Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”
Title: Robin Hood
Source materials : Traditional English legend
Budget: $5 million
Box office: $32 million
Plot: Alan-a-Dale introduces the story of Robin Hood and Little John, two outlaws living in the Sherwood Forest, where they rob from the rich and give to the poor townsfolk of Nottingham, despite the efforts of the Sheriff of Nottingham to stop them. Meanwhile, Prince John and his assistant Sir Hiss arrive in Nottingham on a tour of the kingdom. Knowing the royal coach is laden with riches, Robin and Little John rob Prince John by disguising themselves as fortune tellers.
The embarrassed Prince John then puts a bounty on their heads and makes the Sheriff his personal tax collector, who takes pleasure in collecting funds from the townsfolk including hidden money from the crippled blacksmith Otto and a single farthing from a young rabbit, Skippy, who had just received it as a birthday present. However, Robin Hood, disguised as a beggar, sneaks in and gives back some money to the family, as well as his hat and a bow to Skippy in honor of his birthday.
Skippy and his friends test out the bow, but Skippy fires an arrow into the grounds of Maid Marian’s castle. The children sneak inside, meeting Maid Marian and her attendant Lady Kluck. Skippy “rescues” Marian from Lady Kluck, who pretends to be a pompous Prince John. Later, when she is alone with Kluck, Maid Marian reveals she and Robin were childhood sweethearts but they have not seen one another for years, and Kluck consoles her not to give up on her love for Robin.
Meanwhile, Friar Tuck visits Robin and Little John, explaining that Prince John is hosting an archery tournament, and the winner will receive a kiss from Maid Marian. Robin decides to participate in the tournament disguised as a stork whilst Little John disguises himself as the Duke of Chutney to get near Prince John. Sir Hiss discovers Robin’s identity but is trapped in a barrel of ale by Friar Tuck and Alan-a-Dale. Robin wins the tournament, but Prince John exposes him and has him arrested for execution despite Maid Marian’s pleas. Little John threatens Prince John in order to release Robin, which leads to a fight between Prince John’s soldiers and the townsfolk, all of which escape to Sherwood Forest.
As Robin and Maid Marian fall in love again, the townsfolk have a troubadour festival spoofing Prince John, describing him as the “Phony King of England”, and the song soon becomes popular with John’s soldiers. Enraged by the insult, Prince John triples the taxes, imprisoning most of the townsfolk who cannot pay. A paltry coin gets deposited into the poor box at Friar Tuck’s church, which gets seized by the Sheriff. Enraged that government has meddled in his church, Friar Tuck lashes out at the Sheriff, to which he is quickly arrested for “attacking a lawman, interfering with the Sheriff’s legal duties and high treason to the Crown”. Prince John orders Friar Tuck hung, knowing Robin Hood will come out of hiding to rescue his friend and give the potential for Robin to be caught and a “double hanging”.
Robin and Little John, having learned of the plot, chose to sneak in during the night, with Little John managing to free all of the prisoners whilst Robin steals Prince John’s taxes, but Sir Hiss awakens to find Robin fleeing. Chaos follows as Robin and the others try to escape to Sherwood Forest. The Sheriff corners Robin after he is forced to return to rescue Tagalong, Skippy’s little sister. During the chase, Prince John’s castle catches fire and the Sheriff figures he has Robin where he wants, either to be captured, burned, or make a risky jump into the moat. Robin Hood elects to jump. Little John and Skippy fear Robin is lost, but he surfaces safely after using a reed as a breathing tube. Sir Hiss says he tried to warn Prince John, and now look what he did to his mother’s castle, causing the Prince to exclaim “Mummy!” and suck his thumb and chase the terrified snake into the burning castle.
Later, King Richard returns to England, placing his brother, Sir Hiss and the Sheriff under arrest and allows his niece Maid Marian to marry Robin Hood, turning the former outlaw into an in-law.
Background: Around the time of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Walt became interested in adapting the twelfth-century legend of Reynard the Fox . However, Walt was concerned that Reynard was an unsuitable choice for a hero. For Treasure Island, Walt seriously considered three animated sections, each one of the Reynard tales, to be told by Long John Silver to Jim Hawkins as moral fables. Over the years, the studio decided to make Reynard the villain of a musical feature film named Chanticleer and Reynard but the production was scrapped in the early 1960s, in favor of The Sword in the Stone (1963). While The Aristocats was in production, Ken Anderson began exploring possibilities for the next film. He blended his ideas of Robin Hood and Reynard by incorporating that the fox character could be slick but still use his skills to protect the community.
Additionally, Anderson wanted to set the film in the Deep South desiring to recapture the spirit of Song of the South. However, the executives were wary of the reputation of Song of the South which was followed by Wolfgang Reitherman’s decision to set the film in its traditional English location inspired by The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. According to Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the Sheriff of Nottingham was originally set to be a goat as an artistic experiment to try different animals for a villain, only to be overruled by the director who wanted to keep to the villainous stereotype of a wolf instead. Additionally, Anderson wanted to include the Merry Men into the film, which was again overridden by Reitherman because he wanted a “buddy picture” reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so Little John was the only Merry Man who remained in the film, whle Friar Tuck was changed to a friend of Robin’s who lived in Nottingham, and Alan-a-Dale was turned into the narrator.
“As director of story and character concepts, I knew right off that sly Robin Hood must be a fox. From there it was logical that Maid Marian should be a pretty vixen. Little John, legendarily known for his size, was easily a big overgrown bear. Friar Tuck is great as a badger, but he was also great as a pig, as I had originally planned. Then I thought the symbol of a pig might be offensive to the Church, so we changed him. Richard the Lion-hearted, of course, had to be a regal, proud, strong lion; and his pathetic cousin [historically, and in the movie, his brother] Prince John, the weak villain, also had to be a lion, but we made him scrawny and childish. I originally thought of a snake as a member of the poor townspeople but one of the other men here suggested that a snake would be perfect as a slithering consort [Sir Hiss] to mean Prince John.” – Ken Anderson
Animation: Because of the time spent on developing several settings and auditioning actors to voice Robin Hood, production fell behind schedule. In order to meet its deadline, the animators decided to recycle dance sequences from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book , and The Aristocats. (Watch Marion dance during “Phony King of England” it’s the exact motions of Duchess. )
Songs: Roger Miller wrote and sang “Whistle-Stop,” “Oo-De-Lally,” and”Not In Nottingham.” “Love” was written by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns, and “The Phony King of England” was written by Johnny Mercer.
Voice Cast: Roger Miller as Alan-a-Dale. Miller was probably best known for his song “King of the Road” as well as writing the music to the Broadway musical Big River. Shakespearean actor and director Brian Bedford as Robin Hood. He’s best known for his contributions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Phil Harris returns as Little John.
Oscar winner Peter Ustinov as Prince John and King Richard. Ustinov won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in Spartacus and Topkapi. Returning actors Monica Evans as Maid Marian and Carole Shelley as Lady Kluck. Andy Devine as Friar Tuck . He appeared in A Star is Born, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance , and How the West Was Won. Terry-Thomas as Sir Hiss. He appeared in several films including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Sir Hiss even has his famous tooth gap. Pat Buttram and George Lindsey return and are joined by Ken Curtis, best known for Gunsmoke. John Fiedler will become to be known as the voice of Piglet, and Barbara Luddy also returns.
Critical Reception: Robin Hood has received mixed to positive reviews from film critics. Praise went to the characters, action scenes and music, while criticism was aimed at the recycled scenes of animation. The Montreal Gazette said that when “Disney cartoon films … are good, they are very good” and that “there are not many films around these days which an entire family can attend and enjoy. Robin Hood is one of them.” New York magazine called it “a sweet, funny, slam-bang, good-hearted Walt Disney feature cartoon with a fine cast” and said it was “a feast for the eyes for kiddies and Disney nostalgics.”
Legacy: Robin Hood, Little John, and the Sheriff of Nottingham appear in the park on rare occasions. The Magic Kingdom has a walk up window called The Friar’s Nook.
My take: I have to say casting Roger Williams as Alan-a-Dale, using folk music for an old folk story. A classic tale told in a new American voice. I have to say that my favorite gag was Madame Cluck as a football player (the whole tournament sequence is pretty funny. It’s almost Hanna Barbara-like.)
Next Week: We’re going to take a little Christmas detour with Scrooge McDuck