Rotten Tomatoes describes Disney’s Robin Hood as “one of the weaker Disney adaptations”, lacking “the majesty and excitement of the studio’s earlier efforts”, but it’s one of my favourite Disney films, thanks in part to an early memory of seeing it at the cinema and being captivated by one particular moment which has stayed with me for years.
Robin Hood was released in 1973, but I can’t imagine myself remembering it from then (I’d have been 2). It was re-released in the early 80s (1982 in the USA, though IDMB has no record of when or whether it was re-released in the UK), and I distinctly remember seeing it in the very crowded, deep red gloom of the East Grinstead cinema-that-was, a gloominess I can’t help feeling added to my appreciation of this particular moment.
Of course, the fact it was a Disney take on an English legend may have helped, but I don’t particularly remember liking it for that reason. (Though I may have been unconsciously responding to the voices of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and Terry-Thomas as Hissing Sid — I mean Sir Hiss — both of them part of that wonderful family of actors you come across time and time again in old British films.) But this would have been before the TV series of Robin of Sherwood, so I wouldn’t have had any particular fondness for the legend, Robin Hood up to that point always seeming to me a bit pantomimish, particularly if Robin was represented (as he is here) in a silly be-feathered cap and the sort of Peter Pan-style tunic you’d rather have seen on a thigh-slapping young woman only pretending to be a boy.
I think it was the mood of the film that got me. Robin Hood is (for Disney) an uncharacteristically muted film, both in terms of emotional tone and colour scheme. Yes, it still has the sort of slapstick moments you’d expect (all the outwitting of the rhinoceros guards after the archery contest, for instance), but there’s a tantalising air of weariness and resignation throughout, just behind the action, like a light, damp English mist that’s seeped into the usually sunny Californian optimism.
The troubadour rooster who acts as the storyteller, for instance, seems to have a particularly world-weary tone, as if to suggest that for all Robin Hood’s triumphs, the outlook for the poor and downtrodden in England is grim in the long run. Friar Tuck is another character whose voice seems burdened by the weariness of Prince John’s relentless, greedy and wilful oppression. Prince John’s voice, on the other hand, plays wonderfully on the essential selfishness and childishness of the character (he’s a lion without a mane, so presumably physically immature, too), rather than a more traditional Disney evil — there’s a feeling that all this misery is the result of one character’s pettiness, self-absorption and inability to grow up, a boorish bully rather than the sort of raging adult evil you get from, say, the Queen in Snow White.
The moment I most remember from this film, and that brings me back to re-watch it, isn’t an action sequence, and in fact occurs when there are no characters on screen. It’s just after the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (here, a mere village) has clapped pretty much everyone in jail for non-payment of recently doubled/trebled taxes, and we’re closing in on the outside of the jail. It’s just a scene-setting slow zoom. For some reason that mood of sadness and defeat, combined with the gentle rain and muted colours of the usually bright Disney, took me right into the film’s world. It was like it was one of the first moments in my cinema-going history when I really thought, “Yes, I know exactly how that feels.”
It’s a moment that happens in many Disney films, of course — the low point just before the hero snaps out of it and devises a plan to turn things round. But here, this particular air of sadness and defeat seems to be characteristic of the film as a whole, an undertone that has been sounding gently throughout, mostly drowned out by the antics of baby rabbits and thumb-sucking lions, but which is here allowed to come to the fore for one brief moment, because there’s no other action to distract from it.
So, in a sense, it was that very lack of “majesty and excitement” that makes the film what it is, for me. A moment of pure cinematic poetry.