A year ago, I was studying abroad in London and taking a theater review writing class with critic Jane Edwards. For our first assignment, I reviewed “Small Island,” giving it a perfect score. I tried to sing its praises as artfully and thoroughly as I could — only to receive a less than flattering grade. One weekend, recovering my health and pride, I decided to revisit “Robin Hood,” an old Disney movie that has always been one of my favorites. Instead of writing a one-to-two sentence joke on LetterBoxd, I decided to write my first full-scale review. Writing out of spite transformed into a new passion. A year of review writing has passed, and somehow, I just can’t escape the movie that started it all. My new hobby has guided me towards so many wonderful films, from the masterful absurdism of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” to the tortured jazz of “Judas and The Black Messiah” and the marvelous Italy of “Porco Rosso.” These movies have awed me, expanded my views on the world and art and given me the opportunity to grow as a writer and critic.
And yet, I still come back to this silly little movie about a fox and bear stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It opens with a resounding brass theme, promising grand adventure with your classic “book opening” beginning to a film, only to have a cartoon rooster (Roger Miller) come in whistling and lightly strumming the guitar — a sweeping legend delivered in a highly casual tone. “Robin Hood” maintains this incredibly casual air in its dialogue, which remains my favorite element of the film. Sure, there is a lot of well-choreographed swashbuckling action, but the primary joy is simply watching these characters talk. If there’s anything this year of writing has taught me, it’s how much I simply love characters, and “Robin Hood” is filled with great ones. They aren’t complex in the traditional sense, but they do pack a combination of well-defined needs and distinctive traits, a must for any memorable animated character. I called Robin Hood your “average do-gooder” a year ago, but what had really eluded me was his (and the film’s) penchant for disguise. Brian Bedford, the voice of Robin Hood, not only shows the character’s dripping charisma but his range, as Robin Hood baffles the rich with one persona after another. He wants to do good, but always in style, which sometimes gets him into trouble. This animated Robin Hood finds solutions to problems in unconventional ways that only animation could permit, and he’s highly entertaining to watch, compounded all the more by the ease of his archery. There’s his need for love too, a love for Maid Marian (Monica Evans). It’s not one of Disney’s greatest romances, but it shows us a softer, more sensitive side of this theatrical rogue. His love for her is paradoxical to his occupation: he’s in love with the enemy — royalty — to the point where he’d forfeit his own life, and possible future good deeds, just to be with her. The ramifications of his oscillation between selflessness and selfishness is a tension never directly addressed in the film, because he so nimbly and unwittingly navigates both.
My perspective of the villains has also shifted in the year’s passage. At the time, I called them “over-the-top evil,” when, in reality, their exaggerated cruelty stems from their need for recognition being magnified by an unwarranted position of power. We are introduced to the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram), a conniving wolf, hitting the broken leg of an injured townsperson to get the coins hidden in his cast. He steals birthday gifts and from the poor box of the local church as payment for taxes. He actively enjoys it, too, and occupies a knowingly ironic moral highground in enforcing the taxes that are starving the people to death (“The family that saves together, pays together!”). However, his power only works on those who cannot step up to him; Robin Hood, and even the good-natured Friar Tuck (Andy Devine), when pushed too far, manage to catch him by surprise and best him without fail. Prince John (Peter Ustinov), a maneless lion upon whose head the English crown never sits comfortably, is one of Disney’s most pathetic antagonists, throwing tantrums and weeping for his “mommy” (whilst sucking his thumb) when things don’t go his way. This borderline Oedipus complex arises mainly from his status as the obviously lesser-loved brother. Under the guise of law, these bullies exert their power and raise taxes out of personal qualms with Robin Hood, whose heroic efforts reveal their shortcomings to the public they try to intimidate. Despite their cartoonish nature, we see the human cost of these taxes; our first look at Nottingham is an image of an elderly owl feeding soup to her husband, who is locked in the stocks and labeled a “tax evader.” Eventually, all of Nottingham, it seems, has been locked in the dungeon at one point; the church is empty, and all that Friar Tuck can do is ring the bell to give them hope.
In terms of plot, “Robin Hood” is incredibly light, filled with B-stories and scenes that often take a backseat in my memory in comparison to the action-packed meat of its story. Plot is, perhaps, my greatest shortcoming as a critic in analyzing a work; I love writing about character so much, but despite the film’s consistent, enjoyable characters, the story feels aimless at times, a sin of which I have often forgiven many films by pure virtue of their characters. Nonetheless, regardless of plot, “Robin Hood” remains a film that continues to sit as a favorite amongst all the great works I’ve had the privilege of reviewing this year. I can’t wait for another year of writing about and watching even more movies, but oo-de-lally, is “Robin Hood” still fun.
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