Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Little Poor… But A Lot of Fun

With the success of The Aristocats behind them, the once-groundbreaking Disney animation studio would continue to thrive. The suits realized that animation wasn't something that had to be sent packing; The Jungle Book was a record-breaking hit and The Aristocats kept the success streak going. However, The Aristocats also showed the suits that you really didn't have to set the bar too high. The Aristocats got mixed reviews upon release, but it still made money and was considered a good diversion for family audiences. The next feature would also resort to that kind of storytelling laziness.

Robin Hood evolved out of many attempts to tell the story of Reynard the Fox, a character who Walt Disney deemed unsuitable for a lead heroic role. After Walt's death in 1966, production on a Robin Hood film began and the studio decided the tell the story with an all-animal cast. This film is actually a classic example of this trope, one that Disney Animation will be revisiting for the upcoming Zootopia, it was also explored by DreamWorks in their Kung Fu Panda franchise. Art director Ken Anderson went all out, coming up with several great character designs, only for them to be watered down into the kind of designs you'd find in a Saturday morning cartoon. He actually cried when he found out that his works were turned into such by-the-books designs! In addition to this, Robin Hood would turn out to be one of the most cost-efficient films in the Disney canon, and not in a good way. The studio really cut the budget this time around, and in turn... It really affects the whole production, making it a very middling effort from the studio - both visually and narratively.

Fortunately, Robin Hood boasts a very appealing cast despite the streamlined character designs. Making Robin Hood a fox was a great idea from the start, and Brian Bedford (Tommy Steele was originally considering to voice the titular character) brings out his sly trickster demeanor. He's smart as a whip and he is good at giving the bad guys a run for their money, but he's also very likable. Little John is fun, but he's really a recolored Baloo - he's also voiced by the same voice actor, Phil Harris! It doesn't help that a lot of animation from The Jungle Book is recycled in this film, it just doesn't really set the character apart from the two-bit bum bear from Walt's swan song.

Also, aside from Phil Harris, Robin Hood's cast is half-American. There's quite a few British actors in the film, but a lot of the characters have Southern accents. So is this Robin Hood: Bayou Edition? Andy Devine voices the portly badger Friar Tuck. Roger Miller and the animators transform minstrel Allan-a-Dale into a country singing-and-whistlin' rooster. Pat Buttram voices the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is portrayed as a pudgy but suitably mean-spirited wolf. (Taking a birthday present farthing from a child? Cruel.) John Fiedler voices the sexton, a borderline tough-guy mouse, probably just to have Piglet's voice in there for the sake of it being there. This side of the cast clashes with the British cast, which is all well-picked.

Peter Ustinov makes Prince John the wimpiest of Disney villains, and one of the funniest. A bratty, whiny adult child who comically sucks his thumb when his mother is mentioned, he's a delight to watch. His banter with Sir Hiss (voiced by Terry-Thomas, and he even has Thomas' teeth gap!) is also hilarious, making up for what doesn't work in the film. These two are pretty much a riot, and it's fun to see a villain who cowers when the hero is swings a sword in his direction, a nice little change of pace. Monica Evans and Carole Shelley, after voicing the two silly geese in The Aristocats, return to voice Maid Marian and Lady Kluck. Maid Marian is pretty much a bland damsel-in-distress in many ways, Lady Kluck is spunky, loud and one tough chicken. She's one of the most enjoyable characters in the film as a result.

In addition to such an American-flavored cast, the film goes a very cartoony route. Robin Hood isn't trying to be a lavish, fairly serious fairy tale like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Sleeping Beauty. Instead, it's trying to be freewheeling comic fun like The Jungle Book and The Aristocats. There's lots of goofy slapstick, no real dramatic tension and lots of anachronisms. During the archery tournament fight scene, Lady Kluck takes down Prince John's rhinoceros guards like she's playing football, complete with the University of Southern California fight anthem! It's a very bizarre moment, but yet it's so strangely amusing because the film doesn't even present itself as nothing more than a giddy full-length cartoon to begin with.

If one takes Robin Hood on those terms, they could enjoy it very much. It's not really a retelling of the classic legend, but just a fun romp based on some of the tale's elements. Like many have pointed out, it's really a good extended Saturday morning cartoon episode more so than a Disney animated feature, one that bests most of the Saturday morning cartoons made in the early 1970s. As a work of cinematic storytelling, it just falls flat because it isn't really trying to be anything more than just a comical cartoon adventure…

Robin Hood is essentially The Sword in the Stone all over again, oddly enough since both of them are set in the Middle Ages and came out nearly ten years apart. Robin Hood is a compilation of sequences, episodes really. It's all strung together, feeling incomplete and also a bit incoherent. The Sword in the Stone didn't have much a plot with a goal, neither does this. Robin Hood robs from the rich and helps the poor, that's about it, really. Now looking at the different sequences, they are competently-made and well-told sequences. Very entertaining and enthralling at times, too. But where's the center? Where's the heart? It doesn't really resonate.

The first thirty minutes of the film are a complete mess, with two "day in the life" exploits of Robin Hood and Little John supplying the levity and fun. But then we also get an inconsequential sequence where young rabbit Skippy loses his arrow and goes to retrieve it with his friends, thus meeting Maid Marian and Lady Kluck. The picture takes a while to really take off, but it starts coming together thanks to a great archery tournament sequence that comes in during the halfway point. This whole sequence is well-paced, the lack of music makes it exciting and there's some great inventive stuff thrown into the mix: Robin Hood's stork disguise is fun, Sir Hiss puts his head in a balloon and flies around like a helicopter, and Robin's attempt to undo the Sheriff messing up his final shot. All good stuff right there.

Then a really action-packed chase follows when Prince John shows that Robin Hood faked everyone out, making this whole section of the film even more exciting. From here until the climax, Robin Hood begins to start clicking. In fact, it starts to get really intriguing when Robin Hood carries out his most elaborate plot ever: Get all the money back, save Friar Tuck from being hanged and break the poor out of prison. Like the archery tournament sequence, there's very little musical accompaniment and it's actually pretty suspenseful - almost like the mice and key sequence from Cinderella. After all the build-up, we get a lot of fast action and this really great escape sequence that just gets bigger and bigger... Then it's all thrown out the window.

All of it.

After Robin Hood escapes the burning castle, Prince John has his last "mommy" freakout and chases a frightened Sir Hiss. Then the scene ends, and then the next morning comes ... Alan-a-Dale tells us that King Richard returned and "straightened everything out". Originally, there was going to be a sequence where King Richard enters the castle right after Robin escapes, angered at what Prince John had done in his absence. To save money, they cut this nearly-completed sequence at the eleventh hour. This decision only showed how low Disney had sunk at the time, and it was a move that truly hurt this film in many ways. Having that would've been the perfect capper to the climax, and it would've given the film's episodic structure something an ending, and a little bit of a center that it was so lacking. The return of King Richard should've been triumphant, considering the build-up, something that would've ended that climax with a real bang.

Alas, we didn't get that thus we have to be told what happened. Fine for a kids Saturday morning cartoon, but this is a full-length animated Disney production. Might as well not show the dwarfs chase the hag to the cliffside, just have them run after her and fade to black. Saving money by recycling animation from several Disney films for the bulk of the film is one thing, but completely cutting this ending is another. There's also an earlier storyboarded alternate ending where a wounded Robin Hood escapes the castle and Prince John hunts him down, but he is stopped just in time by King Richard. (This can be seen on both the Most Wanted Edition DVD and the recently-released Blu-ray.) Was the studio that low on money that they couldn't make a roughly 2-3 minute conclusion for the film? It takes such great build-up and soils it with an anticlimax... That's not how you resolve something, especially something big!

Had Robin Hood been made at another time in the studio's history, it would've been much better. This film wonderfully captures the situation that Disney was in at the time, and many animation historians have noted the many instances of traced animation in the film. I'm personally not a fan of it, as I feel that it doesn't differentiate these films from one another. Thankfully, this "recycle animation" thing was ditched after the 1980s (save for Beauty and the Beast's inexplicable recycling of the final Sleeping Beauty dance for that film's final seconds). It was something that producer-director Wolfgang Reitherman really latched onto, among other things.

Much has also been written about the quality of Woolie's work after Walt's death and during the Ron Miller era of Disney. He was actually ousted from The Black Cauldron during early pre-production. probably because of his "touches" to these films (Phil Harris, the Southern vibe), and the young animators especially hated the disco musical number that was in his early treatment of The Fox and the Hound. But Woolie really had a love for recycling animation, others however, didn't. Animator Milt Kahl angrily declared that the animators were "garbagemen", and proceeded to say some not-so-polite stuff about what they were doing to Disney animation. Newly-recruited Don Bluth (his second time at the studio) was also not happy with the direction Disney's animation wing was going... Major changes would ensue, of course.

Robin Hood would have to be right down there with Disney's 1960 featurette Goliath II when it comes to recycling animation. So much of the film is cut-and-paste, it even recycles itself! For instance, Prince John's rhino guards marching? You'll be seeing that a ton of times in the film, along with Alan-a-Dale's walking and whistling. The credits, like The Aristocats' credits, is composed entirely of scenes from the film, but without the backgrounds so that they don't spoil anything.

Technical problems aside, Robin Hood is hurt by its lack of a good resolution to such a good climax. It also fails to resonate. Maid Marian is a bland love interest, and she's one of the only Disney heroines that I'd call a shallow damsel-in-distress. To those who complain about how Snow White and Cinderella don't pick up swords like Mulan and fight others, why not get upset over this character instead? She always needs saving, and she's not that interesting to begin with! Robin and her have a brief but pointless "romance stroll" through the woods, accompanied by the film's weakest song and perhaps one of the blandest of Disney songs... Simply titled "Love". It's weird-sounding early 70s AM pop meets strings-heavy syrup, and I never remember much of the lyrics after each viewing.

The other songs, however, are actually pretty good. Where this film lacks in story and visuals, it completely packs a punch with the songs. All fun ditties in their own right, even if the Southern country flavor doesn't particularly fit in with Merry Old England. Roger Miller's "Whistle Stop" is intoxicating, "Not in Nottingham" is fairly dour but it works (it's used where it's needed, of course). "Oo-de-lally"? Fun, hummable. I also really love "The Phony King of England", despite the scene's rampant animation recycling. At least the songs serve a purpose here, and they help bolster the cartoony exuberance of the film.

Other than that, there is not much else to say. It's economic as hell, lacking in a good story and often falls flat with too much cutesy pap (the whole "lost arrow" sequence, I didn't even like that bit as a kid) and schmaltziness. It at least has something of a decent story compared to The Aristocats, and it doesn't plod like that one. It's surprisingly more engaging, but still very weak in structure and its scope is also limited by the low costs. Nottingham Forest looks more like the Hundred-Acre Wood than the forests in The Fox and the Hound. Some of the art direction just looks basic, almost TV animation-level. I understand that they had a budget, but this decidedly more minimalist style leaves one wanting more.

Robin Hood... Is that you?

Robin Hood opened in the fall of 1973 to generally less-than-enthusiastic critical response, but it was the biggest animated film on initial release back then. It only proved to Disney management that you could be ho-hum and still turn out a hit, even in the changing animation landscape. Yellow Submarine, Ralph Bakshi's first two films and Fantastic Planet only made this and the film before it seem dull. The re-releases of Walt's greatest films also made these two films pale in comparison in many ways. Luckily, a certain someone wanted to take action and would come to dominate a good chunk of the next feature... Don Bluth.

Despite its myriad problems, Robin Hood has always had a fanbase. The charm of the characters and humor is irresistible for many, even me. With all the problems I have with it, it's still fun to watch and I do find myself enjoying a lot of it. So... A poor-but-enjoyable movie? I guess so. In 1984, it would be the first of the "moratorium" Disney animated classics to be released on home video, and the release did sell very well (according to Disney). It seems like Robin Hood got a lot of popularity on video over the decades, given that this film does appeal more to children than it does to adults than most Disney animated films. Still, its video sales never got it any Platinum status or anything of the sort. But aside from the young, the film seems to have many older fans, too. There's just something about it that calls you to it... Heck, someone like director Wes Anderson must be a fan because he used "Love" in his brilliant Fantastic Mr. Fox!

Robin Hood in the end may not be a good film, but it isn't without merit. The film doesn't really aim to be a great classic to begin with, you can get that vibe easily from the first half hour or so. The film basically had the intentions - like The Aristocats before it - to give the audience, young and old, a fun time at the cinemas. Nothing more, really. It just wanted families to come in and leave happy. It's like a rather okay local amusement park, you get a kick out of some of the rides and whatnot but let's face it, it's not Disney World or Universal or Six Flags! Does it have to be? No, not really.

Robin Hood works well when taken on terms like that, it's decent, entertaining and memorable family fare. Its problems are quite glaring, but you can still have a good time watching it. Stacking it up next to the other Disney animated classics can be a bit unfair, as it's leagues below many of them. There could've been some good tweaks made in order to make this film much more solid.

"Robin Hood" is in the fourth tier of my ever-evolving best-to-worst Disney animated classics list. What are your thoughts on this Disney animated feature? Sound off below!

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