Disney Robin Hood Spotlight

Robin Hood
(1973 Disney cartoon)

Spotlight Review by Allen W. Wright
(November 2023)

Robin Hood and Little John walking through the forest


Starring the voices of Brian Bedford, Monica Evans, Peter Ustinov, Phil Harris and Terry-Thomas
Story by Larry Clemmons

Based on Character and Story Concepts  by Ken Anderson
Directing Animators: Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, John Lounsbery
Produced and Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
(Walt Disney Productions, 1973)

Ask someone who grew up in an age when Disney animation was widely available on video or streaming to think of Robin Hood. Chances are they won't see Errol Flynn or Kevin Costner in their mind's eye. To the Disney generation, Robin Hood may well be a cartoon fox.

Robin Hood was released on November 8, 1973 and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was the first Disney animated feature film to be produced without any involvement from the late Walt Disney.

The book opening of Robin Hood cartoon
Robin Hood depicted as a human in the 1973 cartoon

Quite a different version of the tale

Like so many of the Disney animated classics and Disney's 1952 live-action The Story of Robin Hood, their 1973 version of the tale begins with a storybook. The book opens and turns to a page establishing the familiar setting that King Richard has gone on crusade and his brother Prince John had usurped the throne. And then the page flips again and we see a decidedly human figure of Robin Hood. It's not unusual to see a human Robin Hood in most films. But it is in this one. 

The page also contains the illustration of a rooster with a lute. As the camera moves closer on the rooster, we hear a voice -- one that belongs to the illustrated rooster who begins to move.

You know there's been a heap of legends and tall tales about Robin Hood -- all different too. Well, we folks of the animal kingdom have our own version. It's the story of what really happened in Sherwood Forest.

-- The Rooster, voice by Roger Miller

The rooster whistles a tune ("Whistle-Stop") as the credits introduce the character's name, their animal type and the actor doing the voice. For example, "Prince John, A Lion, Voice by Peter Ustinov". Robin Hood ("A fox, voice by Brian Bedford") and Maid Marian ("A vixen, voice by Monica Evans") have their credits appear at the same time as the characters run towards and embrace each other. The animated sequences in the credits reveal not only that the legendary characters in this production of Robin Hood will be animals, but also something of the personality of each characters. For example, the egotistical Prince John is preening in front of a mirror.

As it continues, the rooster leads the various supporting animals in a procession -- a procession that turns into manic chase sequences, revealing something of the film to follow.

The credits end with the Rooster walking back to his place on the illustrated page. He then reveals his character's name which had been left off of the credits.

Allan-a-Dale sits in the letter O
Oh, incidentally, I'm Allan-a-Dale, a minstrel. That's an early day folk singer. And my job is to ... [lute string breaks and twangs] ... tell it like it is. Or was, or whatever.

It's a clever touch to acknowledge right up front to audiences that yes, this isn't going to be like some of the other Robin Hoods they know. But Allan also assures audiences that this time they are getting the true version "or whatever".

The 1952 live-action Disney film also opened with a human Allan-a-Dale singing, and serving as a semi-narrator. In that case, Allan was played by English folk singer Elton Hayes. But this time, Allan is voiced by country singer Roger Miller. Audiences would recognize Miller's distinctive American twang from the 1964 smash hit song King of the Road and the 1965 hit England Swings (a particular favourite of my dad's -- based on how many times he'd sing a line from it). 

In fact, that 1960s song with England filtered through a very American perspective matches the nature of the 1973 Robin Hood, and the song itself inspired the structure of the movie's famous song -- Oo-de-Lally. 

That's the one that begins "Robin Hood and Little John walking through the forest" -- a lyric that people with even a passing knowledge of Robin Hood can quote.

Robin Hood and Little John encounter a bridge

England and America

And let's look at those two people walking through the forest: Robin Hood and Little John. Or as they usually refer to each other Rob and Johnny.

Robin Hood is voiced by Brian Bedford -- an award-winning British actor who would later emigrate to Canada and become a fixture at that country's premier Shakespeare festival. There is something about Bedford's Robin Hood voice that's comforting -- a trickster whose voice exudes decency, propriety and fair play -- along with a dollop of self-doubt.

Little John is voiced by Phil Harris, an American actor and singer, and self-identified southerner, with a more laid back style of speech.

Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Monica Evans and Carole Shelley are also all recognizably British. Roger Miller, Pat Buttram and Andy Devine are quintessentially American. Buttram (the Sheriff of Nottingham) and Devine (Friar Tuck) were both notably sidekicks to screen cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Vincent Canby, the reviewer for the New York Times, said of Miller's voice in particular that it gave the film "a decidedly odd but not unpleasant country-and-Western flavor." The blending of English folklore and American tropes works.

Both this film and the 1952 live-action Disney movie stress that Robin Hood steals taxes. Tax robberies have been a part of the Robin Hood legend since the 17th century, but the Disney focus on that aspect of the legend taps into the foundational history of America -- events such as the Boston Tea Party. The film even merges the anti-tax narrative with other forms of American patriotism. Friar Tuck paraphrases Frank Loesser's World War Two patriotic song Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition as "praise the lord and pass the tax rebate."

Ken Anderson, the Disney animator who first devised the film's characters and concepts for Robin Hood, originally pictured the entire film taking place in the American south. He was harking back to the controversial (and now unavailable) 1946 Disney film Song of the South, which blended animated sequences of Br'er Rabbit and other animals with live-action. Both Br'er Rabbit and Robin Hood are trickster characters who outsmart other animals. While the finished film is officially set in the medieval England, traces of the original concepts remain. Buttram's sheriff may dress in medieval clothing, but his demeanour suggests he's more the kind of sheriff who would cause trouble for The Dukes of Hazzard instead of Robin Hood.

It's usually said that Robin's foxy roots began in Walt Disney's interest in the medieval trickster Reynard the Fox. Various animated properties featuring Reynard had been on the books for decades. Ken Anderson even worked on a planned film of Chanticleer, which would have featured Reynard as the villain. And yet in the interviews recorded in Jack of All Trades by Paul F. Anderson, Ken Anderson denied the connection between Robin Hood and Reynard.

Little John's routes are perhaps easier to trace. He resembles Baloo, the sloth bear in the 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book. Both films are directed by Wolfgang ("Woolie") Reitherman, and both characters are voiced by Phil Harris. There might also be a touch of Br'er Bear in Little John's DNA.

As for the rest of the Merry Men... there aren't any. Robin and Little John have friends and allies, but none seem to be actually part of their outlaw band. The only indication to the contrary is a line in the song The Phony King of England. "Ah, but while there is a Merry Man / In Robin's wily pack." Originally, there were to be more in the gang, but the films creators decided on a buddy feel, similar to recent westerns like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.

Robin shocked at the word rob
Little John surprised at the suggestion they borrow, not rob

Borrowings and Disguises

Robin Hood's role as a robber -- even a charitable and benevolent one -- has often made him a complicated hero for children. Versions like the 1950s Robin Hood comic books seek to rationalize his criminal activities. And the Disney cartoon does so as well, in the most delightfully cheeky way.

LITTLE JOHN: You know something, Robin. I was just wonderin’. Are we good guys or bad guys? You know, I mean, uh, our robbin’ the rich to feed the poor.

ROBIN: Rob? [Clicks tongue] That’s a naughty word. We never rob. We just… sort of borrow a bit from those who can afford it.

LITTLE JOHN: Borrow? Huh. Boy, are we in debt.

Immediately after this conversation, Robin hears the sound of the royal trumpets and declares "That sounds like another collection day for the poor. Eh, Johnny Boy?" Little John gleefully replies "Yeah, sweet charity."

Yes. Robin Hood's robberies ... sorry, that was naughty, I meant borrowings ... are to aid the poor. We see evidence of that "sweet charity" in Nottingham later. And yet, both Rob and Johnny get such joy from the act of "borrowing" itself.

And why wouldn't they? Robin and Little John get to play dress up when collecting tax money from Prince John. They dress up a fortune tellers to con Prince John as they kiss the gems in his rings right of the royal hand.

Disguise plays a key part in many Robin Hood ballads. For example, he dresses up as an old woman in Robin Hood and The Bishop. And the 1973 Disney cartoon takes full advantage of this aspect of Robin Hood. It's the best realization of Robin Hood as a master of disguise with four different disguises.

We see Robin as a fortune teller to rob Prince John and as a blind beggar to sneak about Nottingham. Robin uses only a phony voice, a purple cloak and an old sock to convince the Sheriff of Nottingham that he's the vulture guard Nutsy.

But it's the adaptation of the archery tournament from the ballad Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow where we see Robin's greatest achievement in the art of disguise -- the spindle-legged stork from Devonshire.

Sir Hiss, Prince John and the Joys of Animation

There's always an aspect of willing suspension of disbelief with having a hero who is a master of disguise. In a naturalistic medium such as live-action film or television, the audience is often left wondering just how stupid the bad guys are to be fooled by these disguises. But in the non-naturalistic medium of animation, it's easier to accept. Certainly it's only in the world of animation where a character could convincingly change their species -- where a fox can become a vulture or a stork.

But the character that really shows off the potential of animation is Prince John's counsellor, Sir Hiss. Originally, he was meant to be a more fearsome foe. Sir Hiss even possesses the same hypnotic abilities as the giant snake Kaa in The Jungle Book and, as Prince John recalls, hypnotized King Richard and "sent him off on that crazy Crusade" That act would make Sir Hiss one of the most powerful adversaries in the whole legend. According to Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston recall in their 1981 book Disney Animation; The Illusion of Life that illustration of Sir Hiss lounging around inspired them to take the character in a more comic sycophantic and put-upon direction.

The animators revelled in the freedom animation gave them. Sometimes Sir Hiss had human-like teeth, including the trademark gap of his voice actor Terry-Thomas. "Whatever fit the situation and the personality was acceptable. What is entertaining about a snake? Everything!" 

And this snake could do things no ordinary non-animated snake could.

We were no longer restricted by a real snake's anatomy or construction, because with this much character development we were caricaturing a personality more than a reptile. This always allows more freedom in actions and movements, as long as they are in keeping with what the character would do. Ken Anderson had made a sketch of Hiss sulking in his basket, with his coils draped over the rim so they looked very much like two arms.  It gave an attitude, an imaginative touch, and a funny picture.

-- Frank Thomas  and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, p. 436

Sir Hiss folds his coil like non-existent arms
Sir Hiss as a helicopter

Sir Hiss's folding "arms" is one of the all-time great animated moments, although perhaps the ultimate break with reality is when with aid of a helium balloon and a spinning tail, Hiss turned himself into a helicopter.

Much of Sir Hiss's character is formed in reaction to his boss -- Prince John. 

An angry Prince John confronts Sir Hiss

Prince John is greedy, vain, cruel, idiotic and above all childish. It seems like everyone in Nottingham knows the prince sucks on his thumb when stressed -- especially when stressed about his mother. All these traits are played with relish by Peter Ustinov. For this who grew up with this cartoon on constant replay, Brian Bedford's Robin Hood may be as iconic as Errol Flynn is to me. But it is Ustinov's Prince John who is the most iconic version of a Robin Hood character in this film.

Just as Terry-Thomas's Sir Hiss is like a comic mirror of Sterling Holloway's Kaa from 1967's The Jungle Book, I imagine when Prince John looks in the mirror he sees the more dangerous feline villain Shere Khan played by George Sanders in the earlier film. And yet, he's not cunning enough, threatening enough, or suave enough to match Shere Khan's villainy.  When watching the interplay between Prince John and Sir Hiss, the prince's inadequacies are an absolute delight.

In his 1973 Toronto Star review, film critic Clyde Gilmour remarks "As usual, the Disney villains are funnier and more interesting than the do-gooders." It's hard to disagree with that sentiment.

We see the violent potential of Prince John early on. And yet because it's animation, it seems funny to see his hand clinched around Sir Hiss's neck where in the live action world, such actions would be less amusing.

And perhaps that's what makes the audience underestimate Prince John. There have been many times in history when a blustering and vicious fool with a ridiculous mustache or absurdly unreal hair has been written off, and yet there's a threat of real danger. PJ may be a vain idiot, but Ustinov captures the character's dark turn.

And when Prince John gets dangerous, it's unfortunate than one of Robin's key allies seems less capable than in other versions of the legend.

Maid Marian swoons over Robin's wanted poster

Maid Marian and Lady Kluck: A Vixen and a Chicken ... Or a Couple of Pigeons

Maid Marian as voiced by Monica Evans is not nearly as active a figure as Olivia de Havilland's Marian from 1938 or Joan Rice's Marian from 1952. The past Marians defied Prince John and came up with plans to help save the day. The Maid Marians of the 1950s TV series were expert archers and swordfighters. But the Marians of the 1970s from the 1973 Disney movie, the 1975 British dramatic TV mini-series The Legend of Robin Hood, and the 1975 American TV sitcom When Things Were Rotten are all more passive than their predecessors. It is curious backlash that in the age of women's liberation and the Equal Rights Amendment that Maid Marian would be conspicuously less heroic than she had been in decades past. Whether it is swooning over Robin's wanted poster or being a maternal figure to Skippy and his young friends, the Disney animated Marian seems to call back to traditional societal norms instead of rebelling against them.

To be fair to Marian, we see Robin moping over Marian and wondering what he has to offer her too. So, there is a degree of equal opportunity in that sense.

And while this Maid Marian may not be a skilled fighter, her companion is certainly capable of earning her place among the Merry Men.

Lady Kluck shows off her football skills

The Marians of both 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood and Disney's 1952 live-action The Story of Robin Hood were accompanied by ladies-in-waiting or nursemaids. (Although Tyb in the 1952 movie was a very minor character.) This movie follows in that tradition with the large-sized chicken Lady Kluck. During the archery contest, Kluck shows off her physical prowess and tackles Prince John's soldiers while the score plays the American football standard "On, Wisconsin". 

In many ways, Kluck is like Una O'Connor's Bess (her 1938 counterpart) on steroids. She's a broadly comic figure with a touch of the panto dame about her.

Marian and Lady Kluck have along history together, their voice actors do as well. 

Monica Evans and Carole Shelley along with Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple

Monica Evans (Marian) and Carole Shelley (Kluck) voiced twin sisters Abigail and Amelia Gabble in the 1970 Disney animated film The Aristocats. But the pair have an even older sisterly bond. 

Evans and Shelley played the Pigeon Sisters (Cicely and Gwendolyn) in the original 1965 Broadway production of Neil Simon's play The Odd Couple. And these reprised the same roles in both the 1968 film adaptation and four episodes of the 1970 TV series.

Marian and Kluck watch over Skippy and Friends

Friends and Allies

Robin Hood might lack his traditional Merry Men in this movie. But there is a gang of heroes in the film -- even if only in their make-believe games. Robin gives his hat and bow to a young Nottingham rabbit named Skippy (voiced by Billy Whitaker). Skippy has a gang of friends .. relatives and a friend. Toby the turtle and the bunnies Sis and the littlest one Tagalong race to keep up with him.

Perhaps they would have formed the next generation of Merry Men. Skippy seems to think he's earned a spot on the team. He figures as Robin and Marian are going to have kids "So, somebody's going to have to keep an eye on things." And the makers of Gold Key Comics certainly envisioned big things for the young rabbit as Skippy starred in back-up features of The Adventures of Robin Hood, the short-lived comic book run based on the 1973 Disney cartoon.

It's always a dubious prospect to add kid heroes to appeal to kids. I think younger audiences often feel the kid characters are competition -- the viewers would like to imagine themselves beside Robin Hood, not Skippy. And the scenes with the younger characters go on a touch too long.

And yet, there is fun to be had in Skippy's reckless indifference to danger. Skippy's a hardcore bunny as when play-fighting with Lady Kluck he declares "Death to tyrants" -- a variation on the Latin motto Sic semper tyrannis, which serves as the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia but also what John Wilkes Booth claims to have said when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. If Skippy is going to keep an eye on things, who will keep an eye on Skippy?

Friar Tuck fights the Sheriff of Nottingham

There's no Will Scarlet or Much/Midge in the Disney cartoon. 

But what the film lacks in Merry Men, it makes up for in the residents of Nottingham. There's Skippy's family, Otto - a dog with a broken leg who is the town blacksmith, and the two mice who work help in Friar Tuck's church.

Friar Tuck (a badger), as played by Andy Devine, is more devout than most incarnations of the friar. This Tuck is not a hermit nor a fun-loving glutton (or at least, not primarily so.) Instead, he keeps the impoverished and mostly empty church open in hard times. He sees even the smallest act of ringing the church bell as providing comfort to the poor. When the Sheriff takes money from the poor box, Tuck goes ballistic and shouts "Get out of my church!" and attacks the sheriff with a quarterstaff.

Allan-a-Dale doesn't get to do much fighting, but he does serve as more than just a narrators. We see him playing his lute at the party in the outlaws' camp and then in prison for not paying his taxes.

Little John and Allan-a-Dale collaborate on a song

The Music of the Film

Songs are a part of the Disney animated tradition. Pinocchio's "When You Wish Upon a Star" became a theme for the whole company. And Robin Hood has some memorable songs, supplied in part by Roger Miller and his animated persona Allan-a-Dale. First up is the wordless "Whistle-Stop" over the opening credits, and followed by the jolly tune Oo-de-Lally.

Robin Hood and Little John walkin' through the forest
Laughin' back and forth at what the other ne has to say
Reminiscin', this-n-thattin', havin' such a good time
Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally, golly, what a day.

The song goes on to describe (and we see) the typical Robin Hood antics of escaping from a "schemin' sheriff and his posse" - setting up our expectations for the tone of the movie.

But when the tone of the film shifts, Allan-a-Dale is back again -- this time in debtor's prison -- to help set our expectations again. Where Roger Miller's first two songs were in his fun, novelty music style, "Not in Nottingham" is in the more downbeat, country music tradition.

I'm inclined to believe
If we were so down
We'd up and leave
We'd up and fly if we had wings for flyin'
Can't you see the tears we're cryin'?
Can't there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham

But Miller wasn't the film's only composer of music. Disney stalwart George Bruns and Floyd Huddleston produced the song Love, sung by Huddleston's wife Nancy Adams. It was nominated for an Oscar but isn't quite as catchy as the film's other songs.

Songwriting legend Johnny Mercer provides "The Phony King of England", sung by Little John (and his voice actor Phil Harris) at the celebration at the outlaw's camp.

Too late to be known as John the First
He's sure to be known as John the worst
A pox on that phony king of England!

The song isn't strictly accurate. After King Richard's death in 1199, John did become king and was indeed known as John the First. But it was still a hit that had Robin and the entire camp dancing (in scenes traced over from previous Disney dance sequences in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats).

It was so joyous that even the villains the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Hiss are caught singing the song the next day. It is overhearing his lackeys singing this song that drives Prince John to triple the taxes and cause the people of Nottingham to truly suffer.

Prince John, Sir Hiss and the Sheriff

Structural Problems

Disney's Robin Hood has legions of fans. I know Robin Hood scholars who became interested in the legend from watching this movie. And it has a large role in furry fandom too. And yet, many Disney fans see this film as existing in a sort of Dark Ages for Disney animation -- a far cry from the hits of the 1930s-1950s, or from the resurgence in the late 1980s and 1990s when Disney found a winning formula by borrowing from the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.

Many scenes in the film are enjoyable. There are great comic duos with Robin Hood and Little John, Maid Marian and Lady Kluck, and most notably Prince John and Sir Hiss. But the enjoyable moments don't coalescence into a single piece.

It's been said that a hero is only as great as his villain. And while Prince John -- PJ, if you will -- is absolutely delightful, it's hard to take him seriously when the movie has spent so much time depicting him as a moron. The joy in trickster heroes like Robin Hood is seeing them outsmart their enemies. But how hard is it to outsmart someone who has childish rages and sucks his thumb?

Prince John sucks his thumb
Prince John sucking his thumb in The Phony King of England
As much as he praised Ustinov's Prince John, film critic Clyde Gilmour noted the film was missing something.

Conspicuously missing, and missed, is the diabolical villainess of traditional Disney. The wicked queen in Snow White and Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians are examples that linger in the mind.

-- "A Disney movie wraps it up for Christmas", Clyde Gilmour, The Toronto Star, December 22, 1973, p. 55

I can't imagine the evil prioress of Kirklees of Robin Hood legend having a place in the film. Not when the church is seen in a more positive light in the Disney-branded Robin Hood than in other tellings. But the gender of the villain is less important than their threat-level. 

Buffoons can be dangerous -- yes. But Prince John, Sir Hiss and the Sheriff all fall on the comic side of things. And when Prince John does become a more serious threat, it exposes some of the serious structural issues of the film.

Prince John is offended by the song "The Phony King of England", and in the next scene we see Nottingham taxed into oblivion with most of its population in jail. So, where was Robin Hood when Prince John was tripling the taxes? It's as if Robin disappeared with no explanation so that things could get really bad.

An even bigger structural failure comes at the end of the film when Allan-a-Dale strolls by and fills viewers in that King Richard is back and has fixed everything.

Allan provides exposition instead of a climax

The DVD and the streaming version on Disney+ include storyboards from a deleted scene where King Richard reappears at a climactic moment. But if that missing scene provides a climax, it does not provide context. It would appear that Robin Hood had nothing to do with the king's return.

The "king's ransom" element in the earlier Disney Robin Hood film might be a bit hackneyed from overuse, but it gives Robin Hood some agency in resolving the overall threat. Here, it seems like everything would have turned out fine with or without Robin Hood getting involved.

If anything the overarching story would appear to be the romance of Robin and Marian. But even then, that story is largely concluded during the song "Love" when Robin slips a flower ring on her finger. The film's darker turn happens after that moment, and the marriage of the two lovers seems more like a final grace note than truly tying all the story strands together.

Robin and Marian wave goodbye from their wedding carriage

Final Thoughts

There's a lot to enjoy in the film -- charming characters, funny moments, catchy songs and great colour palettes in some sequences. It does a good job of weaving elements of the Robin Hood legend into a unique context that is a blending of medieval England and 19th and 20th century America. 

However, it also recycles moments from other Disney films -- most notably 1967's The Jungle Book. And the film lacks a unifying element to tie everything together.

Order Robin Hood on Amazon

ROBIN HOOD (1973) - The animated classic is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and streaming including special features
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The film is also available for streaming on Disney+

WALT DISNEY RECORDS: THE LEGACY COLLECTION - ROBIN HOOD - This two CD contains not only the soundtrack to the film, but demo records and Louis Prima's Robin Hood songs
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© Review text and Sherwood Forest background, Copyright 2023 Allen W. Wright - All Rights Reserved
1952's The Story of Robin Hood and 1973's Robin Hood are copyright Walt Disney Productions / Walt Disney Studios. Pictures and quoted text are used under fair use for the purpose of criticism and review.
Other pictures and quoted text are copyright their respective owners and used under fair use for the purpose of criticism and review.

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