Well, it took thirty years, but I finally found a classic Disney movie that I still think is solidly enjoyable with minimal problematic elements. Go figure, it ended up being another one of the many “cheap” Disney movies that were made on a tight budget to maximize profits. Of course, unlike other cheap films like Dumbo and Lilo & Stitch, which are definitely very beautiful movies, this one actually looks cheap.
That’s really only a minor complaint about Robin Hood, because otherwise this movie still holds up remarkably well.
For anyone curious about what I mean about the cheap quality of the animation, it really only comes out if you’ve seen a lot of older Disney films. Robin Hood has the same signature sketchy style that was prevalent in Disney films beginning in the ’60s and carrying clear on until The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 (I’m not a huge fan of this style, but that’s probably because I grew up on the golden age films of the ’90s that had a much cleaner look to them), but that’s not what makes it look so odd. In several key action sequences (and the big party scene during the song “Phony King of England”) if you watch closely you can see that multiple shots use animation identical to scenes from The Jungle Book (Little John and Lady Kluck dancing are just traces of Baloo and King Louie doing the same routine) and The Aristocats (if you’re watching along with me, you can see this most clearly when Maid Marian is dancing with the band in the woods; her animation is the same as Duchess dancing in O’Malley’s apartment, and the musicians perfectly correlate to the alley cats, right down to the drummer having the same caricatured facial features as Chinese Cat). Apparently there are also some sequences pulled from Snow White of all places, but I’ve not seen that movie in years, so I can’t place the corresponding scenes.
It’s a strange effect, because you get the sense that you’ve seen this before, but you’re not entirely sure where.
Anyhow, that’s really a minor complaint, because I still think this film is one of Disney’s high points from that era. Robin Hood’s a very well known figure in the Western consciousness, so he’s a natural fit for a Disney adaptation. Making him a fox adds a fun layer to his character, since he transitions from simply being a well intentioned outlaw and folk hero to being something of a trickster. This Robin Hood is a thief and a master archer, just like every well-known version, but the swashbuckling aspects have been mostly filed away to allow for someone more crafty. He can fight when he needs to, but it’s telling that the two major action sequences in the movie come about because one of Robin’s ruses goes wrong (it might not make for the most exciting climax, but I think I’d enjoy seeing Robin and Little John breaking Friar Tuck out of prison and stealing all Prince John’s gold without a hitch).
On a thematic level, this movie doesn’t really do anything to irritate me the way other Disney fare does. If Pocahontas and Aristocats grated on my nerves for their respective sexism and infatuation with the upper class, then Robin Hood‘s pretty much free and clear. Our introduction to Maid Marian and Lady Kluck has them pass the Bechdel Test right out the gate as we see them playing tennis and enjoying each other’s company. Yeah, Marian’s pretty moony over Robin, but there’s also some depth in the romance here where she’s uncertain about whether he’d return her affections after she’s been away in London for several years (I’ll admit that beyond the romance Marian’s a pretty flat character, so the movie’s not perfect with how it presents its female characters). Setting character aside, the movie’s whole plot revolves around the core of any Robin Hood story: the overly wealthy nobility is squeezing the peasantry dry with unnecessary taxation. Granted, the movie doesn’t do a whole lot to distinguish between overtaxation and regular taxes (the fact that King Richard returns at the end of the movie and sets everything right before he presumably sets off for another Crusade is problematic; that’s one unnecessary war after another funded by the people’s taxes, yet no one seems to mind that in comparison to Prince John’s hoarding of wealth just because he can).
Despite the problems with its message, Robin Hood still does some interesting things to emphasize its populist themes. If you pay attention to the voice acting, you’ll notice there’s a pretty clear split between actors with American accents and actors with English ones. Take a guess which class of people are typically American and which ones are typically English (remember that Robin, though he’s an outlaw, is also titled; if he weren’t then there’s no way it’d be appropriate for him and Marian to wed). I don’t know for certain that this was a conscious choice on the part of the casting director, but it’s an interesting feature nonetheless. Besides that, there’s also the device of framing the story as a tale being told by Allan-a-Dale the minstrel. In medieval tradition, minstrels were folk singers who would travel about and spread news through song. That same role is in effect here, but the sound isn’t traditional English so much as American western. It’s not as odd a thematic mash up as gospel and greek mythology, but I think it’s in the same vein of taking a familiar American idea and using that to make something more esoteric relatable to the audience.
There are definitely some missteps in this movie, but overall it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Unlike all the other pre-’90s Disney films I’ve watched recently, I can still recommend this one as worth your time.