As far as I’m concerned, what I don’t know about most Disney movies won’t hurt me. However, I live with a Disney expert, so I’m not always free to not know certain details, and during a recent home viewing of Robin Hood, my sweetie turned to me and said, “You know, the critics panned this when it came out.”
“Oh?” I said. “Why?”
It turns out that this was the first animated movie released by Disney Studios with no direct involvement by Walt Disney, who died in 1966. It is part of the stylistic school that includes other classics like The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocats (1970)—both of which Disney himself laid out and saw through their preproduction stages before he died. Robin Hood includes several elements of both its predecessors—scenes or characters reworked to fit into the new story—and that fact did not escape the critics when it came out in 1973.
An observant eye can see the similarities between Robin Hood’s reptilian lackey, Sir Hiss, and Jungle Book’s Kaa, right down to the swirling hypnotic eyes. Phil Harris plays supporting characters Balloo the Bear and Little John (also a bear), as though they were the same character, which is exactly how they are written. And several musical scenes are reworks of The Aristocats, just with different animals paying different instruments.
But I was a baby in 1973 and never saw Robin Hood in the theater. I never saw it until VCR’s became common in the 1980’s…and then, I didn’t see it after sitting through first Jungle Book and then Aristocats. And I certainly wasn’t scanning the film for evidence that the whole Disney experiment would come crashing down without Walt Disney at the helm.
I experienced it then, as I experience it now, as a fun, likeable movie. The songs are catchy, the characters are likeable, the bad guy is sufficiently mockable, and the conflict draws our sympathy toward the good people and away from the bad. Sure, it leaves something to be desired in terms of historical accuracy. And yeah, all the characters except Robin Hood and Prince John are American (though I think there is a Scottish lady-in-waiting). It’s narrated by Roger Miller, as a banjo playing rooster (or is that a lute?), and you don’t get much more American than that.
I don’t care very much about that. The performances in Robin Hood sparkle, especially those of Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince John and King Richard, and Phil Harris as Little John. So what if he always plays the same character? It’s a great character. We get to cheer the good guys and boo the bad guys, laugh out loud, walk away humming some really great songs (including one that was nominated for an Oscar). That’s more than you get from a lot of movies, and it’s wonderfully satisfying.