Tue
Dec 31 2013 11:00am

“Those Impudent Musical Peasants!”—Disney’s Robin Hood

Disney Robin Hood

Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) is the Robin Hood myth at its most mythic. It has the simplest plot (Robin robs and humiliates John so badly that eventually John throws all of Robin’s friends in jail, leading Robin and Little John to stage an epic jailbreak/heist). It’s divorced from historical context, indeed it is divorced from human characters entirely. The Disney version is Robin Hood as fairy tale: John is a lion who taxes his subjects simply because he loves money, and Robin Hood is a clever fox that robs and gives to the poor, because, well, because that’s what Robin Hood does.

It’s nominally set in England, but only a few characters, like Robin and Prince John, speak with British accents. Other characters sound like they come from all over the United States, notably the narrator, Alan-a-Dale (a rooster), voiced by country singer Roger Miller. And of course few of the animals featured are native to England. Drawing on lots of influences—including Disney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book—the film moves towards a more universal setting. It’s not just one village in one place at one particular historical moment, but every poor village that ever suffered under an oppressive ruler.

There is no nuance to this movie. Unlike in The Adventures of Robin Hood, almost everyone agrees from the beginning that Robin Hood is a hero and John is a bully. There’s one scene where Little John (a bear) asks whether they’re bad guys for stealing, which Robin laughs off by saying they’re merely “borrowing.” And that’s the end of any ethical dilemma. Even the Sheriff of Nottingham (a wolf) and John’s right hand snake, Sir Hiss, get in on the action of making fun of Prince John, “that phony king of England.”

Which brings us to the most striking thing about Disney’s Robin Hood (after it being an animated version where all the characters are animals): it’s unapologetically a musical. Most of the songs are part of Alan-a-Dale’s folk song narration, but Little John’s rousing dance number “The Phony King of England” is a tune so catchy and insulting that John ends up taxing the entire town of Nottingham into debtors prison after he catches Sir Hiss and the Sheriff singing it.

Disney Robin Hood

Robin Hood

Brian Bedford’s voice is perfect for Robin Hood. Suave and assured even in the most dire circumstances, and quick to make a joke. He only sounds sad when talking about Maid Marian, whom he lost when he became an outlaw.

Of course, there’s no explanation of why he became an outlaw. We don’t know whether Robin was born noble or common, or if became a thief before or after King Richard left England in the hands of his brother. All we do know is that he grew up with Marian, and that his birth name might in fact be Robin Hood. (He carved their initials in a tree as “R.H. + M.M.” suggesting that her first name is actually “Maid.”)

What we do know is that he shares many of the same traits as the Errol Flynn version: flamboyance, arrogance, generosity, and super flippancy about most things. Even more than Flynn, Bedford’s Robin is explicit about his crimes being “performances” (a word he repeats a few times), and he wears three ridiculous disguises over the course of the film (a female fortune teller, a blind old man, and a young stork archer) to Flynn’s one. It’s all a game to Robin, even the arrow shot though his cap, until his actions get the entire town locked up and his friend Friar Tuck (a badger) almost hanged.

Disney Robin Hood Little John

The Merry Men

In Disney’s Robin Hood, it’s not so much the Merry Men as the Merry Man. Robin only has the one official partner in crime: Little John, who’s modeled on—and voiced by the same actor as—Baloo from The Jungle Book. Little John is slightly more cautious than Robin, often warning him not to take risks in challenging Prince John directly, but only slightly. Because he’s just as often quickly running after Robin, getting into his own ridiculous disguise, and acting as back-up knife when Robin gets into trouble.

Disney Robin Hood Skippy

Other famous Merry Men are in the film, they’re just not actually thieves. Friar Tuck is just a friar, trying to take care of the poor church mice that fill his pews. Alan-a-Dale narrates and sings sad songs when he’s arrested. The role of the young man inspired by Robin Hood is filled by Skippy (a rabbit), plus his sister Sis, his brother Tagalong, and his friend Toby (a turtle). In some ways, the kids are the point of view characters; it’s through Skippy that we learn of Robin and Marian’s backstory, with Skippy that we watch the archery contest, and it’s Skippy, wearing Robin’s hat, who helps Little John drive Robin’s wedding carriage away.

There is no Will Scarlett, unless there was a cardinal in the background I missed.

Disney Robin Hood Maid Marian Lady Kluck

Marian

Maid Marian may be the weakest part of Disney’s Robin Hood. She’s a vixen, which means Disney never has to deal with the ramifications of cross-species romance. She’s never a damsel in distress, which is good. But she doesn’t really do anything else, either. She loves Robin from the beginning (keeping his wanted poster in her bedroom), and she’s sweet to Skippy and his friends when they barge in on her badminton game. But she never saves Robin, and Robin never saves her, and after having a romantic stroll with Robin around Sherwood Forest to the Oscar nominated song, “Love Goes On” she basically disappears from the narrative.

Her maid, Lady Kluck (a chicken and Scottish, for some reason), is the more active player in the story. Kluck is openly contemptuous of Prince John, taking his role as the villain so Skippy can play the hero, loudly declaring “Long Live King Richard” in range of Prince John’s archers, and charging through John’s soldiers like a wide receiver, all to the tune of the University of Wisconsin’s fight song. But she, too, disappears from the climax only to reappear right at the end.

Disney Robin Hood Prince John Sit Hiss

The Bad Guys

Sir Peter Ustinov’s Prince John is the source of most of the humor of the movie. His motives may be simple (he loves money, and sleeps in the treasury), but his characterization is actually complex. He’s a lion, because his brother Richard is obviously a lion, but he’s a scrawny lion, wearing his older brother’s clothes that are way too big for him. He’s a baby who sucks his thumb and calls for his mother when things go poorly. He’s also vain but he’s insecure. He’s vicious, but a coward. He’s suspicious, but of all the wrong people. He’s basically a clown.

Sir Hiss takes the role of Sir Guy, the noble suck up to the Prince. Sir Hiss has an odd multifaceted relationship with John, as he’s John’s minister of finance, best friend, and pet. He literally sleeps at the foot of John’s bed and his tongue tickles John in his sleep. He’s also the most fantastic, “cartoony” character in the movie. Not only can he hypnotize people (like his character model, Kaa), he can also float away in a balloon he himself blew up, and use his tail as a propeller.

With John and Hiss as comic relief, that leaves it to the Sheriff to be the actual threat. He’s a wolf, but he’s bigger than even Little John. When he comes knocking on peasants’ doors looking for taxes, he’s immediately threatening. He also has the high pitched, Alabama accent of Pat Buttram, famous for being Mr. Haney on Green Acres, which again moves the setting from the specific Nottingham of the late 12th century to any town, anywhere.

Disney Robin Hood King Richard Friar Tuck

Richard and the Crusades

King Richard and the Crusades are barely mentioned in the film, only enough to explain that John isn’t really the king. The opening exposition and Little John’s song call it a “great crusade,” but we learn that Sir Hiss actually hypnotized Richard into going on what Prince John calls a “crazy crusade.” Again, without getting into the details of exactly what Richard did on his crusade, the crusade is presented as a bad thing which took the rightful ruler out of the country.

Disney Robin Hood Maid Marian Wedding

The Ending

Disney’s Robin Hood decides to one-up The Adventures of Robin Hood by having Robin save Friar Tuck and the entire town of Nottingham from jail. While ALSO emptying John’s treasury of coins, which, again, is John’s bedroom. That seems like an unnecessary risk to me (it wakes John), but then I’m not Robin Hood, so what do I know.

After that, it ups The Adventures of Robin Hood by staging the climactic sword fight (or sword and chair fight) in a flaming tower. It’s here that the Sheriff becomes truly monstrous, bursting through charred doors and towering over the now very small Robin Hood. It’s a rousing action sequence that ends with Robin leaping to his seeming death to escape.

Which is my second problem with the film (after Marian’s unimportance): it kind of just ends. Robin escapes unhurt, much to the relief of Little John and Skippy, but he leaves John in power. Penniless, but in power. There’s nothing to stop John from re-arresting all of the escaped villagers, or taxing them into oblivion again. Except Richard just shows up in the next scene and John’s in prison, so Robin and Marian can get married and apparently do it right there in their wedding carriage (at least, that’s the implication as they pull down the shades).

There’s an unfinished alternate ending (which you can find on the DVD) where Robin IS injured escaping from John, and Marian and Little John have to care for and hide Robin. Prince John himself finds Robin and is about to kill him when Richard appears and personally saves Robin and arrests his brother. That would have given Marian something to do in the last act and tied Richard’s return to Robin’s jailbreak. But apparently that ending was deemed too dark, so the cleaner, quicker version was released instead.

Drinking Game

Warning, this is four drink movie. It’s short and it looks like it’s going to be a two drink movie at most going in to the jailbreak sequence. But then Robin starts emptying out John’s treasury, which is nothing but bags of gold. So if you’re drinking every time someone handles a bag of gold, you will die.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

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25 comments
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
1. Lisamarie
I remember I was reading something about the Disney canon (probably looking at all the entries on TV Tropes) and I was shocked to see this is regarded as one of the 'bad' Disney movies. I LOVED this movie growing up - I thought the songs were pretty cute (although - gaaah, that one ended up being the Hamster Dance song!), I thought Prince John and Sir Hiss were funny, I loved Robin, I loved the archery contest scene, etc. Upon rewatching, it IS a little slower and more low key than other Disney outings, and it also suffers from the re-use of a lot of the animation (especially in the now infamous dancing scene) - but as a kid I didn't care. I will say that as an adult, the fact that you can see a lot of the pencil lines in the animation really annoys me, as well as the fact that in many scenes, Sir Hiss seems...hairy. Oh, and I never liked the two vultures - especially as their carelessness almost results in killing Robin/Marian on their wedding day in a freak accident (I know that scene is played for laughs, but even as a kid it kind of freaked me out).

I can't say I disagree with you about Marian's lack of presence here, but again, as a kid - that never really bothered me. The movie was about Robin Hood! And I did always really like the scene where they play badminton with the little rabbits. I didn't realize the baby had a name but I always thought he was pretty adorable.

(Speaking of rabbits, man, how about that scene where the Sherrif takes Skippy's birthday present??? And hits the dog with the broken leg to get the coins in his cast? And steals from the poor box! JERK!!!)

Also a fun fact - the two church mice who give up their last farthing (awwww) are voiced by John Fiedler (Piglet) and Barbara Luddy, who plays Merryweather in Sleeping Beauty (and a bunch of other Disney roles, she might also have been Lady). It's funny that as a kid I never realized how often the actors/actresses were reused, but now it really stands out.

Clearly, as you can see, I have a lot of sentimental feels about this movie ;) But to me, especially as it is associated so strongly with my childhood, it kind of represents the most ideal version of Robin Hood - my impression was always that he was an outlaw to protest the unlawful rule of Prince John and was defending the common man from those that would prey upon them and 'keeping their hopes alive'.

I moved to Wisconsin to go to UW for grad school in 2005, but I didn't actually know that the song in this movie was the UW Fight song until very recently (probably TV Tropes again)...I am really not a big football fan at all. In fact, I think the movie reflects the only time I've actually heard the song! That said, Go Badgers! Like Friar Tuck - a character I have more appreciation for now as an adult. I still get a kick out of the scene when he tries to throw the Sherrif out of his church in a fit of righteous anger for abusing the poor. ;)
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
I haven't seen this since it was first released and I was 11, but I remember it feeling a little unfinished or incomplete. This was the first film that Walt Disney didn't at least greenlight and we can see the downward trend in Disney films already, though after this they simply fell off a cliff.

Probably the biggest sign of problems is the lack of originality in so many character designs. Little John and Sir Hiss are both from Jungle Book, as noted, but so are the two vulture guards. Prince John's lion is also strongly reminiscent of the lion in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The rabbit kids are also very familiar, but that may be because they got a lot of use in print comics later.

The voice casting is odd, at best. All those southern and western accents are jarring. And to top it all off, one of the songs from the film was sampled for the Hampster Dance.
Farah311
3. Farah311
I loved this as a kid, but for Prince John and Hiss who are totally the stars, so much so they crop up in other movies (in Ella Enchanted for example).
Farah311
4. Wizard Clip
I was about 9 when this was released and really enjoyed it then. I specifically recall the Lady Kluck "football" sequence bringing down the house. I watched it again for the first time a couple of years ago with my daughter and found that it just didn't hold up. The foxy Robin is utterly charming, but as noted in the article, the ending is just too abrupt, too much of the action makes no sense at all (if everyone in Nottingham is in jail, who will pay the taxes?), and too many character designs are too beholden to The Jungle Book (a movie I hate to the core of my being).
Bob Bruhin
5. bruhinb
Can we really write such a complete review of this film without a single mention of Deidre LaCarte?
Farah311
6. Amy F.
It's my Trojan duty to point out that the beginning of Lady Kluck's charge is done to USC's fight song. Which somehow morphs into Wisconsin's.
Farah311
7. Paronomasia@hotmail.com
This is my favorite Disney movie. Growing up my mom would take me and my brother every Wednesday to rent a movie ($1.00 Wednesdays). I would rent this one, and my brother checked out Cloak & Dagger. Every week for what seems like my whole childhood (probably only a few months) I watched this. I never liked the romantic scene as a kid, and as I watch is with my kids, I still don't like it. It never felt right. It also feels like the movie was supposed to end after that scene.
Farah311
8. Paronomasia
Ah, crap. I switched my name and email. A little help Tor? Please?
Farah311
9. Lesley Arrowsmith
I hated the 'football' scene (but, then, I'm English!), but I did rather like Robin - and the poor box scene is lifted wholesale from the Tyrone Power version of The Mark of Zorro (with Basil Rathbone as Captain Esteban rather than the Sheriff)!
Sky Thibedeau
11. SkylarkThibedeau
I kinda remember a live action Disney version of Robin Hood they used to show on 'Wondeful World of..." alongside Treasure Island and Scarecrow(with Patrick MacGoowan as Dr Syn) when I was a kid. I can't remember seeing it shown in years even late night on the Disney Channel.
John Zeleznik
12. John_Zeleznik
I loved this movie as a kid into my early teens. I watched it recently with my daughter and found it to be just as delightful now as I did then. Reading this article made me realize something: this Robin Hood and Little John were the original Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, huh?
Farah311
13. Russell H
@2 Re the film seeming "unfinished," it was made at a time that many now considered to be the nadir of Disney animation, what with uninspired designs, use of familiar characterizations from earlier movies instead developing original characters, and a genuine lack of corporate concern. I read recently on an animation blog that one old-time Disney animator reported that some scenes were accidently shot out of focus. When this was realized, management refused permission to reshoot, saying that either patrons wouldn't notice, or, if they did, it could be blamed on the projectionist.

Here's a link to an interesting piece on the development of the film. Disney had for some years been considering a film to be based on the medieval "Reynard the Fox" stories, but this is where they ended up.

http://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/reynard-the-fox-in-animation/
Farah311
14. Russell H
@2 Re the movie feeling “unfinished, it’s from a time that many now consider to be the nadir of Disney feature animation: uninspired designs, overuse of familiar voices, characterizations based on those from other movies and a genuine lack of corporate concern. I read recently on one animation blog that an old-time Disney animator reported that several scenes were accidentally shot out of focus. When this was realized, management refused to authorize reshoots, saying that either the audiences wouldn’t notice, or, if they did, it could be blamed on the theater projectionists.

I also read that the idea originally was to do a feature based on some of the medieval “Reynard the Fox” stories, but after considerable development (including one stillborn project that would have been titled CHANTICLEER), they decided to play it safe with this.
Farah311
15. Brian Neo Oelberg
Sir Hiss is played by venerable British actor Terry Thomas, and in fact, has the caricature Thomas gap between his teeth.
Little John/Baloo wasn't played by an actor, but by Phil Harris, the Bandleader for Jack Benny's radio and TV shows. He's essentially playing himself: A jolly fat Jazz man, though in the Benny show he was also a notorious drunk
Farah311
16. Russell H
@15 That's something that's become all too common in animated films today: get some popular actor or celebrity with easily recognizable traits or shtick, and have them voice some character that's basically just a caricature of that image. A big part of what made earlier Disney films (and those later ones beginning with THE LITTLE MERMAID) was to take characters from familiar stories and give them distinctive and original personalities.
Farah311
17. 4tothefloor
I'm surprised you don't consider the assault on the castle to be a pretty definitive final victory. At one stroke, Robin carries off the entire town to live with him in Sherwood Forest out of the sheriff's reach, and he strips Prince John of all the resources he would need to chase after Robin and the townspeople.

Plus, I think it's pretty clear that Robin has totally broken John's spirit with that last attack. John wasn't that stable to begin with, and they leave him sucking his thumb and crying for "Mummy."

They didn't spell it out, but I always assumed during the fade out between the battle and the wedding, the whole town cheerfully waited for Richard's return for months or even years in the forest while Prince John was left to mope in his burned-down castle, without the money to keep his soldiers or to buy food.
Farah311
18. Apsalar
Robin Hood also has a ridiculous disguise as the Sheriff's dim hench-vulture, toward the end of the movie.
Farah311
19. WonderGirl
? Too late to be known as John the First, he's sure to be known as John the wooooorst . . . ?
Farah311
20. Library Girl
This movie ranks in the top 10 of my family's favorites- to this day, if one of my siblings starts off with "Release my buddy!" the rest will chime in with "Bageeek! I mean, release the prisoner!" We can quote entire scenes, and sing all the songs. I have never noticed the problems or issues noted above, probably because every time I watch it I am transported straight back to childhood and see it again through those eyes.
Alan Brown
21. AlanBrown
I remember this as being a pleasant adventure, but far from the best of Disney's animated films. As a Robin Hood film, it doesn't do much to expand upon the original material, just uses it as a framework for some lighthearted fun.
The fact that it didn't have much of an impression on me, however, probably has to do the fact that it was released during the period of my life that was a Disney 'dead zone'--too old to be a kid, but too young to have kids.
Ursula L
22. Ursula
I have an odd relationship with this movie. I never actually saw it as a child. But we had a record of it - the audio of the movie, from beginning to end. The record jacket had pictures from the movie, of course.

So the story is in my mind, practically word-for-word. But when I finally saw the movie, there were whole scenes where things happened that I didn't realize, from the sound, were happening. Other places where what is happening is different from what I had imagined.

I don't suppose they do that, anymore. Release audio recordings of entire movies. The VCR put an end to that.
Joe Romano
23. Drunes
Ursula: Same thing happened to me with "The Jungle Book." My wife and I bought the record album for our daughter long before we rented a video of the movie. My reaction to that movie was very similar to yours for "Robin Hood."
Farah311
24. tim1701
It has been a long time since I have seen this but I watched it almost every day during summer vacations as a kid. There are times when I still get Phony King of England stuck in my head. Also that song works pretty well with a certain U.S. president.
Kristoff Bergenholm
25. Magentawolf
I love, love, love this movie! I'll have to track down a DVD copy, now, because I've never seen that alternate ending...

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