Robin Hood isn’t often lumped in with the great Disney animated films, and while I wouldn’t pretend to claim it’s one of my all-time favorites, I genuinely like it and think it deserves some credit. I say this because when you consider much of the competition in the ’70s, it looks amazing. Sure, Ralph Bakshi was pushing the boundaries of what animation could be (both in content and animation styles), and Richard Williams directed Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure, with its trippy visuals and sequences. But for the most part, animation was virtually dead in that decade, with Hanna Barbera and Filmation having a stranglehold on mostly uncreative, bare bones, derivative animation on TV. DePatie-Freleng was still churning out Pink Panther shorts, but for the most part that series didn’t offer anything different than had been seen in their ’60s output. Even Disney was in stasis, with no animated shorts and only four features. So hopefully this gives you an idea of the climate in animation during this time, and why something like Robin Hood would be an exception in an otherwise lackluster decade.
But enough animation history. What about Robin Hood itself? As you’d expect, the film is a loose retelling of the Robin Hood tale with animals in the roles. As you’d expect from the Robin Hood story, our titular hero (represented by a fox) robs from the rich (the lion Prince John) and gives to the poor. You’ve got lots of species covered here, from foxes to bears to lions to snakes to mice. Still, such animal casting sets this version of Robin Hood apart from the others, and while I can’t say many of the designs are all that unique (save for Prince John, and that’s mostly because of his garish attire), there’s still a good amount of variety here. Unfortunately, not all of them are well-developed. Take Sir Hiss, a snake who is Prince John’s right-hand man, for instance. Aside from some well-drawn animation on this character, he’s pretty superfluous and feels more like a foil to John’s temper tantrums than a fully-developed henchman. And his gimmick (eyes that hypnotize John) is barely used outside of one scene, so it feels like an afterthought.
Admittedly, there isn’t a very strong narrative arc or momentum to this movie, which fills its 80 minutes with mostly a series of set pieces. Luckily most of what we get is pretty memorable, like Robin Hood dressing up as a gypsy to fool Prince John, some wonderfully kooky casting of Pat Buttram as The Sheriff of Nottingham, an archery contest which turns chaotic when Robin Hood is unmasked from his gangly crow outfit, and a final rescue of Friar Tuck from prison (showcasing some stealthy sequences, as well as the always-dependable “burning castle” climax). About the only set piece that doesn’t really go anywhere is Maid Marian playing with some local kid rabbits and a turtle, which does offer insight into her caring, fun-loving nature (and hints at her past relationship with Robin) but does nothing to advance what little story there is. Speaking of that, the movie has room for two musical numbers which also don’t advance the story: one is about Marian’s and Robin’s relationship beginning anew, and another is a crowd song about how much Prince John sucks. Much like The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book, this is a curiously laid back film, leisurely paced and plotted, and with few extreme emotions in its characters. Now, I don’t mind that it’s laid back; I’m just pointing it out.
That said, if there’s one flaw that always seems to be brought up when addressing this film, it’s that the animation is below par for Disney standards, and that criticism certainly has merit. The animation is more conservative than usual for the studio, with less “flairs” and, despite starring a cast of anthropomorphic animals, it doesn’t really feel that “cartoony” outside of some choice moments. It also features some recycled animation from earlier films, and certain bits of footage were reused many times during the film. While this isn’t an uncommon practice for Disney (see this link for just a taste), it’s a bit more noticeable this time. Like most of the features after Disney switched to the Xerox coloring process, the character outlines are thicker and rougher in this film as well. On the other hand, the animation isn’t badly-done, still retaining the professionalism we expect from Disney with some fuller moments at times. Certain future talents also worked on the film, like Don Bluth and Dale Baer. Actually, the presentation aspect that I feel suffers more is the music by George Bruns. The songs, for the most part, aren’t that memorable and there are certain moments in the score that sound dated due to the instrument choices; a key moment in the final rescue scene had a funky sound to it, making it obvious which decade this came from.
The 40th anniversary edition has been released on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and uses roughly the same cover art as the “Most Wanted” edition from 2006. Sadly, another factor that is retained from the 2006 release is the aspect ratio: Robin Hood was animated in a 4×3 ratio, but for the latest two releases, Disney “matted” the image to create a widescreen ratio. Unfortunately, that means parts of the top and bottom of the original image is cut off; it’s a similar problem to the first two Looney Tunes Super-Stars sets and it’s a shame that such a thing is still being done to old animation. In fact, the DVD itself seems to be a rehash of the “Most Wanted” version, with the same special features (alternate ending, a few games for the younger viewers, “skip to a song”, some art galleries, and the vintage Mickey short “Ye Olden Days”). What’s on the Blu-ray disc? Luckily, it has something not present on the DVD: A deleted storyline, “Love Letters”, is presented in storyboards and vocal imitations. It’s another attempt by Prince John to trick Robin Hood with a fake romantic message to the hero. It’s worth seeing for historical purposes, but I can easily see why it didn’t make the cut in the final film.
Watching Robin Hood brought back floods of memories from my childhood, and it was great nostalgia seeing this film twenty-some years later. However, the list of flaws got longer as I began to write this review, and not everyone shares my nostalgic memories. So would I recommend Robin Hood for those who haven’t seen it? It depends; it definitely doesn’t stack up to the high spectacle of the late ’80s-mid ’90s films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. However, mediocre Disney is still watchable, and in that sense, Robin Hood is worth checking out. Just don’t expect to get blown away.