Skip to main content

Oh, he’s so handsome, just like his reward posters.

Robin Hood
(1973)

Wolfgang Reitherman is responsible for my favourite Disney animation, The Jungle Book, the last picture Walt Disney was involved with before he died and which, despite being relatively unadorned in comparison with the lushness of the studio’s animations of previous decades, is blessed with superb design work, wonderfully catchy songs (without equal in the Disney canon) and a marvellous voice cast. While Robin Hood, released five years later, can boast another strong vocal complement, and the occasional decent showing in terms of character design (stand up Robin and Prince John), it’s sadly an inferior beast, too often brought down by the tatty, underfunded nature of Disney animations at that point, which it has no choice but to wear on its sleeve.


As a youngster Robin Hood ranked as one of my favourites, probably thanks more to the Nestlé chocolate bars adorned with its characters than its actual content. Reitherman would go on to the better-received The Rescuers (itself indebted to 101 Dalmations for its main villain), which even spawned a sequel, and his work as a director, spanning Dalmations, The Sword in the Stone, and The Aristocats is, depending on where you are coming from, either a vibrant, hipper and more colourful Disney, eschewing the reverence inflicted on the previous couple of decades of fairy tale adaptations, or a tail-off from their golden age. I’m definitely in the former camp, as the period is the closest, barring perhaps The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney has strayed towards the more anarchic Warner Bros attitude.


Originally an adaption of the escapades of French fox Reynard was entertained, until he was decided as a touch too problematic, and Ken Anderson provided design work for Robin Hood that reportedly brought him to tears when he saw what Reitherman had done with it. Certainly, some of the elements here lack a certain something. The Sheriff of Nottingham was to have been a goat, but ends up a rather bland wolf. I wouldn't have known Friar Tuck was a badger without being told. Perhaps this is because he was originally envisaged as a pig, but the idea was kyboshed for fear of causing religious offence. Little John, like Baloo voiced by Phil Harris, isn’t the bear of his Jungle Book forbear, despite several memorable scenes, and Sir Hiss, although lent the marvellously memorable tones and gap tooth of Terry-Thomas, is a rather lacklustre piece of design, again diminished by how well his Jungle Book counterpart Kaa turned out.


Robin, voiced by Brian Bedford, is agreeable and dashing in a very modern-mannered manner, announces off the bat he and John aren’t bad thieves (“We never rob. We just borrow a bit from those who can afford it”), and appears to run a two-man outfit (budget cuts extending to the inhabitants of Sherwood Forest, it seems) while Maid Marion (Monica Evans) is something of a fox. 


But Robin Hood only catches fire when Prince John and Sir Hiss are centre stage. John, a lion, sublimely brought to life by Peter Ustinov, has a yen for taxes (“Taxes! Beautiful lovely taxes!”) and the apt phrase (“Forgive me a cruel chuckle”). And also a curiously endearing capacity for thumb sucking whenever his mother is mentioned). 


As The Jungle Book indebtedness thing goes, Sir Hiss even indulges in a spot of hypnotism. He also has some relishable lines (“A mere slip of the forked tongue, your majesty”) and at one point turns himself into an aircraft, enveloped by a balloon, his tail acting as a propeller.


Highlights include the fortune-telling heist of the King’s money train (for which Robin and John don drag) and the archery tournament, which vibes heavily on The Jungle Book, what with characters in disguise (Robin as a stork, John as gentry) and fraternising with the enemy (John’s Sir Reginald, Duke of Chutney, proves an instant hit with the King, at Sir Hiss’ expense). In between, the picture is curiously formless; one might charitably call it freewheeling, but listless would be more apt.


The tunes, while they have their ardent defenders (as does the picture itself, from a contingent who also grew up on its idiosyncratic charms), and have experienced a significant afterlife, don’t do a whole lot for me (The Phony King of England is catchy, while Roger Miller as minstrel rooster Alan-a-Dale is well-employed in his time-filler introduction, which reuses animation to be seen later). Apparently, the casting of actors best known for westerns (Patt Buttram, Andy Devine, Ken Curtis and George Lindsey) was down to an earlier consideration that Robin Hood would take place in the Old West. Which means it would have got in there with a revisionist take long before Sir Ridder’s Robin Hood (which also re-wrote its reinvention into a more traditional form).


Following on from such behind the scenes changes, if the climax feels rather abrupt that would be down to the excision of the original ending for being too dark. Officially. This was more likely down to budget constraints, since the picture had already fallen prey to animators tracing out sequences from The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for a dance number (although, in the interest of balance, reusing animation from earlier Disneys was common to Reitherman’s pictures). Robin Hood also used various alumni from earlier Reitherman outings. Alas, an all-animal line-up (no humans feature) doesn't prevent cutesiness from infesting the frame, in the form of soppy wee ickle bunnies.


Because of its readily identifiable similarities with The Jungle Book, I’m always inclined to see Robin Hood as deserving to sit in its company. Alas, while the voice cast includes some of the most formidable presences Disney has utilised, and the picture as a whole is part of a looser, freer and easier, stylistic era, it never amounts to more than the lightest of frolics, with little in the way of purpose or trajectory. Perhaps, if the Disney execs had held the animation division in any regard at the time, it might have ended up a much-celebrated classic.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Look out the window. Eden’s not burning, it’s burnt.

Reign of Fire (2002) (SPOILERS) There was good reason to believe Rob Bowman would make a successful transition from top-notch TV director to top-notch film one. He had, after all, attracted attention and plaudits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and become such an integral part of The X-File s that he was trusted with the 1998 leap to the big screen. That movie wasn’t the hit it might have been – I suspect because, such was Chris Carter’s inability to hone a coherent arc, it continued to hedge its bets – but Bowman showed he had the goods. And then came Reign of Fire . And then Elektra . And that was it. Reign of Fire is entirely competently directed, but that doesn’t prevent it from being entirely lousy.