Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date:
 November 8, 1973

‘Robin Hood’ was Walt Disney studio’s 21st feature. The film’s story and designs lean heavily on the 1938 feature ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, starring Errol Flynn.

But by now the characters are portrayed as animals, a relic of an abandoned feature film project about Reynard the fox called ‘Chanticleer’. This great idea doesn’t lead to a great film, however. Despite the fine character designs, the strong voice cast (a nice mix of British and American accents) and the often superb animation, Robin Hood must be placed among the weaker Disney features.

Many of the character designs are so reminiscent of those in ‘Jungle Book’, the film almost feels like a rip-off. There’s a bear, voiced by Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo, there’s a snake with the power of hypnosis and there are some funny vultures. The story evolves at a remarkably slow pace, taking almost half an hour to introduce the characters (first Robin and Little John, then Prince John and Sir Hiss, followed by the Sheriff, and in another scene Maid Marian and Lady Kluck), before some sort of plot sets in.

More than any earlier Disney feature ‘Robin Hood’ seems particularly aimed at children: both great drama and great comedy are absent and danger is never really felt, save for two very short moments. The great finale is anything but that, and King Richard serves as an off-stage deus ex machina, putting an equally welcomed as unsatisfying end to the film.

In a 1973 letter to animator Larry Ruppel, cited in John Canemaker’s book ‘Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation’, animator Frank Thomas expressed the film’s shortcomings:

“We obviously decided to keep it on the ‘fun’ side, but I have worried that the audiences would feel it was too flimsy – that we were not being quite serious enough with our characters. For instance, does anyone really fear Prince John? Is Robin ever worried about his ability to achieve something or even how it should be done? Did winning Maid Marian make any difference in Robin’s behavior. In real life it would have.”

The rather tinned music doesn’t help, either. What’s more, the film’s three forgettable songs are all presented within a twelve minutes period of the film (0’46-0’58), with which the film reaches dead waters after the tournament scene, which was less spectacular than it could be in the first place. Even worse, the dance scene blatantly reuses complete dance animation sequences from ‘Snow White and the seven dwarfs’ (1937), ‘Jungle Book’ (1967) and ‘Aristocats’ (1970). All these aspects give the film a cheap feel. It frustrated younger animators like Don Bluth, who thought the film lacked both quality and soul, and it indirectly led to Bluth’s departure in 1979, during the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).

The film’s best moments are the opening song ‘Oo-De-Lally’, sung by Roger Miller (as Alan-a-Dale), sir Hiss flying around with his head in a balloon and propelling himself like a helicopter, and King John as a whole. This is by all means a marvelous character, perfectly voiced by Peter Ustinov, and animated with gusto. Because of the film’s strong visuals (after all, it’s the only Robin Hood film starring foxes), the film fares better in memory than by actually watching it.

In all, Robin Hood is a timid, rather lifeless and all too safe feature, which makes painfully clear that in the seventies Disney’s glory days lay years behind. Indeed, it would take the studio another fifteen years to crawl out of the uncertain times the studio went through after Walt Disney’s death.

Watch the trailer for ‘Robin Hood’ and tell me what you think:

‘Robin Hood’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD