Why do people love Robin Hood? Wolfgang Reitherman continued a solid run of films with this animal kingdom version of Britain’s most famous hero. However, if Disney films could be objectively but into tiers (they can’t) then this one would probably be C-List. Unremarkable but for a couple of moments and altogether rather lazy in the grand scheme of the studio’s work, this is not up there with Disney’s best or even second best. There’s nothing to make this stand out from the crowd, no big emotional moments or anything that’s especially funny. It’s just there, it’s fine and occasionally dull. Some of the animation is nice, a lot of it is merely ok. When it comes to my Top 10 Disney films at the end of the project, this won’t be troubling it. And yet many people would count this as one of their favourites, and it’s difficult to see why. So I thought I’d try and work out what it is that makes this so beloved by so many people.
Surely this can’t be the reason people claim this as their favourite Disney film? There’s a classic Simpsons moment where the guy in charge of Itchy and Scratchy teaches Bart and Lisa basic animation techniques, explaining that often animators will just repeat bits of the background as a way of cutting corners (as the same cleaning lady goes by several times). That kind of animation laziness is seen all over the place in Robin Hood, reusing the same character movement and just copying and pasting scenes, backgrounds and characters throughout the film. Then, of course, there is Little John copying the movements and facial expressions of Baloo from The Jungle Book. Reitherman’s style here feels a little muted, not quite as wild or as fun as his best work. There are still some nice landscape shots, and the action sequences are kinetic, but it all feels a little bland compared to the director’s finest visual achievements.
This could be a large part of the appeal. Once again, Phil Harris turns up to lend an easy charm to the proceedings as Little John, and some of the Aristocats return to voice the younger woodland animals. The real draw here is respected British thesp Peter Ustinov as Prince John, a snivelling oedipal lion who lives in the shadow of his big brother King Richard (the Lionheart, obviously). In a curiously American version of England, it’s great to hear the inimitably English tones of Ustinov, and it’s a joy to hear him call Hiss an ‘Aggravating asp!’ and get his tongue around sentences like ‘when our elusive hero tries to rescue the corpulent cleric my men will be ready.’ Ustinov gives the often excellent script richness and humour.
Ever since Errol Flynn, Robin Hood has been associated with a lot swash and copious amounts of buckle, and the Disney version doesn’t skimp on the action sequences. There’s a lot of slapstick, and the fighting is often of the comic brawl variety. Arrows and swords fly haphazardly across each scene and rhinos (in Britain???) trample everything in their path. The final act is an enjoyably audacious prisoner and gold heist that sees Robin and John overturn an entire system of Government. Yet some of it feels a little lacklustre and perfunctory to me – none of it is especially impressive or filled with any sense of danger, unlike, say, Bambi. Like the film as a whole, it’s all fine, but nothing particularly impresses.
A large amount of the appeal could be Robin himself, Britain’s greatest hero and champion of the poor and downtrodden. There’s something enduring about the figure who stands up against tyranny and makes sure everyone gets their fair share. Just like The Sword in the Stone, adapting a legend means choosing from a large selection of different aspects to the story, and many familiar things are left out – no returning from the crusades; no real merry men to speak of; no meeting on a bridge with Little John. But it does get in far more of the mythology than the studio managed with Arthur, with a whole lot of robbing the rich and, of course, the famous arrow-splitting archery tournament. Hood is a people’s champion, a firm part of British culture and perhaps it’s him that gives this film its lasting favour with audiences.
Incidentally, this is also one of the best versions of the Robin Hood legend in cinema, as although the story and its component parts are familiar, he is often under-served by film and television. Flynn’s film is loved by many and still has charm but is horribly dated and rather camp. Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is divisive (by my reckoning its rubbish, and its geography is particularly dreadful), whereas all can agree that Ridley Scott’s dour, bloodless version is terrible and the less said about the BBC version a few years ago, the better. The Disney version trumps the lot, although arguably cinema is still waiting for a definitive version of the story. The best at the moment is Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
This is the best explanation I can come up with as to why people class this as a favourite, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s one of the big reasons I love The Lion King so much, so it makes sense if you watched this lots as a child then it would hold a special place in your heart.
If Robin Hood is your favourite Disney, please let me know why in the comments! I like it, but I really don’t love it, so I want to hear from the die hard fans.