Disney usually does better with fairy tales. Myth and legend often throw the House of Mouse for a loop. Take the otherwise interesting King Arthur effort ‘The Sword in the Stone.’ Instead of dealing with the whole Knights of the Round Table idea with a kind of generic grace, Walt’s workers turned the story of Excalibur into a coming of age tale for a goofball boy, complete with random life lessons talk via anthropomorphic transformation and a wicked witch character who had no place in the original narrative.
In fact, it’s safe to say that no plot can completely exist without the company Disney-fying it a bit, and that’s the case with their version of ‘Robin Hood.’ As we said before, we don’t expect reverence. But the changes offered here make acceptance a bit of a challenge.
You see, the studio decided to substitute animals where people usually play. As a result, our hero is now a conniving fox while his lady love, Maid Marion, is an actual vixen. His pal Little John is an oafish bear, and Friar Tuck is a badger. We get rabbits, church mice, and vultures among the various population of Sherwood Forest, and the villains are represented by Prince John (a cowardly lion), the Sheriff of Nottingham (a wolf) and the ruler’s right hand serpent, Sir Hiss. In an even more unusual move, the voice acting is divided between proper British takes on the characters (Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Monica Evans) and oddball American choices (Phil Harris, Andy Devine, and ‘Green Acres” Pat Buttram).
The storyline is similar to the established saga. Robin and his Merry Men (or in this case, bruin) rob from the rich and give to the poor which makes sitting ruler Prince John extremely angry. He didn’t go to the trouble of tricking his brother, King Richard, into leaving for the Crusades in order to reign in destitution. He’s also enamored of Maid Marion, an old childhood love of Robin who hasn’t seen the scoundrel in years. During an archery competition, our hero is captured and set for execution. Marion pleads for his life, and after a successful escape, the Prince triples the taxes. Most in Sherwood Forest are imprisoned, with Robin required to save the day, once again.
When you consider the cornball talent involved – including country music legend Roger Miller, who plays the rooster narrator and composed several of the movie’s songs – ‘Robin Hood’ is surprisingly spry. It’s not as cheesy as it sounds, though it definitely suffers from Disney’s declining fortunes. Released in the middle of a major turning point in motion picture history, this is an old fashioned film thrust into a post-modern milieu, and it doesn’t really fit. The big hit films of 1973 were ‘The Sting,’ ‘The Exorcist,’ and ‘American Graffiti.’ Oddly enough, ‘Robin Hood’ was in the Top Ten, at number nine. Of course, it only earned a measly $32 million at the box office, but it bested such classics as ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ Woody Allen’s ‘Sleeper’ and the sci-fi shout out ‘Soylent Green.’
One can easily see why the kids loved it. This is pure House of Mouse hokum. We’ve got cute critters running around, lots of physical comedy and shtick, the voices have the necessary cartoonish quality and the overall approach is light, breezy, and built for fun. But it’s also nonsensical and bit disrespectful. Granted, this isn’t supposed to be an accurate reflection of history, but for the most part, we are dealing with a ‘Classics Illustrated’ take on the material dumbed down significantly so that the studio could sell it to the masses. The message remains the same – it is better to give than to receive, in a way – but the manner in which it is offered is slightly specious. Robin Hood was always a bit of a bounder. Here, he retains said edge while having other aspects of his persona buffed off for easier consumer consumption.
More interestingly, this doesn’t feel like a struggle to survive. It’s not wholly calculated for commercial return. Sure, by keeping Phil Harris on there is clearly a desire to remind fans of the former glory that was/is ‘The Jungle Book,’ and both Buttram and Devine are old hands at this animated anarchy thing. But the sudden switch to very serious and stiff upper lipped Brits is a bit mind boggling. Granted, no one will confuse Terry-Thomas for Sir John Gielgud, but such a shift was/is bound to cause concern in an otherwise unobservant parent’s mind. They don’t want their wee ones confused. They want them placated and out of the way for as long as cinematically possible.
Even the preservationists who want everything the House of Mouse releases on super special home video editions will wonder where the added incentive – read: content – is at. Aside from an alternate ending (which is indeed something to behold, considering its far darker nature) and a reconstructed deleted scene (meaning the various black and white storyboards are used to showcase what would have been), it’s the usual kiddie oriented fluff. Sing-along and repurposed Disney shorts. At least the audio and video have been improved by the format update. The 1080p, 1.67:1 image is bright, colorful, and sharp as a tack. As with ‘Oliver & Company,’ there are animators defects o’plenty on display. As for the sound, it’s cleaned up a bit and channeled through a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 than can’t do much with its monaural origins.
At least when they tackled something like Hans Christian Anderson of the Brother Grimm, Disney could diddle with the storylines and still come up trumps. Here, there’s a history that can’t be cobbled together or scuttled for the sake of simplistic. By dealing with Robin Hood this way, the House of Mouse guaranteed that the end result would be a piffle, a partially entertaining lark that today is barely remembered, even by those who have found memories of seeing in theaters for the first time. While fun and extremely agile, the final result is also part and parcel of the company’s cockeyed way with folklore.