Robin Hood (5/5)
Most people have that one Disney film that follows him or her into adulthood. Of course, the persistence of Disney’s films can be chalked up to cultural omnipresence or clever marketing, but I wouldn’t underestimate the fact that in its heyday the Disney factory managed to pump out one classic after another. There’s a reason why Walt Disney has garnered the admiration of great artists like Sergei Eisenstein, John Updike, and Roy Lichtenstein: because, at his best, Walt Disney created great art. For me, the single Disney film that never seems to exhaust itself—no matter how accurately I can recite each line word for word—the one Disney film that seems to renew itself with each passing decade is without a doubt their version of Robin Hood.
For my money, Disney’s Robin Hood is the best adaptation of the medieval folk tale ever put to screen (sorry, Kevin Costner). While everyone knows the basic elements that make up the Robin Hood legend, from the Sheriff of Nottingham to Sherwood Forest to Robin’s band of merry men, some of the most famous aspects of the folk tale have been haphazardly added to the story over the course of centuries. Maid Marion, for instance, wasn’t included in Robin Hood’s legend until several hundred years after his earliest folk tales. This loose, disparate formation of the Robin Hood tale has actually helped it survive over the centuries. Because there is no single authoritative Robin Hood story, artists have been able to highlight and tweak different parts of the myth to their liking, mixing and matching whatever suits their particular purposes.
Disney’s Robin Hood seems keenly aware of the mythic nature of the title character, and the film is introduced by minstrel singer Alan-a-Dale who, while leaning on the letters of an oversized book about Robin Hood, informs the audience that “My job is to tell it like it is, or was, or whatever.” The layered, self-consciously formulated style of this introduction—the fact that Alan-a-Dale is breaking the fourth wall to tell us a story that he appears in and is also surrounded by a large print version of the same story—tells the audience that the filmmakers are aware of the ways in which legends and heroes are not born but rather made by those who choose to cobble truth and fiction together and pass it on to the next generation so they can do the same.
And for his part, the director, Wolfgang Reitherman, and his team chose some of the best elements of the Robin Hood mythos. This version of Robin Hood takes place during King Richard’s crusade. While Richard is abroad fighting a hopeless war, England has been under the boot of his weasely brother, Prince John who has nearly taxed the already impoverished people into starvation. In one particularly great scene (and the movie is filled with great scenes), the Sheriff of Nottingham waltzes into Friar Tuck’s church, opens up the donation box, and takes whatever change he happens to find. When Friar Tuck protests that he is taking from the “poor box,” the Sheriff replies that he’s just taking it for “poor Prince John.” The villains are particularly nasty in Robin Hood, not because they represent the essence of evil, but because they seem awfully close to anyone who takes immense pleasure in basking in their own power.
The relationship between Robin and Marion also comes across as surprisingly effective, especially when you considered that they’re two anthropomorphized foxes. As a child my least favorite part of the film was always Robin and Marion’s retreat to the waterfall after he whisks her away from the archery contest. As I’ve grown with the film, the movie itself appears to change ever so slightly, and I’ve come to love this scene just as much as the rest of the film. It serves as a well needed respite from one of the film’s most extensive action sequences, which begins with an archery contest and devolves into a big tent, three ring circus of chaos.
But what truly sets this film apart from all other Disney animated films is the vibrant voice acting. Phil Harris, who had previously played Baloo in The Jungle Book, reproduces his baritone here as Little John, who in this version serves as Robin Hood’s best bud and advisor in romance. And for his part Brian Bedford puts in a great performance as the title character, and his delicate British accent seems to fit Robin’s wiry frame. The filmmakers even got country singer Roger Miller, who is most famous for his song “King of the Road,” to voice Alan-a-Dale. And it is, in part, because of the fine ensemble cast that the movie manages to make every one of its dozen or so talking characters seem alive despite the fact that the film barely makes it past the 80 minute mark. Thanks to both the voice actors and the way in which the animators formed each animal around a few key associated personality traits (the rabbits are energetic, the foxes are lithe and quick, and the bears are lumbering and forceful), we feel as if each character, even if he or she has only a line or two, are a full fleshed personality. Even ancillary characters, like the alligator who sounds like Tom Waits, feel as if they have a history behind them, a story we haven’t yet heard.
Of all the fine voice acting, I have to make special mention of Peter Ustinov’s Prince John, who, in my opinion, is one of the all time great villains. The genius behind Ustinov’s performance is that Prince John can veer wildly between a childish buffoon who sucks his thumb calling for his mother and a nasty villain who takes pleasure in hurting others. And these two sides of his personality seem to reinforce one another. He is like that kid with godlike powers from the Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life,” or, more recently, like King Joffrey from Game of Thrones. Power may corrupt absolutely, but it can also create an eternal infancy. And while there are an abundance of great lines in the film, somehow Prince John gets the best of them, from “Forgive me a cruel chuckle” to “I’ve got a dirty thumb.”
Ustinov’s great performance is likely a result of his time in theater where his flexible voice would have been even more of an asset than in film. And listening to him recently in Robin Hood reminded me of one of my least favorite aspects of modern day animation: celebrity voice actors. Fair warning: I’m going into a full fledged rant. Too often animation studios will hire big name stars to voice a few characters so that they can paste some recognizable names on the marquee, and the stars are willing to cash the check because it’s an easy gig. In fact, at the Oscars Chris Rock recently poked fun at how “easy” voice acting is. But the thing is, I’ve listened to Chris Rock voicing a character, and he’s terrible at it. In fact, most of his Hollywood friends have a hard time actually acting when they are voicing an animated character. The exception to this rule is, of course, Pixar who chooses voice actors because they fit the role not because their schedule happened to be free and…why not. Pixar then expects their talent to do some acting. When I listen to Woody and Buzz rarely do I stop to think that they’re really Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. But the worst offender has to be the recent Dr. Seuss adaptations that have been purposefully built around a big Hollywood star. Once the big draw has been established, the studio cynically plugs in actors and pop musicians who will appeal to different demographics in order to have their bases covered when it’s time to market the film. In Horton Hears a Who, for example, there is no character who actually resembles Horton from Dr. Seuss’s classic. Instead it’s merely Jim Carrey under the guise of an elephant yelling a lot. And what’s truly terrible is that because, as Chris Rock suggests, voice acting doesn’t take much time out of your day, wealthy Hollywood actors have been pushing out truly talented people who specialize in voice acting for a living. Okay, that’s the end of my rant. My point is, these animation studios could learn a lot from Robin Hood where each voice actor effortlessly captures the persona of his or her character in a way that’s becoming increasingly rare in contemporary animation.
But as I mentioned early on, Robin Hood the movie, and the legend itself, seems to renew itself with each passing year. Disney’s Robin Hood seems to be both of its time and yet one step out of it. The film was released in 1973 and it contains a healthy distrust of government as well as a story that pits the haves against the have nots. The 60s counterculture obviously had a huge impact on this film. When Alan-a-Dale introduces himself at the beginning of the film, he tells us that he’s a minstrel, which he defines as sort of like “an old time folk singer.” And what are these woodland versions of classic characters but a bunch of hippies who hide out in the woods singing protest songs. One song, “The Phony King of England,” is so catchy that Prince John’s right hand serpent, Sir Hiss, is caught singing it in front of his boss, a testament to ways in which music can spread both an unrelenting melody and anti-authoritarian message. But these same issues seem even more prevalent today. The film makes it a point to suggest that King Richard has been hypnotized by Hiss so that he would leave England to fight the Crusades, a hopeless war in the Middle East. While the king is more concerned with foreign affairs, England falls apart. Thankfully, we have evolved past these issues in the last millennium or so. With the collapse of the global economy and the subsequent rise of the Occupy Wall Street protests the myth of Robin Hood seems more than a little applicable today. At one point Prince John inverts Robin Hood’s famous motto, telling his that he plans to “rob the poor to give to the rich.” And as we have seen wealth trickle upwards over the past thirty years, this seems like an apt phrase to explain what has happened to our once robust economy.
Unfortunately, Robin Hood didn’t have a great reputation upon its release. Apparently, the studio wasn’t pleased with the animation, which has a rougher edge than some of Disney’s earlier films (although, I would argue that this nicely fits with its scraggy hero). The film’s critical reception has suffered as well. On the critic aggregation site Rottentomatoes, Robin Hood currently has only a 55% positive rating. And yet I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love this film. Tellingly, 78% of the same website’s users give the film a positive score, which is pretty good for a bunch of internet cynics. Somehow I find it fitting that, while the critical elites look down on the film, the populace still loves Robin Hood as much as ever.