As I start building up my collection of Disney DVDs to a state more befitting of a self-confessed animation nut the reviews for Mouse House features are coming thick and fast. I’ve made no secret in the past of my opinion that the studio’s so-called ‘wilderness years’ following Walt’s death are unfairly named. The period yielded more than a few gems the best of which is this delightful retelling of the classic English legend which played on constant repeat in my VCR growing up. In fact it may well be the single film above all others I’ve seen the most number of times. I could probably quote the entire script.
It’s a very familiar tale. King Richard the Lionheart is off crusading with his tyrannical brother John ruling in absentis putting the squeeze on the poor inhabitants of Nottingham by hiking taxes. The hero of the downtrodden is Robin who ‘borrows a bit from those who can afford it’ to feed the poor when he isn’t lost in reveries about a ‘high-born lady of quality’ called Marian. The USP here is that all the classic characters are presented as anthropomorphic animals, a move that gives the characters just as much personality as the bouncy script and top-drawer voice cast.
The delegation of species to characters gets it spot on practically every time, Little John is a bear, Friar Tuck a badger, the Sheriff of Nottingham a wolf and if you can’t guess what animal the Lionheart and his brother are translated to Lord help you. Best call is Robin as a fox, an animal that totally fits the hero role and if scavenging urban types are anything to go by works well as an outlaw too, and who can argue that Maid Marian is a foxy lady?
They’re all memorable characters too, Robin himself one of Disney’s best heroes, a dashing, flawed and happy-go-lucky fox of the people given life by Brian Bedford’s spirited vocal performance. He’s funnier than the average protagonist too. Phil Harris brings the right kind of resourceful confidence to Little John while Monica Evans delivers a likeable Maid Marian who can more than hold her own in a pie fight. The supporting characters also hit the spot, such as the hilarious Clucky and the pompous Sir Hiss, the list is almost endless. Prince John scores the lion’s share (sorry) of laughs courtesy of a quite wonderful Peter Ustinov who becomes the first Oscar-winning actor to voice a villainous Disney lion (see also Jeremy Irons as Scar) and walks away with the film in the process.
There’s a nice balance between comedy and adventure. a light-hearted and easy-going first half gives way to a much bleaker and desperate second culminating in one of the great Disney climaxes. The jailbreak final act deftly handles comedy and peril, adventure and action, with mounting tension and scene after scene of brilliance; Nutsy and his studious dedication to getting the time wrong, Robin’s determination to pinch every last bag of gold from under Prince John’s nose and of course our hero’s desperate and undyingly exciting escape from the castle, one of the best moments in any Disney film.
Sometimes the plot dawdles particularly in the first half but there’s always some great character comedy to keep things amusing. Some have commented that the Americanisation of this quintessentially English story is worthy of criticism. A fair observation, the archery tournament free-for-all manages to turn into a game of American Football but the spirit of fun in which it’s all done is what gives the film its vibrancy.
Most of the songs are also gold, the opening credits melody Whistle Stop inspiring football chants some decades on, if you don’t like Phony King of England you’re probably not very nice to know and Not in Nottingham is heart-breaking. Love gets some stick for being a bit mushy but I still like it. Most of the incidental music also hits the spot, guiding both comedy and excitement.
Disney’s Robin Hood represents everything that makes animation special, a fusion of joy, fantasy and colour with all the touching moments the medium is so good at producing. It gets overshadowed by more famous moments in the studio’s back catalogue but that can’t change the fact that this is one of its brightest creations.
Endlessly rewatchable, possessed of a unique and unconquerable spirit of pure fun without forgetting the important parts of the legend and the aura of heroism surrounding the famous character. Pure, unadulterated bliss.