Time has not been particularly kind to this 1973 Disney animated feature. Although it was a critical and commercial success during its initial release, today it is mostly viewed by film critics and many Disney fanatics as a minor and somewhat unsatisfactory entry in the Disney canon – on the Rotten Tomatoes site, the film is currently burdened with a 52 percent “Rotten” rating.
In some ways, the film’s lack of continuing appeal is understandable. The animation is more economical than artistic, and sharp-eyed Disney addicts have noted that the character movements in a dance sequence were rotoscoped from previous Disney films. The film’s music is not memorable (although the syrupy ballad “Love” somehow snagged the film’s sole Oscar nomination) and poorly placed (two songs at the start of the film, then a long tune-free stretch until three songs are bunched together midsection, and then nothing more). And the decision to create a mix of Anglo and Dixie-Western accents for the characters creates a bizarre spin on Sherwood Forest’s demographics.
But despite these flaws, the belated slam on “Robin Hood” is mostly unfair, because it is a sweet, cute and often very funny romp. The character designs for the all-animal cast are charming, with Robin and Maid Marian presented as sexy foxes and evil Prince John as a mangy lion. (King Richard, who appears very briefly in the denouement, is a more majestic example of leonine royalty.) One could quibble by having Little John as a happy-go-lucky bear that carries too much resemblance to Baloo in “The Jungle Book” –a situation not helped by having Phil Harris voicing both characters – but that hardly spoils the fun.
Much of the joy in “Robin Hood” is the expansion of the story for endearing supporting characters, including a family of near-destitute rabbits aided by Robin’s benevolence and an aggressively oversized hen dubbed Lady Kluck as Marian’s lady-in-waiting (voiced by Carole Shelley with a wonderfully thick Scottish brogue). Much of the fun, not surprisingly, comes from the villains, particularly the cantankerous serpent Sir Hiss, who serves as Prince John’s inefficient confidante. The ripe interaction between the broad voice performances of Terry-Thomas as Sir Hiss and Peter Ustinov as Prince John helps fuels “Robin Hood,” to the point of overshadowing the comically evil machinations of the Sheriff of Nottingham (presented as fat wolf voiced by Pat Buttram) and his idiot vulture henchmen (voiced by George Lindsay and Ken Curtis).
The highlight of “Robin Hood” comes in the aftermath of the archery competition where the disguised Sherwood Forest bandit is identified and apprehended. In this go-round, Robin’s escape evolves into a zany slapstick explosion, complete with pies in the face and a surprise riff on American football (complete with a rousing sampling of “On, Wisconsin”) as Lady Kluck dodges rhino guards that attempt to tackle her. The sequence might be closer to Looney Tunes than Disney for its outrageous and unapologetic embrace of low comedy.
Is “Robin Hood” a great film? No. But it is great fun, and it should delight both youngsters that are new to the Robin Hood legend as well as adults that prefer “movies” to “cinema” and are willing to judge “Robin Hood” based on its own merits rather than where it should rank in the Disney universe.