Wednesday, August 15, 2012

1973 - Robin Hood

This is one that I’ve been dreading. I am quite well-known as a big fan of Robin Hood - my semi-defunct review blog will attest to that - so naturally I’m inclined to like this movie. My love of Robin Hood films, of the base story, my past working at the New York Renaissance Fair, these all make me the prime target audience for this movie. But knowing what I know about the state of the company at the time, I can’t shake the feeling that it probably isn’t very good. I mean, we saw what the devastation of Walt’s death did to The Aristocats, but then, we’ve also seen what effect personal views can have on objective assessment of a movie.

Indeed. So I’ll be trying to be as objective as possible, and I’ll be referencing The Aristocats in as fair and balanced a manner as possible. They were, after all, the only two movies made entirely between Walt’s death and the major company shakeup that’s on the horizon. So it’s time to see if this is a movie that steals from my soul to give to my pain, or if it’s a tale that stirreth my freborne bloode. Confused? So am I. So deer to kill a king’s dare, and I’ll tell ye of a goode yeman whose name was Robyn Hode.

One thing I’d like to talk about that’s been on my mind for some time is recycled animation. With the advent of xerography, it became fairly simple to copy old drawings and adjust them for the new movie. By saving them the trouble of working out layouts and scene directions, this was a huge time-saver for the company, and since time is money, they did it a lot. So far, apart from the recurring appearances of Bambi’s mom, it’s passed largely unnoticed. They’ve mainly been using it to pull off some tricky physical bits on the cheap. In this movie, it starts getting REALLY noticeable. Little John has an almost identical design to Baloo so they could reuse Jungle Book animation with little fuss, but it goes much deeper than that. Any time the Prince’s soldiers are marching, it’s just one guy copied over and over. The same running animations get reused time and again with different backgrounds. Random new characters appear for just one scene and then vanish so they could reuse some Aristocats stuff. It probably only seems so noticeable because I’m watching these so close to each other. Anyway, the shameless and frequent recycling helped them make the rest of it nice and clear and colorful, and the designs of the anthropomorphic animals are fun, and fit the characters well. They also get some good humor out of the various animals innate characteristics and relative sizes.

And I'm pretty sure the number of rabbits counts as a dirty joke.

As for the story that's served by this animation, it's pretty good. Kind of slight, but clever enough that I never really got bored. It’s very episodic, but that suits the nature of Robin Hood, who first appeared in ballads and legends. Speaking of ballads, the songs are mostly fine. Only the few sung (and written) by Roger Miller as Alan a’Dale really stick in my mind. There's also one called "The Phony King of England", which is notable for it's dubious historicity (They say John is "Too late to be known as John the First", and that he'll be remembered "Not because he passed some laws",) but also because the recycling really kicks into high gear. Otto the bog gets a mysteriously lengthened torso and shrunken legs so they can reuse some of Snow white, and a number of animals appear just for this one song so they can reuse Aristocats animation. Even Chinese Cat is back, albeit redone as a rabbit. Actually, that means his buck teeth make sense, so I guess that's fine.

Speaking of dubious historicity, this movie opens by talking about Good King Richard and his Noble Crusade, which was standard historical boilerplate before we knew better. But weirdly enough, Prince John's snake sidekick, Sir Hiss, later says that he hypnotized Richard to go on that "silly crusade", which I approve of. Oh, and of course the snake can hypnotize people, because then they can reuse Jungle Book animation.

Sir Hiss even gets that weird hairy back going on.

One thing this film definitely has going for it is the cast . To make another Aristocats reference, I complained about the mishmash of accents in that movie, and at first glance, that seems to be the case here, too. But there’s actually a method to it. The noble characters, Robin, Marian, Sir Hiss, Prince John, and the King, all have British accents, with the well-off servant Lady Kluck having a more ‘rustic’ Northern/Scottish accent. The lower-class characters all have American accents, with the vast majority of them being established actors from American westerns. These voices work quite well in the Robin Hood milieu, though they can go a bit far with the western motif. The sheriff’s men should not be referred to as a “posse”.

As for the specific actors, they’ve got some real winners. Phil Harris returns yet again as  Little John, and does a dynamite job. Andy Devine makes a great and humble Friar Tuck. Brian Bedford plays Robin with just the right mix of class and playful rebellion. Probably my favorite is Pat Buttram as the Sheriff. Buttram was in The Aristocats as one of the bully dogs, and he’ll be in quite a few still to come. He specializes in playing clownish, obsequious con artists and swindlers, so he’s a perfect fit for this comedic interpretation of the Sheriff, who always steals with a smile. An early scene where he wanders through the town following Friar Tuck so he can collect Robin Hood’s charity as taxes the very second it is given is particularly good.

One bit that I had some actual trouble with was the portrayal of Prince John. I'll make this clear, I don't think the filmmakers were trying to make him look gay, or make fun of gays. They wanted him to be young, and they made him a mama's boy, and because they were old men, that took the form of the most tired collection of schoolyard gay taunts imaginable. He's effeminate, obsessed with his appearance and jewelry, has a pronounced lisp, flirts like Dean Pelton, has an equally lisping associate who is a snake and sleeps in his bed and is always licking his ear... Damn, maybe they were trying. Anyway, he gets some of the better writing, and he's played by Peter Ustinov, who lisps just as much when he plays King Richard later, and he's got this weird hair trigger temper, so he's all right.

Work it, girl.

So yeah, I can say that's I honestly liked this movie as a film fan and Disney fan. I liked it as a Robin Hood fan, too, particularly the Sheriff and Little John. But it's less of a "this is a good movie", and more of an "I enjoyed watching this". It's cute, but there's really not a lot going on. It's worth a watch, if you find it on TV and there's nothing much else going on. But don't knock yourself out.


* If you're having trouble picturing what recycled animation looks like, please view this instructive video. You'll note that most of it is from this movie.

* I meant it when I said my Robin Hood blog was only semi-defunct. I may not have posted on it in over a year, but I also haven't seen a Robin Hood movie in over a year. I do really need to do season 3 of the BBC show, though. Actually, I have a review of “The Men of Sherwood Forest” written and ready for posting whenever I get off my duff and make some screencaps. But I do have such a comfortable duff.

* In the opening credits, everyone’s actor, name, and species are mentioned, e.g. “Brian Bedford as Robin Hood, a fox”. The only exception is “Roger Miller as The Rooster.” Which is a bit odd.

* It has been said that this film more than any other inspired the Furry subculture. Which is weird, because Robin and Marian are really the only “attractive” characters. Still, in my admittedly limited experience, I have noticed a lot of foxes among the furries, so maybe they’re on to something.

Also this.

* There are no horses seen throughout the entire film, but I didn’t notice until Robin and Marian’s carriage gets pulled away at the end by nothing in particular. I guess they didn’t want to deal with talking animal confusion. Probably why Bambi's mom didn't turn up.

* How does Marian, a fox, have a lion for an uncle? And why is she only referred to as the King’s niece, even when Prince John is the subject of discussion? Seems she’d be his niece, too. Or possibly his daughter, but that just raises further questions. And not just about Sir Hiss.

* The Rabbit family is curiously overrepresented in online screen caps for this movie. This is troubling, as any time I find a minor character overrepresented in pictures of an animated movie, I assume people have a weird sex thing for them. (see above.)

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