another, you’ve got stuff like balloons, badminton and sunglasses (and glasses, full stop, for that matter) in medieval Europe. And, oh yes, everyone’s a talking animal. Authenticity fanatics, stay well clear – at least ten miles or more.
But really, let’s not kid ourselves – accuracy? Pfui – who wants accuracy in a Robin Hood flick? We’re here for the mood, the tone, and in that respect, it delivers in spades. Oh, sure, it’s got the usual swashbuckling scenes with swordfights and arrows flying everywhere and so forth, and they’re great (and rather unusual for a Disney flick), but really, they’re just icing on the cake – the little touches that make it work. The appeal of Robin Hood, to me, is that at its heart this film is one of the most amiable, laid-back, easygoing, good-natured pieces of entertainment around.
This film is like hanging out on the back porch with an old friend on a lazy summer’s day, sipping your beverage of choice and just enjoying the company. It’s a hot bath at the end of a long day, or fresh, dry clothes after you’ve just been soaked in the rain. It’s pure comfort food.
Mind you, this is not to say that the movie doesn’t have claws. In fact, at times the claws are not only out, they bite deep. The “Not in Nottingham” sequence, for instance, may not be as traumatizing as, say, Simba’s discovery of his dead dad in The Lion King, but it’s really pretty darn dark, if you think about it. The people who made this knew their stuff, however, and the darkness never overpowers the let’s-have-fun nature of the rest of the film. If anything, the two compliment each other – the lighter elements make the darker bits seem darker, since we’ve just spent roughly an hour getting to know and like these critters, and the dark parts give the rest of the movie the direction it needs to keep heading towards a strong climax and avoid simply melting into an amiable puddle of blah. Without either one of them the movie would be weaker, and the combination works very well.
So if Robin Hood is just so gosh-darn likable, why is it that there are those who poo-poo this flick as lesser Disney? Well, they have their reasons. There’s no denying that the plot does meander a lot, and the ending violates the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell”. I won’t give it away, but it’s basically the equivalent of someone telling you the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, and then cutting out the bit where the giant takes a tumble. Mind you, it still works fine in the movie itself, but if you were to go by a basic plot summary, you’d be left feeling like you missed a bit somewhere.
This, however, is not the main complaint these certain parties have with the movie. What they gripe about is the cheapness of the production. See, Disney didn’t have a lot of money to spare for the project, and as a result, the end result was not quite as lush and polished as some of their other features. It’s a little rough in places, and there are repeated character animations throughout the film, as well as certain sequences traced from earlier films, such as Snow White and the then still recent Jungle Book. Some seem to think, basically, that this is cheating, and unworthy of their beloved Mouse House.
If any of you readers happen to hold these views, let’s get one thing straight. I am sure you are all wonderful people in most regards, and even if you aren’t, you have a perfect right to your own opinions. I have no beef with any of you, and would not hesitate, if we ever met, to shake you warmly by the hand. However, in this one particular instance I would venture to state that you are great big whiners. I mean yes, fine, Robin Hood is not quite as slick and professional-looking as the majority of Disney flicks out there – so what? This is Disney we’re talking about – there is a reason why they were considered for decades to be the powerhouse animation studio of the western world. Even three-quarters classic Disney is still better than most – compared to, say, the Dot films, the thing’s an unparalleled masterpiece – and anyway, it’s substance that should count over style, right? And substance this movie has, so I declare the argument invalid. Moving on.
So, yeah. Given that this is a movie called Robin Hood about a character named Robin Hood, you may be starting to wonder about, you know, Robin himself. So how is he? He’s fine. His role is a little underplayed in this version, but that makes sense, as the focus here is not so much on him as on the injustice he’s fighting against.
When he does show up, however, he packs a punch. Brian Bedford gives an excellent performance in the role – in fact, when I think of Robin Hood’s voice, Bedford’s is the one I generally hear. It may be coming from the mouth of an anthropomorphic fox, but it’s still definitive Hoodliness to me. Sure, he’s appropriately heroic and swashbuckling and all, but more importantly, he’s having fun. This is an aspect of Mr. Hood that I think a lot of adaptations don’t get – it only makes sense that a guy who calls his followers “Merry Men” would have a goodly dose of merry himself. Bedford’s Robin certainly does – he’s an easygoing fellow who laughs off danger, and can’t resist a mischievous tweak at the whiskers of evil when he gets a chance. This is occasionally to his detriment, but he’s good enough at what he does that he usually gets away with it – and hey, those whiskers deserved to be tweaked, goldarn it! I mean, who would you rather have in the role – he who would tweak those evil whiskers, or he who wouldn’t? Personally, I’d pick the whisker-tweaker.
And speaking of Merry Men (or rather, we were about four sentences ago, but who’s counting?), one of the more unique aspects of this version of things concerns them – or rather, the lack of them. The usual Robin Hood takes always have him surrounded by his fellow forest-dwelling outlaws, whose names are legion – Little John, Friar Tuck, Alan-a-Dale, Much the Miller’s Son, Will Scarlet, and about a zillion others that I can’t think of right now. As mentioned earlier, that is not the case here. Oh sure, he’s got assistants, but they’re not outlaws; the only real outlaws in the story are him and Little John. In this case, his Merry Men are basically the inhabitants of Nottingham itself – just regular folks, butchers and bakers and such. He’s the guy who puts his life on the line, but he’s putting it on the line for them, and well they know it – so whenever he gets in a pickle, he can count on a goodly number of the townsfolk wading into the fray to save his butt. It’s a rather interesting interpretation, and one that may be unique – at any rate, it’s not one I’ve seen anywhere else.
This is not to say, however, that some of his traditional Merries don’t show up here and there. First off, and as mentioned, there’s Little John, his right-hand bear. Phil Harris basically plays him as Baloo from the Jungle Book in reverse – he’s a similarly good-natured, loyal companion, but while Baloo was mainly concerned with having fun, Little John is the worried voice of reason that keeps Robin’s head off the chopping block – or tries to, anyway; that carefree vulpine just won’t pay much heed to him. This is obviously a bit wearing on the nerves for poor Johnny, but what the hey, he loves a good brawl, so he’ll shrug his shoulders and go along with things. Then there’s Friar Tuck (Andy Devine), who is supposed to be a badger (although he sure doesn’t look like one to me). He’s a genial old guy, and Robin’s main agent in the town – but for goodness sake, don’t get him riled. Oh yes, and I’ve already mentioned Alan-a- …er-hmm, the Rooster, I mean, who works pretty well as the narrator (although he does get personally involved in the story once or twice, which blurs the lines a little bit).
On the love-interest side, we have Maid Marian, who deserves a paragraph of her own, as she’s really one of Disney’s more significant love interests. Oh sure, she’s not exactly the most empowered or independent of female characters, (although she does throw a mean pie), but A: this is set in the middle ages, so, yeah, little bit of realism there, and B: hers and Robin’s is, I’m pretty sure, the one love story in animated Disney history that begins in medias res. Seriously, think about this – every other Disney film that features a love story (and almost all of them do) features the beginning of the romance as well as its inevitable conclusion. That’s not the case here – the film starts out after the two have been mooning over each other from afar for a long time. And what’s more, it works – they have one of the most tender, believable romantic relationships I’ve ever seen in an animated film. These two are made for each other – they’re head over heels in love, and it’s communicated beautifully. It doesn’t hurt that Monica Evans plays her as such an incredibly nice, sweet person that you’re really, really rooting for these two crazy kids to get together. (Shame she basically disappears for most of the last act of the movie. I mean, seriously Disney, you could at least have given her a cameo.)
Oh yes, and before we move on, there’s also Lady Kluck (Carole Shelley), Marian’s lady-in-waiting. Lady Kluck kicks ass. She’s a feisty Scottish hen who believably switches back and forth from warm and motherly to being ready and willing to charge into battle. If I wanted someone to knit me a sweater and then back me up in a barroom brawl, I would call on Lady Kluck. She may technically be comic relief, but she’s comic relief that can more than hold her own, which is the best type to have.
Now then – the villains. Oh my word, the villains. Even the people who hate this film will generally admit that the villains are done pretty well, and there’s a reason why – they are. (Pretty obvious, really.) I’m not sure exactly where I’d place this version of Prince John on my favorite Disney villains of all time list, but I’m sure he’d be in at least the top five. Peter Ustinov’s voice may not fit the category of ‘voice I hear in my head when I think Prince John’ in the same way that Bedford’s does for Robin (that post would be filled by Claude Rains, in case you were wondering), but he is perfect in the role. His John is a blustering, petty, thumb-sucking coward with severe mother issues who throws a wailing tantrum whenever things go wrong, as they inevitably do. This guy is just such a hoot to watch that it’s easy to forget the other side of things – for all his childish sturm und drang, he is nonetheless a cunning and ruthless adversary who is perfectly willing to go to extreme lengths to get what he wants. He may be a sissy, but you do not want to get him mad at you.
At his side is Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas), his cringing minion and sycophant, who is if anything even more fun to watch, in part because he’s actually a somewhat sympathetic character. Sure, Hiss is a toady and a yes-man, as well as a perfectly willing participant in the Prince’s schemes, but the poor guy takes so much abuse from his boss, despite the fact that he actually gives him very good advice every step of the way (which is, of course, completely ignored). He may gurgle with glee at the prospect of defeating the hero, but does he really deserve to be tied into knots and beaten like a rug whenever John gets mad at him, which is most of the time? Still, he is a villain, so we can laugh at his torments without guilt, which is good, since we’d be feeling very guilty otherwise – his exaggerated horror at seeing things go downhill yet again is freakin’ hilarious, and never fails to make me laugh. Poor Hiss. Oh well, he’ll go off and have a good sulk. Serve that poopy-head right if Robin does win again. Hmmph.
On the minor character side of things, we have the Sheriff, who is memorable as a cheerfully rotten and corrupt fellow who nonetheless is just doing his job. Also, there are Trigger and Nutsy, a pair of vulture guards who offer up some good set-pieces, feisty li’l rabbit-kid Skippy and his friends, and, well, more than I can comfortably list here, really. There are times when it seems like we get to know the whole of Nottingham – which isn’t a bad thing, mind you, but it does make this kind of review a bit tricky.
So, final analysis? Despite how extremely fond I am of Robin Hood, I must reluctantly state that I would not recommend it for everyone. It does have its flaws, and evidently there are enough people out there ready and willing to pounce on them that I can’t in all good conscience state that it’s for everybody – if you’re one of those people, it’s clearly not for you. (Oh, and, uh, sorry for calling you a whiner back there.) For everyone else, especially lovers of family entertainment and good old-fashioned turn-your-mind-off escapism, I recommend it whole-heartedly – at the very least, it’s worth a look.
(Oh, and just because it wouldn’t be a real Robin Hood review without using the term at least once – Oo-de-lally!)
- An alternate ending for the film would have had a wounded Robin facing off against Prince John in the village church. It was ultimately decided that this was too dark, and the idea was scrapped. It’s available as an extra on the movie’s latest DVD release, though.
- A personal theory I have regarding this film is that it’s not actually the animal kingdom’s version of the story that the Rooster is telling, it’s his own. This would explain all the anachronisms and out-of-place accents – the Rooster is a modern-day guy from down south, so this is how he pictures things.
- The genesis of Robin Hood’s animal characters lies in an earlier Disney project – an adaptation of the tales of Reynard the Fox. However, Walt Disney felt that the title character was not a suitable hero, being a bit of a rogue and a trickster – hence, he was given more heroic qualities. The Reynard project was eventually dropped, but when Robin Hood was put into production, many elements from it were used.
- Peter Ustinov’s portrayal of Prince John is a caricature of an earlier performance of his – that of the Roman Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis.
- Another clear influence on the film was Disney’s Jungle Book. Phil Harris was cast as a bear in both movies, and gives the same basic performance in each, and Sir Hiss is visually similar to the character of Kaa and shares his hypnotic abilities.
- Prince John’s bitter statement that “Mother always liked Richard best” is a reference to a Smothers Brothers routine. It’s also at least somewhat of a reference to real life – John’s actual mother was Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she did have a preference for Richard over him.
- A recurring sight in the film is Robin Hood’s reward poster. The first time we see it, the price on his head is 1000 pounds. The second time, it has ballooned to 10,000 ingots! By the third and last time, the reward has dropped to the original 1000.
- If you watch closely, you may notice something interesting – Sir Hiss has two tongues! When he opens his mouth to speak, a mammalian-looking tongue is visible (albeit colored white for some reason), but when he starts hissing his sibilants, a more characteristic snake-tongue darts out. In several scenes, both are visible at the same time.
The Rooster: My job is to tell it like it is – or was, or whatever.
Prince John: (repeated line) Aaaah! Mum-my! (sucks thumb)
Friar Tuck: Why someday, you’ll be called a great hero!
Robin Hood: A hero? You hear that, Johnny, we’ve just been pardoned!
Little John: That’s a gas; we ain’t even been arrested yet.
Lady Kluck: As your lady-in-waiting, I’m waiting!
Prince John: And now, I name you the winner. Or, more appropriately – the loser!
Little John: Take a look at your hat. That’s not a candle on a cake.
Sir Hiss: Your Highness, please don’t do that. If you don’t mind my saying so – you see, you have a very loud thumb.
Prince John: Rhinos, halt! Stop! Desist!
Robin Hood: What have I got to offer her?
Little John: Well, for one thing, you can’t cook.
Sheriff: Wait a minute. Is the safety on Ol’ Betsy?
Trigger: You bet it is, Sheriff.
Sheriff: That’s what I’m afraid of. You go first.
Prince John: You cowardly cobra! You procrastinating python! You aggravating asp! You eel in snake’s clothing!
Robin Hood: From the mists of time, come forth, spirits – yoohoo!
Sheriff of Nottingham: (singing) They call me a slob, but I do my job…
Prince John: Traitors to the crown must die…
Robin Hood: ‘Traitors to the crown’; that crown belongs to King Richard! LONG LIVE KING RICHARD!
Skippy: Spiders, snakes and a lizard’s head…
Toby: Spiders, snakes, and a lizard’s head…
Skippy: If I tattletale, I’ll die ‘til I’m dead.
Toby: If I tattletale, I’ll die ‘til I’m dead.
Friar Tuck: GET OUT OF MY CHURCH!
Little John: (as ‘Sir Reginald’) You took the words right out of my mouth, P.J.
Prince John: P.J! I like that, do you know I do! Hiss, put it on my luggage! P.J – ah-haha, ah-hah!
Little John: You know somethin’, Robin, I was just wonderin’ – are we good guys or bad guys? Y’know, I mean, uh – our robbin’ the rich to feed the poor…
Robin Hood: ‘Rob’? That’s a naughty word; we never rob! We just… sort of borrow a bit from those who can afford it.
Little John: ‘Borrow’? Heh! Boy, are we in debt!
Skippy: Death to tyrants!
Sir Hiss: Help! He’s gone stark raving MAAAAD!
Prince John: Now look here. One more, one more hiss out of you – uh, er, errm, Hiss – and you are walking to Nottingham!
Sir Hiss: (to himself) Snakes don’t walk, they slither. Hmmph. So there.
Nutsy: One o’clock, an’ all’s well!
(Clock chimes three)
Sheriff of Nottingham: Nutsy, you better set your brains ahead a few hours.
Nutsy: Yes, sir. Uh, does that, er, mean addin’ or subtractin’?
Lady Kluck: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Maid Marian: Or forgetful.
Prince John: Double the taxes! Triple the taxes! SQUEEZE every last drop out of those insolent, musical peasants.
Skippy: That old Prince John don’t scare me none.
Toby: I’m scared of Prince John. He’s cranky.
Little John: Rob? Robin? Ro-behr? Hey!
Prince John: This crown gives me a feeling of power! Power! Forgive me a cruel chuckle – hah hah hah hah hah hah! – mm-power, hmm.
Sheriff of Nottingham: It smarts, don’t it Otto? But Prince John says that taxes should hurt.
Prince John: Get out of that, if you can.
Robin Hood: I owe my life to you, my darling.
Maid Marian: I couldn’t have lived without you, Robin.
Prince John: Robbed! I’ve been robbed! Hiss, you’re never around when I need you! I’ve been robbed.
Sir Hiss: Of course you’ve been robbed!
Little John: Hey! Who’s drivin’ this flyin’ umbrella?
Repeated line: A pox on the phony king of England!
Prince John: Seize the fat one!
Sir Hiss: Please, please – I don’t drink!
Rooster: (singing) Every town/has its ups and downs/sometimes ups/outnumber the downs/but not in Nottingham.
Prince John: I sentence you to sudden, instant, and even immediate death!
Sheriff of Nottingham: Criminitly – now I know why yer mama called ya Nutsy.
Lady Kluck: YEEEE-HEE! Love conquers all!
If you liked this movie, try these:
- The Adventures of Robin Hood
- The Rescuers
- The Aristocats