08 June 2012

Disney Daze: Week 21: Robin Hood

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

It sounds like the makings of another Disney classic. Let's take a folk tale that has captured the imagination of generations, turn the characters into anthropomorphized animals, include some catchy musical numbers, and cue the magic. Lamentably this patented mix of Disney's film formula would be in part Robin Hood's downfall. The film recalls several previous features in many ways, almost all of them detrimental. However this often pale imitation of features past provides glimmers of hope and harbors the occasional opportunity to shine. 

The songs are one of the highlights of the film. To be more specific, the songs written and sung by Roger Miller as the minstrel rooster Allan-a-Dale are great, the others--including an insipid ballad called unimaginatively "Love"--not so much. Miller opens the film singing the infectiously goofy "Whistle-Stop", which unfortunately plays out over one of the worst credit sequences in Disney history. Over a sparse, blank background showing clips of character animation that will be revisited later in the film, the credits showcase individual performers, superimposing the voice actors' names over the animation in hideous yellow font. It looks cheap and more to the point, ugly. The credits are immediately followed by Miller's opening narration in the guise of another great tune, "Oo-de-lally". He contributes one more track late in the film, the dour and heartfelt, "Not in Nottingham". All in all, Miller contributes a great triple-shot of folky numbers that are evocative and effective.

The biggest musical sequence however is set to the song "The Phony King of England" written by Johnny Mercer and sung by Phil Harris. The scene is the most controversial in the film because it flagrantly recycles several bits of animation from previous Disney features, particularly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Aristocats, and The Jungle Book. Having watched all of these films in the last six months makes the rip-offs even more pronounced. Admittedly some of the stolen elements work for the scene and the setting, but some feel completely out of place. There is a shot of Little John bobbing his head back and forth, as he, I mean, Baloo does during "I Wan'na Be Like You" in The Jungle Book. In the earlier film, the movement feels fluid and flows well with the jazzy score. Here it looks awkward and slightly out of rhythm. There is also a percussionist in the forest band that is a carbon copy in mannerisms, including the smiling and squinting, of the racist feline drummer in The Aristocats (here he is a rabbit). The question is why? It's obvious that the repeated animation was a labor-saving device but why keep in the racist characteristics when laying the redesign over the previous animation?

Of course, the "Phony King of England" sequence is not the only time Robin Hood performs thievery on the Disney back catalog (hey maybe it was all commentary on the film's plot!). The film borrows heavily from several films, above all the aforementioned Jungle Book. Yes, Little John is a carbon copy of Baloo, even down to the Phil Harris vocalization, but secondary characters as well find their origin in the earlier film. For example, Prince John's toady of an assistant, the snake Hiss, a reptile with a penchant for hypnosis, is a less effective but all-together similar creation to the insidious Kaa. At least these two have different actors behind them. Sterling Holloway's voice was a great choice for the seductively sinister Kaa. Terry Thomas's Hiss is adequate enough although it comprises mostly a series of slippery "esses". The other vocal stylings on display are for the most part rather well cast. Peter Ustinov's take on the petulant Prince John is a little too over-the-top at times, but his phrasings on John's alliterative accusations are great (calling Friar Tuck a "corpulent cleric" is one of my favorites). Speaking of the Friar, Andy Devine's turn as Tuck carries a lifetime of defeated regret in every sigh. Meanwhile Pat Buttram's creaky voicing of the Sheriff of Nottingham works well for a character who uses folksy patter while grafting every last cent from the poor. The two voice actors who fall short unfortunately are the romantic leads, Brian Bedford's Robin Hood and Monica Evans' Maid Marian are forgettably bland and uninspiring. 

The film spends most of its time on two big set pieces. The first is an archery tournament devised by Prince John as a means of trapping Robin Hood. Robin enters the competition disguised as a bird and defeats the cheating Sheriff of Nottingham before being exposed by the Prince. A chaotic chase ensues that runs far too long but has a couple of choice visuals to show for it. The best shot is of Marian's confidant, the stocky Lady Kluck, running headlong into a phalanx of royal guards. The shot is from Kluck's behind as guards come rushing straight at the camera only to be pushed aside by the fleeing chicken. The second set piece involves another trap set by John for Robin Hood's capture. John announces that he will execute the imprisoned Friar Tuck at dawn, in hopes of Robin coming to the rescue. Of course, Robin and Little John plan a prison break with just a little robbery on the side for good measure. This climactic action sequence is the best section of the picture, with inventive escapes and high stakes. It ends with a trapped Robin leaping from a burning castle tower into the surrounding moat. The animation and use of color here is superbly done.  

I had previously written about Robin Hood some three years ago for the old Metro Classics blog, not too long after I started on this road of Disney obsession. Of the film, I said that it lacked heart and after revisiting it I completely stand by that assessment. However, another trait that Robin Hood doesn't possess is a personality of its own, which is somewhat understandable from such a Frankenstein patchwork of previous pictures. Which is ultimately a shame since the film has a potential that peeks out occasionally from the edges. Chalk it up to a missed opportunity from a company attempting to simultaneously rehash the glory days while charting a course for tomorrow. 

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