It’s 1970, and Walt Disney Animation Studios is not sure where to go with their films. Walt Disney himself had died four years earlier. The Aristocats, the last film Walt personally greenlit, was already in production and set for a December release. The studio was faced with the task of creating their first film without any involvement from their namesake, founder, and primary visionary.
Eventually, they decided to create their own version of one of the oldest characters in the English literary tradition. In 1973, they reintroduced a new generation to the hero who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Even now, Disney’s Robin Hood remains one of the world’s favorite takes on the legend.
This was by no means the first time the outlaw hero’s adventures graced the big screen. Robin Hood has been a popular film character since 1908, and the most famous version, starring Errol Flynn, came out in 1938. This would not even be Disney’s first stab at the story — that distinction goes to the studio’s second live-action film, 1952’s The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. This presented the animators with a challenge: how can they make their Robin Hood stand out from all the other Robin Hoods from the past 65 years?
Their elegant solution was to present the story in a way that only animation could do. Taking inspiration from an aborted adaptation of Reynard the Fox (another character from medieval legend), they made Robin Hood their first movie where the entire cast was anthropomorphic animals. Disney was known for their talking animals, but this was the first where they explicitly took the place of humans. They would later return to this idea with Chicken Little and, more overtly, Zootopia.
This decision resulted in some enjoyable new designs and personalities for these well-worn characters. Robin, taking Reynard’s place as the lead, was portrayed as a fox — fitting, given that he’s a wily rascal. Maid Marian, naturally, became a vixen. Little John, long depicted as a giant of a man, is a brown bear not unlike Baloo from The Jungle Book. Prince John, the whiny and illegitimate ruler, is a lion who’s missing the mane and muscle of his lionhearted sibling King Richard. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a portly wolf preying on the townsfolk with unfair taxes.
Just as fun as the character designs is the soundtrack, which stands out from other Disney movies for taking strong inspiration from folk music. Roger Miller, a country artist, wrote three songs — the catchy “Whistle-Stop,” the playful “Oo-De-Lally,” and the powerful “Not in Nottingham” — and performed them as the rooster bard Alan-a-Dale. Each of those songs is more low-key than the orchestral and jazzy tunes found in the studio’s earlier films. A folk soundtrack is only fitting for a story about a folk hero.
However, the music choice is quite pertinent to the time of the film’s release. Robin Hood was developed in the first years of the 1970s, and its musical style seems to take some influence from the genre’s prevalence in the ‘60s counterculture. This is especially noticeable in one of the film’s highlights, “The Phony King of England.” Little John and the rest of Nottingham’s downtrodden residents sing this jaunty tune as a way of trash-talking Prince John. It’s a protest song. Even its origin is subversive: its melody and theme seem to be based on a bawdy British folk song called “The Bastard King of England.”
The music of the movie may not be as widely admired as that of other Disney movies, but you may recognize the songs from some surprising places. “Love,” nominated for Best Song at the Oscars, reappeared in the non-Disney Fantastic Mr. Fox. Folky artists like Mumford and Sons have covered “Not in Nottingham.” “Oo-De-Lally” appeared in a commercial for Android. Even “Whistle-Stop,” the whistled tune from the introduction, gained a second wind as the sped-up sample used in the viral sensation “The Hampsterdance Song.” The soundtrack only seems underrated, but it still deserves more praise.
A Fun Adventure
Robin Hood leans more towards the adventure side than many Disney movies. It only really has two action sequences, but both are lengthy and exquisitely animated. The riot at the archery competition, where Prince John tries to trap his outlaw opponent, features exciting swordfights and arrow chases between Robin’s supporters and the Sheriff’s henchmen. The battle at the end is even more intense. Preceded by a largely silent scene where Robin loots the prince’s own chamber and Little John liberates the imprisoned townspeople, it suddenly explodes into a fierce battle and a terrific climax.
Along the way, it has everything else you love from Disney. Robin and Marian’s romance is winning, especially accompanied by the simple and wonderful lyrics of “Love.” Every character has a sharp wit and a set of humorous quirks, adding to the film’s lightness (the best joke may be that even the villains find “The Phony King of England” catchy and amusing). And despite some instances of the animators recycling some of their work from older movies, the animation looks great.
Robin Hood proved to the world, as well as everyone at the studio, that Disney could entertain people just fine without Walt. Along the way, it gave us one of the most iconic versions of the hero yet, and one that many still call their favorite even after all these years.
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