Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Our Feature Presentation (7/50) -- Robin Hood (1973)

Nostalgia is a fickle mother. She can make good movies great and mediocre movies tolerable (or even make me want to re-watch Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: The Movie. Yeah, I went there). On the reverse of this is what I call "reverse nostalgia." Reverse nostalgia is an irrational hatred for aspects of a movie I didn’t like as a kid, often focused toward the little, insignificant stuff. I've discussed reverse nostalgia at length in the Bluthanized entry for Rock-A-Doodle, but the same concepts can be applied to today's entry: Robin Hood.

Robin Hood was made during a time when Disney was fully, unabashedly, inarguably in the can. Walt was dead, the studio had shifted to predominantly live action, and execs had no idea how to run the bloody company. From this period, we get classics like Pete's Dragon, Hot Lead and Cold Feet, and a slew of inoffensive, unremarkable "kid’s movies," which I'm using in every pejorative sense that I can. Like its contemporaries, Robin Hood was not created to stand beside Disney's canon of titans; it was a money-making movie, pure and simple.

To say that Robin Hood is exceptionally mediocre is to say that Hannibal Lector is exceptionally quirky. In my own personal experience, I would have to put this as the absolute nadir of my Disney-watching experience growing up, though that didn’t stop me from watching it entirely too-often during my days as a kid. I’ve no doubt that there are other, worse films that were put out during the Disney Dark Ages, for there are several that I still have to see, but I will say that Robin Hood suffers from a bit of reverse-nostalgia on my part, and I’m probably going to be pretty hard on it as a result.

Spoiler alert: this one hasn't held up so well.

Our tale kicks off with a storybook opening, where we read a paragraph or two about Robin Hood, and his exploits during the Third Crusade in England: robbing the rich, giving to the poor, and trying his best not to impersonate Errol Flynn too closely. We meet Alan-a-Dale (Roger Miller), our rooster minstrel who informs us that “we here in the animal kingdom” have their own version of the story, and that “this is what really happened” (uh huh). After this introduction comes the opening credits, which serves the purpose of introducing the cast and their anthropomorphic animal forms (“A Bear,” the movie helpfully labels Little John, who is obviously a carry-over from The Jungle Book’s Baloo).

The movie then moves into its Not Plot, which is to say that stuff kinda just happens from here on out. There’s not really a narrative arc, character development, or any sort of central conflict outside of “Robin Hood is a good guy, Prince John is a bad guy, and the Sheriff is from southern Arkansas.” There’s a tepid love plot between Robin Hood and Maid Marian, but it’s pushed under the rug for the entire second half of the movie. I’m not expecting a blow-by-blow interpretation of the Robin Hood mythos, but the whole story smacks of a screenwriter who saw The Adventures of Robin Hood when he was eight, but couldn’t remember much of the actual goings-on in the movie.

There are a few exciting moments, but the movie generally congeals rather than develops.

You’ve no doubt heard the grinding sound of the ax I have with this movie. Perhaps I’m being more cruel to than this movie merits (and, to be fair, I would rather watch it than something like A Troll in Central Park), but something about this film just gets under my skin. Everything from the lazy plot, to the kid-pandering nature of the flick, to the general air that the movie could care less that it is disposable kiddie tripe makes this film a bitter pill to swallow.

This movie was created during the Xerography period of Disney animation, which I described in my The Great Mouse Detective entry. While Mouse looked reasonably clean, however, Robin Hood looks like DMX’s voice covered in sand paper (rough); the line thickness is pretty inconsistent, the colors are muted and drab, and there are small wrinkles and extra lines everywhere. Robin Hood is pretty expressive, and Prince John does have some fun facial animations, but, on the whole, the movie just looks cheap.

Like other Disney films from this time period, the animated is literally sketchy-looking.

Sonically, the movie fairs somewhat better, but not much. The music is a slight and, while it does provide a bit of atmosphere, it’s almost immediately forgettable (at least, beyond that stupid “DA DA DA DAAAA!” fanfare). The songs are placed pretty unevenly throughout; there are four songs in the whole movie, and three of them happen within about eight minutes of each other. They’re also pretty weak—“Love” is a sleepy, soft rock ballad that could only have come out of the early 70’s, “The Phony King of England” is a jaunty, up-tempo song with some sing-talky bits from Little John, and both Alan-a-Dale songs manage to mostly (but not entirely) waste Roger Miller’s considerable talents. In fact, the only song with any mainstream penetration isn’t an actual song, but some scatting from the opening credits sequence; this scatting was sampled, sped up, and turned into the now-infamous “Hamster Dance.

Vocal performances are pretty underwhelming for the most part. Brian Bedford’s Robin Hood does a reasonably good job of being expressive and enthusiastic, even if the voices he uses while disguised sound exactly the same. Prince John is a character I’ve always had affection for (particularly since I played him in a production of “The Lion in Winter”), and Pat Ustinov chews the scenery and twirls his mustache nicely in the role. Phil Harris chooses to continue riding the Baloo role that made him famous in The Jungle Book, though his Hep Cat-isms feel out of place in Norman England, and come off as rather dated in 2010. The rest of the supporting cast is just aggravating; Sir Hiss is a simpering, annoying crony, Lady Cluckie’s Scottish brogue is obnoxious, and I want to personally backhand each and every child who was involved with Skippy and his gang of insufferable sidekicks.

All of the children characters are pretty insufferable, but this one in particular is something awful.

This movie also contains a fair bit of asset-reuse. No doubt done to save costs, there are several points where the movie reuses bits of animation (Prince John lifts a 2x4 in the same way he lifts a mirror, all of the guards run and move in the same manner, and there are several identical shots of a crowd celebrating and whistling), turning one late-movie chase sequence into something out of Scooby-Doo. Several lines of dialogue are also reused, though the results are less inconspicuous than the animation reuse (to me, at least; when Prince John yells “Hiss! You’re never around when I need you!” in the same exact tone as he did once before, it’s enough for me to sit up and take notice).

The movie probably isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound, and it’s certainly less offensively-bad than other movies in the children’s film space (I’d sooner watch the entirety of Robin Hood than the trailer for Yogi Bear), but this movie just gets my dander up. I’ll be interested to see other films from this era, and whether or not they live up to the bar of cheapness that this film sets. For their sake, and mine, I hope not.

Top Three Songs:

  1. “Oo-De-Lally”
  2. “Love”
  3. “Not in Nottingham”

Favorite Character:

  • · Prince John / Alan-a-Dale (I’m cheating and adding Alan to this list; he has a pretty tiny part, and I enjoy the timbre of Roger Miller’s voice)

Favorite scene:

  • · Robin Hood and Little John’s inaugural fleecing of Prince John

The Jar Jar:

  • · Sir Hiss

How I Watched It

I waited entirely too long to purchase this DVD from Amazon after last entry, so that’ll teach me. At any rate, here we have the “Most Wanted” edition of Robin Hood, which is the one you will find on store shelves. Compared to its older, out of print edition, “Most Wanted” has made a few improvements.

First and foremost, the picture on the movie has been cropped from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1—the upshot is that a movie that was formerly in fullscreen has been chopped to fit widescreen TVs. Losing a bit of space on the top and the bottom of the picture seems like a big deal, but the movie never seems like it’s “missing” anything; if you have a widescreen TV, this one’s a no-brainer. Furthermore, the picture has received a considerable bump in quality (according to the folks at The colors are present, clear, and lack the weird de-saturation that was present in my The Great Mouse Detective DVD.

There are also a few bonus features on the DVD, though I would emphasize the “few” part of this comment. There’s a sketched-out alternate ending (which is pretty blah), a sing-along portion, and an old black and white Mickey Mouse short. All-in-all, it’s pretty anemic. If you have a widescreen TV, definitely go with this release. If you’re going to be watching it on fullscreen, you may consider this one anyway—the colors look better, and it’s more readily available.

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