Wednesday, 12 March 2014

KIDS' STUFF: Robin Hood (1973)

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Robin Hood (USA, 1973)
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Starring Brian Bedford, Phil Harris, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas

In my review of Avatar, I spoke about how American filmmakers have historically struggled to do justice to certain kinds of stories, namely "stories about American settlers encountering natives, and stories about Man destroying the environment." American filmmakers have also traditionally struggled when it comes to tackling distinctly British stories, of which the legend of Robin Hood is a prime example.

Ridley Scott's Robin Hood made a good fist of medieval English politics but was let down by a lack of focus and Russell Crowe's wandering accent. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is at turns tedious and over-the-top hilarious, depending on whether Kevin Costner or Alan Rickman is on screen. Even the classic versions with Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn come up short in some capacity. The Disney version of Robin Hood is like many of its companions: it realises some of the story's potential, but there are plenty of missed opportunities along the way.
 
Before we begin examining the narrative merits of Robin Hood, it's worth remembering that the mythos of this famous outlaw is rather fluid. Most of the 20th century versions of Robin Hood are derived in some way from Howard Pyle's The Many Adventures of Robin Hood, a Victorian children's book which cemented our hero as a localised philanthropist. But the earliest versions of his story date back to 1450, with the only vaguely consistent elements being the Nottingham setting and the Sheriff - frankly, everything else is up for grabs.
 
The point here is that all the usual arguments about Disney being economical with the truth are perhaps not as valid here, given that the truth is so elusive to begin with. This is complicated further by the knowledge that Robin Hood was not originally intended to be about the character at all. Ken Anderson originally wanted to make a film about Reynard the fox, an anthropomorphic trickster prominent in medieval European literature. But Walt Disney overruled Anderson early in production, believing that a fox would not make an appealing protagonist unless he was fighting for a good cause.
 
Disney's version does include many of the most familiar and much-loved plot elements of the Robin Hood legend. The story is still set in Nottingham, our heroes are still reacting against King John's punitive taxation, Richard the Lionheart is still off fighting the Crusades, and John himself is still a pitiful coward. For those only familiar with the basics of the story, it earns a pass on this level, just as any version of The Hound of the Baskervilles might be praised so long as it's set on Dartmoor and has a lot of fog.
 
The film also possesses one really funny set-piece, which occurs during the archery tournament. There is something inherently funny about a chicken with a Scottish accent beating up half a dozen rhinos and then running off into the woods. Even if this doesn't appeal to you, the scene is well-paced and well-structured, with physical humour and slapstick that builds and escalates to a series of fitting punchlines, mostly at the expense of John or Sir Hiss.
 
Unfortunately, that's largely where the plaudits end with Robin Hood. Like most of the films Disney produced in the 1960s and 1970s, it is riddled with compromises, cost-cutting measures and a general lack of creative energy. I've talked to death in my reviews about the negative influence that Wolfgang Reitherman had on Disney's output, and his fingerprints are all over this both as a director and a storyteller.
 
For starters, the animation is very mediocre. Even if we make allowances for the more pastoral, understated environments that the story of Robin Hood demands, the backgrounds are very plain and lacking in detail. The colours look pale and faded, and as always with Reitherman there is a blatant recycling of footage from previous films.
 
Many of the character designs are derived in some way from The Jungle Book, with Little John being a straight copy of Baloo in body and in voice (both characters are voiced by Phil Harris). 'The Phony King of England' musical number is similar to both 'Bare Necessities' and 'I Wanna Be Like You', both in its orchestration and in the dancing of its characters. Likewise Hiss is a poor man's Ka, the young turtle is a lift from Snow White, and there are big hints of Dumbo in the title sequence.
 
The film is also tonally unsure of itself, something which is reflected in the voice acting. Some of the cast are in full-on pantomime mode, with Peter Ustinov hamming it for all his worth as King John and Terry-Thomas providing a fitting foil as Hiss. Others are earnest to the point of being bland, such as Brian Belford as Robin or Monica Evans as Maid Marian. Others still are behaving like the whole thing is a Western: the conflict between Pat Buttram (the Sheriff) and Andy Devine (Friar Tuck) is like a watered-down version of the banter before a bar-room brawl.
 
These points reflect the apathy that surrounded much of Disney's output in the 1960s and 1970s. Because the budget for Robin Hood was relatively low, at $1.5m, Reitherman stuck to what he knew, and in doing so removed many of the genuinely creative aspects that would have made the film more distinctive. While Anderson wanted to make the Sheriff a goat, Reitherman settled on the tried-and-tested wolf, missing an opportunity to move the Disney brand on a bit and experiment with different kinds of characters.
 
This apathy also manifests itself on a narrative level. While many of the familiar plot elements are there, the plot as a whole is a series of bits which don't really lead on from each other. The narrative is less episodic than The Jungle Book, but the film does feel like it has been thrown together quickly without due care and attention. Roger Miller's narrator is completely surplus to requirement, being included to plug the gaps between set-pieces (and provide a more American sensibility).
 
In spite of all this, it is possible to enjoy Robin Hood as a vaguely passible distraction. Like The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, it is pretty innoucous fare, and its flaws are not so striking that they will offend the target audience. The more pantomime elements are amusing, the set-pieces are well-constructed, and while the score is repetitive it is also deeply forgettable. Like Pooh, it is the kind of film you show on a rainy afternoon, when nothing else is available to take your mind off things.
 
Robin Hood is an indifferent and innocuous effort from Disney which epitomises many of the company's flaws in this time period. It has its moments of fun and contains very little that could offend, but it's also a big missed opportunity which puts cutting corners above encouraging creativity. It's not Reitherman's worst outing as a director, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement.

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NEXT REVIEW: The Monuments Men (2014)

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