Twitter Plot Summary: The Robin Hood legend, as told by Disney and using anthropomorphic animals.
Released at a time when Disney were floundering a little, creatively and financially, following the death of their glorious leader and budget issues meant their films weren’t produced to the same level of quality as those that had come before, Robin Hood succeeds despite its somewhat inconsistent plot and frequent moments of re-used animation cells. It doesn’t hurt that all of the characters have been turned into talking animals either.
This is a stripped down version of the Robin Hood legend, focusing on the meanness of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, the plight of the people of Nottingham and the efforts of Robin Hood and his band of merry men to restore some balance, be it financially or emotionally. The local children draw some of this focus, in particular three of the rabbit children living in Nottingham – and yes, there are a lot of rabbit children before you ask.
It’s almost a non-issue that the characters are talking animals, but it’s also a development that makes sense within the context of this world. Prince John is a cowardly lion, Sir Hiss a duplicitous snake, Robin Hood a cunning fox, and so on. Maid Marian is a fox – well, almost. Technically you’d argue that she’s a vixen, but that wouldn’t work quite as well for the purpose of this joke. Either way, the fact they’re animals makes this a more accessible story for children, who seem to react rather well to anthropomorphism.
The real joy is in the songs, the quality of which do not appear to have been affected by Disney’s financial issues at the time. Most are performed by the cockerel Alan-a-Dale, not so much an active player in events but mostly a distant observer, almost like a singing omniscient narrator. I dare you to watch this film and not spend a week singing “Oo de lally” repeatedly. But other songs are equally as joyous. “The Phony King of England” is a classic romp, and while “Not in Nottingham” is tonally quite the opposite it sits perfectly within the narrative.
Secondary to the songs are the voice cast, some of whom are essentially reprising roles from Disney’s earlier The Jungle Book. Phil Harris, formerly Baloo, is the Baloo-shaped Little John. Sir Hiss, whilst voiced here by Terry Thomas, could have been an update of Kaa had Sterling Holloway made a return. Peter Ustinov is on top form as Prince John, and Pat Buttram is all sorts of excellent as the Sheriff of Nottingham. It seems that the story was initially set in the Wild West, hence the number of actors here who were known for their work in that genre.
There’s a lot to like in Robin Hood. The animation is solid, the songs are fun, the characters a joy to spend time with. It’s perhaps not as widely acclaimed as the studio’s other productions, but it’s a high point from a decade in which Disney weren’t firing on all cylinders. And if this is Disney on a bad day, it’s no wonder they’ve been around for decades.