Friday, August 21, 2009

Walt Disney's Robin Hood Revisited

My most distinct memory of Walt Disney's Robin Hood does not actually involve the film.  On my first trip to Disneyland when I was five years old, I stood by dumbfounded as a costumed Friar Tuck ran into the women's restroom in Fantasyland.  I was too young to realize that the vast majority of the costumed employees were female, nor did I know how forbidden that emergency restroom visit was.  To maintain the meticulously crafted illusion, Disneyland stresses that employees in costume cannot, under any circumstances, break character when in the public's purview.  If you're going to puke or pass out, do it with the head attached. Something must have been seriously wrong with that fleeing Friar.

My impressions of the film itself are hazy.  I remember the archery competition and a tedious imprisonment scene but that's about it.  I haven't seen the film in at least two decades and I wondered how it would fare, particularly since my recent conversion to obsessive Disney nutcase (classic Disney films and Disneyland exclusively; I'm not vouching for Hannah Montana or G-Force.)  In honor of this week's Metro Classic, I decided it was time I took a trip back to the animated Nottingham.

Well, it's no Pinocchio.  It's not even an Adventure with Ichabod and Mr Toad (which is ridiculously underrated by the way.)  It's not that the film is bad, it's just kind of boring.  Robin Hood was the second feature made after Walt's death in 1966 and his absence is overwhelmingly apparent.  Throughout his career Walt Disney strived to create work that was fresh, exciting and new.  He quickly grew bored with doing things the same way twice.  Robin Hood feels like a patchwork of previous Disney films, which in certain respects it was.  The most obvious example is that of the character Little John who is a veritable Xerox of Baloo the Bear from the Jungle Book, the last film that Walt had input on.  The character is not only an identical visual reproduction but he also is voiced by the same man, Mr. Phil Harris.  Robin Hood also reuses animation from previous films, most noticeably during the "Phony King of England" dance sequence which borrows movements from the Jungle Book, Snow White, and the Aristocats

All of this repetition was a necessity of sorts because Robin Hood was given an egregiously low budget by the studio, another mistake Walt would never have made.  He continually put the studio on the precipice of bankruptcy to realize his dreams, whether it was producing the first animated short with sound, the first feature-length animated film, or constructing a theme park amidst miles of orange groves.  Even when he was following up these landmarks with more of the same, he experimented with storytelling (Fantasia) and picture (the majestic Cinemascope world of Sleeping Beauty.) These risks eventually paid off because Walt had a distinct vision and that is ultimately what derails Robin Hood.  The film feels altogether too safe.

There are some nice moments in the film.  I actually enjoyed the prison sequence this time around (which it turns out runs all of about forty seconds; I must have been a fidgety child) where the minstrel rooster plays a Kris Kristofferson-like ballad, "Not in Nottingham".  His song "Whistle-Stop" which opens the film is another nice tune.  I found the morbid prospect of hanging Friar Tuck refreshingly dark for a G-rated kids' movie.  And the final showdown, which involves a massive prison break and a Bandidas-esque (to coin a phrase) robbery, is exciting and fun.  Too bad there was an hour of meandering preceding it.

For the most part though the characters are one-note, the plot achingly repetitive and the animation threadbare.  There just doesn't seem to be much fun at the heart of Disney's Robin Hood, which is unfortunate for that is the one trait the titular hero personifies.


sean said...

Man, I want to see Bandidas now.

Mikey said...

Future Classic.