Posted December 14, 2010 by editor in Retrospectives
 
 

Disney: Robin Hood


1973’s Robin Hood is not necessarily my most beloved Disney story, but it’s probably my most-watched as an adult. It paints a rather black-and-white picture of heroic King Richard being usurped (they use the word ‘usurped’ in the introductory “storybook” text. This, and some of the dialogue, is remarkably articulate for a children’s film!) by his evil, greedy, thumb-sucking brother Prince John. Despite this child-friendly simplification of an age old story – or maybe even because of it – the film’s an action-packed battle between the good and the bad. It’s also possibly the first Disney film to be as appealing to boys at is to girls; instead of  a suitor rescuing a fairytale princess from the clutches of evil, there’s archery, mockery and alligators!

 

Perhaps it’s Richard the Lionheart’s nickname that inspired the idea of using cartoon animals to tell this old legend, but the choice of animal for each character is a point of interest…and is preferable to seeing the story played out by men in tights. There are a few obvious choices…Prince John’s a mangy, emaciated lion in comparison to his brother and has a slithering serpent aide, Hiss; so-called ‘Little’ John, a big lovable bear; the wolf (literally) at everyone’s door, the Sheriff, who’s assisted by scavenging but stupid vultures. Protagonists Robin and Marian are foxes, a less obvious decision. Foxes are generally associated with traits like cunning and wiles, attributes strongly associated with the name Robin Hood, but I’ve never known them considered heroic. Oh, and Friar Tuck’s played by a badger, but personally I had to verify that on the credits as I’ve always found it difficult to ascertain exactly what species the creature in the cassock belonged to…

Unlike its animated predecessors, this film has relatively modern opening credits which get it off to a much more eye-catching start. Instead of reams of names appearing on-screen, cast members’ names appear under a clip of the character they voice and the name of the species they belong too. There follows a series of chases across the screen while the rest of the crew’s names are listed.  The narrator, a rooster/minstrel, leaps off the page and begins the story in song; a catchy whistling instead of the old-fashioned classical music earlier Disney’s favour.

Oo-de-lally! (What a charmingly quaint way to say “Gosh!” AND a memorable catch phrase) Our hero’s just walking through the forest as the tale begins, flanked by his trusted friend and sidekick Little John, when they come under siege. Dodging the Sheriff and his minions, Little John does briefly debate whether they are the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys’, but Robin easily convinces him they’re working towards a greater, moral good and restore the clear division between goodies and baddies which, in fairness, is present in most Disney films. Just in time too, as they stumble upon Prince John and wreak havoc in the magical land of, er, Nottingham…which probably sounds more appealing if you’re a child/foreigner who’s never head of the place. Little John’s American accent (he’s voiced by Baloo from the ‘Jungle Book’ if you were wondering why he sounds familiar!) is odd in contrast to Robin’s very proper British one, but it’s a small flaw that children – especially those that haven’t heard of Nottingham – are unlikely to detect.

Though I’m not convinced I always understood the significance of the Prince’s gleeful cries of “Beautiful, lovely taxes!” as he lets coins run through his fingers during his first on-screen appearance, I’m sure I could determine that he was ‘evil.’  It’s easy to see he’s a fool and a coward and to start rooting for Robin who, along with Little John, has dressed up in drag as part of their scheme. Robin’s falsetto voice and Little John’s bloomers, flirtations with the guard and saucy sashay must surely succeed in amusing young and old alike to this day, and the scene’s only dated by Prince John’s sexist remark (“Female bandits? What next? Rubbish!”), of which there are a few and which could well be a subtle device to make him look a bigot rather than a sign of the times.

Once Prince John has been undermined, the “honourable” Sheriff is announced in a voice loaded with sarcasm that may well be lost on children – but his bumbling, money-grabbing ways let us know he’s another bad guy. He gatecrashes Skippy, the adorable young bunny’s family birthday party – a family who obviously never heard of birth control judging by the sheer volume of his siblings – and ruins it. Fortunately, their friendly neighbourhood hero somehow pre-empted the evil deed and turns up to save the day! The local celebrity – “so handsome, just like his reward posters” – proves himself to be selfless and kind-hearted, the Sheriff’s exact opposite.

I’ve said that Disney stories are almost always a fight between good and evil, but I’m going to question the morals in this film a final time. On the basis of this version of the story, which is probably the first version of it that a lot of children encounter, it’s hard to associate the word “thief” with the name ‘Robin Hood’ when you see him donating his time and energy to children’s birthday parties. In fact, at this point in the film, he hasn’t done much robbing from the rich yet, making it seem an insignificant activity. Is justifying theft a good message to give children under any circumstances?

If you are willing to overlook these moral implications (which I will from now on!), the following scene is utterly endearing. Skippy and friends (including his youngest sibling, whose gender seems to me rather ambiguous!) try out their archery skills, hero-worshipping Robin as they do so. The beautiful, long-lashed Maid Marian welcomes the children into the grounds of her home, where she’s playing badminton, a rather random detail but one that enriches the action; it’s this evident dedication to detail that ensures children are always engaged by Disney.

This is where we discover Maid Marian was once Robin’s sweetheart, proven by the carving of their initials in the tree and underlined by the role play game that ends in a very grumpy Skippy gaining a kiss off the fair maiden! What an idealistic, romantic portrait of love theirs is. At a time before Facebook and text messaging enabled teenage lovers to keep in constant contact, the two are forced to wonder whether the other’s affections have strayed as they’ve been apart for so long.  They moon over one another – Maid Marian looks upon Robin’s reward poster as though he’s a rock star adorning the inside of her wardrobe, and Robin’s so distracted by thoughts of her that he burns dinner. I fear my expectations of love were forever warped by the simplicity and purity of the love between Disney sweethearts like Robin Hood and Maid Marian!

So determined is Robin to win her heart after all these years that he puts himself in danger and competes in an archery competition to win a kiss from Maid Marian. He does so in disguise, of course; and what better disguise for a fox than….a stork? It’s original, if nothing else. There’s a sense that his true love sees past this clever disguise, but will he fool everyone else? Especially Prince John, who’s set on revenge against his nemesis.

Alas! Our hero is exposed and sentenced to death. An extreme punishment by cartoon standards, but one that’s true to the period of history this legend comes from at least. Only then do the two foxes make their love for each other known, but before they can celebrate, there’s rope-swinging, sword-fighting, pie-throwing action! Amidst all this the two still manage to plan their future together, but again this makes the film less stereotypically “girlie” because their relationship is a sub-story to the rivalry between Robin Hood and the authorities.

 There does follow a romantic moonlit walk in the woods for the pair once they’ve made their escape, complete with romantic soundtrack, silhouettes and fireflies but before it gets too sappy  – surprise! Their friends have thrown a forest party for them, with a funky country jam and skilfully-drawn puppet show. Seeing the animals boogie on down is sheer brilliance – Little John throws Lady Cluck, the chicken, through his legs one point! It might sound like “padding” to lengthen the film, but I’d view it as a vehicle for a catchy song and some juxtaposition for the gloomy scene that’s to follow.

Everyone’s been sent to jail for unpaid taxes, even the children of Nottingham. The blues and black hues of the prison and the minstrel’s lament create a sense of helplessness and despair amongst the familiar faces shackled to the walls there that are freezing and starving. The pathetic fallacy of the driving rain (though now it strikes me as being an appropriately British climate as well!) makes things seem even worse for the people of Nottingham with their empty church “poor-box”; especially when their beloved man of the church, Friar Tuck, is arrested.

Robin Hood has already been threatened with the death sentence but a noose is actually erected in order to hang Friar Tuck and catch Robin in the process. It’s actually much more frightening when your mind fully comprehends the sinister significance of the gallows and disturbs me now much more than it did when I was a child. That could be because of my childish, unwavering conviction that Robin Hood would save the day and Friar Tuck would be fine though – you never entertain the notion things could go wrong as a child watching Disney (Bambi and The Fox and The Hound aside)!

Fear not. Another cunning disguise and Robin’s got the situation back under control. While Little John’s liberating the prisoners, Robin sneaks into Prince John’s bedroom, who’s sleeping surrounded by moneybags. He’s so determined to get every last penny that he is spotted and chaos ensues. The music becomes fraught as Robin swings, climbs and leaps death-defying around the castle to avoid the guards and their arrows. There’s a fiery duel between him and the Sheriff that sees him land in the moat and not resurface, much to the distress of onlookers Skippy and Little John…but thank goodness, always up for a lark, Robin sneaks up on them!

 It’s back to bright colours and whistling as the Rooster’s back to bring the story to a close. King Richard’s back, bringing order and justice, and Robin and Marian set off on their honeymoon, waved off by their friends. We can only wonder what career Robin Hood pursued once the inequality between rich and poor and Nottingham was eradicated…

“Well folks, that’s the way it really happened”, concludes the narrator. It’s an over-simplified “happily ever after” with some one-dimensional villains – but that’s what makes them so very repugnant. And what more could you really want from an 80-minute-long children’s film than an action-packed tale of good vanquishing injustice?

And I can’t deny I find Disney’s Robin Hood rather dashing. Even if he is a cartoon. And a fox.

Lauren Felton


editor