Monday, May 4, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXVI: Oh, he's so handsome—just like his reward posters


Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

Spoiler alert: I believe they cover it in the Magna Carta section of high school history

Robin Hood brings us to what at least looks like a watershed.  Though I've noted in this retrospective that he hadn't been instrumental for the animation studio since 1959, Robin Hood was the first Disney feature made without any input from Walt; it was also the first to have no Disney associated with it whatsoever, for by this time poor Roy had passed away as well, in 1971, five years and five days after his baby brother.  Yet it has an outsized reputation anyway, especially for a film made in the middle of Disney's Dark Age, and of course there's a reason for that: it was the first Disney film to appear on home video, just in time for Christmas 1984.  Mainly, this was because it was perceived as a failure—while it had done well enough in 1973 (it had been an especially big hit overseas), the folks presently in charge of the Walt Disney Company (Card Walker and Ron Miller, though I can't say if it was their personal directive) could only see the disappointing box office of the 1982 re-release.  Deciding they had nothing to lose by dumping it on the home market, they hoped that parents would buy it for their dumb kids regardless.  Which they did.  And thus, for children of a certain age—a demographic that now drives the consensus opinion on things—Robin Hood has the distinction of being the very first Disney film they could watch over and over and over again.  It would be supplemented soon enough, but priority has its privileges, and alone amongst the pre-Renaissance films—well, give or take a Many Adventures of Winnie the PoohRobin Hood actually could become a nostalgic object for a generation.  And so, for a huge number of movie-watchers, it simply hasn't wound up submerged into the nebulous mass of "classic Disney" the way that the rest of them sometimes are.

But besides being in the right time (our youth) and in the right place (our house), does it actually do anything to earn that nostalgia?  Oh, absolutely—though of course I've been primed for it, and not just because I'm of the generation described above.  Rather, in the context of an ongoing Disney retrospective, it's damn welcome relief.  Robin Hood feels like crossing a threshold, whereupon the Walt Disney Studio had finally decided to stop making the feeble crap that had almost totally defined their output for over twenty years.  This is true despite nothing in its production history suggesting any conscious effort to turn the worm.  Somehow, it's true despite Robin Hood palpably being a product of every last one of the same trivializing impulses and artistic limitations that had belamed Disney animation ever since Walt had stopped caring about it.  Sure, it could be nostalgia.  But the fact is that I liked it when I was two, and I like it for the same reasons now, only at age thirty-seven I like to think I'm at least marginally better able to articulate them.

It helps that by the early 1970s, the studio had found something like stable leadership in former animator, latterday-director Wolfgang Reitherman, who with The Aristocats got his first producer credit, and while that's hardly what one would call an auspicious start, in that case I suspect it was more of an honorary title anyhow, considering the post-Walt paralysis that had seemed to afflict that film's development.  For all that Reitherman was my favorite of the Nine Old Men—for all that I admire him for trying to fill the void Walt had left behind—it's fair to say that Reitherman never quite did, and nobody ever refers to "a Wolfgang Reitherman film" like this was a thing.

And yet!  For the first time in a long time, there's a definite sensation that somebody was actually in charge here, and perhaps the anxious conservatism with which Disney approached their first entirely-Walt-free project was even a boon.  It's worth remarking, one more time, that with 50s and 60s Disney, you could never, ever take such apparent luxuries as "narrative drive" or "dramatic structure" for granted, and whoever was to blame for that—Walt, of course, but also chief storyman Bill Peet, his successor Larry Clemmons, production designer Ken Anderson, and the Nine Old Men themselves—it stopped being a problem, or at least nearly as much of a problem, once Reitherman stepped up.  Even the bad one—and yes, this is the Xerography Era, so of course there's still a bad one—still isn't as bad as it could be.  So it's easy to assume that it was Reitherman who re-imposed some semblance of a unified vision onto Disney's features, because, after all, it was with Reitherman's ascension that they finally started to make their way back to the promised land, even if, as with Moses, Woolie would never get to enter it himself.  Then again, I suppose it could just be that Robin Hood had a well-established story that would take an extraordinary lack of judgment to fuck up completely—whereas it would require a revisionist to start fiddling with its real fundamentals, and Reitherman was no revisionist, though, whether by accident or by design, he did wind up emphasizing different aspects of the legend and deprioritizing others, helping make his Robin Hood one of the most left-of-center cinematic Robin Hoods around.

Now, it was yet another Disney film with some roots reaching back to the 1930s, but, in this case, these were tenuous ones: Walt had toyed with doing a feature focused upon the French folk legend of Reynard the Fox, and while he gave it up, Reynard himself kept hanging around.  Anderson, having clung to the idea of a clever anthropomorphized fox during his abortive development of Chanticleer (Reynard would have been the rooster's enemy), eventually found a new role for him, as another nation's hero.  And so it was no great leap from there to the concept that would most obviously distinguish Disney's Robin Hood from all others: the all-animal cast.

This idea was welcomed, for funny talking animals were Disney's stock-in-trade—in the Xerography Era, more than ever—though luckily Reitherman shut down Anderson's dubious plan to set this new Robin Hood in the American South.  (I think this is a potentially great idea, but Reitherman and Disney executives' worries that Anderson's bid to recapture the spirit of Song of the South would, indeed, recapture the spirit of Song of South were, I expect, reasonably well-founded.)  As far as "talking animals" went, Robin Hood was a quietly radical departure: it tends to get lost in the broad generalizations, but instead of chasing Dumbo to increasingly diminished returns, Robin Hood was the first canonical feature with fully-anthropomorphized animal caricatures designed as stand-ins for humanity.  It was a mode of anthropomorphism that Disney features would, in fact, use sparingly; but for their purposes here, they use it very well.  Altogether, it's a wonderful little distancing device, tinting what were already some pretty misty medieval legends with a heavy layer of outright animism, and pushing Robin's quasi-historical ballads into the realm of genuine folktales.  It's maybe more of a testament to the power of Disney than the power of Disney's Robin Hood, but for millions, Robin Hood (Brian Bedford) is a fox.

Likewise is Little John (Phil Harris) a bear; the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram), a wolf; Maid Marian (Monica Evans), a vixen (because, please, let's not get too weird about what romantic relationships in this world must look like); Richard Plantagenet, with his appellation Lionheart, could be nothing except a lion; and that means that Richard's brother, his perfidious regent Prince John (Peter Ustinov), must be a lion, too.  For the most part, these are thoughtful choices—Robin, of course, is so symbolically-clear he needs no explaining—though it can be arbitrary: Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) as a badger doesn't instantly tell you something about his character the same way that, say, the Sheriff taking the form of an overweight wolf does.  Sometimes it's clearly for funsies: Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas) takes on the "Sir Guy" role of previous adaptations, but if this animal play would feel somewhat incomplete without a snake, I expect that Prince John's serpentine chief advisor was more of a sop to the animators than anything else, especially considering that Hiss is nearly the only creature in the film that does not have a completely humaniform body plan, and hence they could use him for the kind of cartoon gags that, at this stage of their lives, often seemed to amuse them more than telling good stories about interesting characters.  Still, more often than not, the choices are smart, and the smartest are also the ones that go for irony—I'm rather fond of how Robin the fox gives a pep talk to a young fan who happens to be a rabbit, but of course I mostly mean John himself, the most cowardly lion of them all.  One of my favorite little things about the film is the way that Richard's crown never once properly fits on John's scantily-maned head, either about to fall off or actually in the process of falling off, and his ears often uncomfortably folded-down.

The plot is, mostly, a stripped-down re-do of 1938's box-office champion, The Adventures of Robin Hood, which I don't hold against it; ain't broke, don't fix.  The stripping-down entails doing away with Robin's Merry Men, which was also Reitherman's decree, as he wanted a buddy picture, not an ensemble.  Anderson was pissed, but it focuses things marvelously—the Merry Men tend towards a blob in other adaptations, but Little John is almost co-equal to Robin here, driven in part by Harris's performance, which is (like the character design) once again based on The Jungle Book's Baloo.  I should not like this; but the hell of it is that it works great.  Not unlike The Adventures, however, Disney's Robin Hood also begins in earnest with a raid on John's treasure convoy; it continues with John and Hiss stewing over their defeat; they eventually come up with a scheme to trap Robin at an archery tournament; and it does somewhat diverge after that, perhaps because an animated film would be less able to afford a hundred swashbuckling extras, but more able to visualize a burning castle.  (The other big difference is that, for obvious reasons, nobody ever rides a horse in this Robin Hood, which is kind of weird once you start thinking about it; and, also, that animation permits some really silly disguises and even sillier trick archery.)

If it also takes its history from The Adventures, this is just the path of least resistance: like virtually all Robin Hoods since the 15th century, it situates our fabled hero in the late 12th.  As usual, it uses Richard as a structuring absence, and idealizes him as the Good King, which is always a bit eye-rolling, given that Richard and John, both mean-spirited autocrats and attempted usurpers, had roughly equivalent track records.  Nevertheless, as is traditional, it hates John.  It's basically feature-length slander, though at least Disney's Robin Hood takes this trend to a productively absurd extent, rather than just relitigating Angevin politics.

In fact, despite its situation in historical time, Disney's adaptation carves Robin himself right down to his essence; because, for once, he's not Robin of Loxley, nor Robin of anything, and there's no indication that "Robin Hood" is anything except this fox's common-as-dirt actual name, which takes the character all the way back to his murky beginnings as the every-yeoman he originally was before an endless stream of English authors decided to try to both historicize him and impose some nobility upon him.  The vulpine form certainly helps—I rather like that Robin's design isn't even that sleek, and, handsome or not, he's a bit bedraggled—and so does Bedford's warm, heroic performance.  He doesn't offer a surfeit of personality, but he does make Robin tremendously affable and kind (and rather less of a narcissistic shithead than, for example, Fairbanks or Flynn).  Taken as a whole, this is the mythic folk hero (and borderline trickster-god) that Robin Hood is supposed to be.

Folk hero, I say, for, much as The Jungle Book and The Aristocats had looked to jazz music for inspiration and/or time-filler, Robin Hood wound up being Disney's "folk" movie, which in Disneyfied terms meant novelty country music, courtesy Roger Miller, cast as a latecomer to the legendarium, the minstrel Alan-a-Dale.  This rooster serves as our narrator, to boot—and bears a resemblance to Anderson's Chanticleer, which, of course, is no accident.  I happen to like Miller, and he's one of the prime reasons I like Robin Hood: it's the most successful of Disney's spotty attempts to be "cool" during this era, because it's the one that makes the most sense—at least, it makes more sense to pair violent wealth redistribution with folk music than it does Rudyard Kipling with jazz.  And so Miller's simple, wordless "Whistle-Stop" sets a wonderfully great mood right at the start, giving the film a larkishly proletarian quality that works in cooperation with, rather than simply undercutting, its adventure plot.  (So do the closing lines of Alan-a-Dale's introductory narration: "It's my job to tell it like it is.  Or was.  Or whatever.")  It's a definite caution not to take it too literally, and a reminder to have fun with it, even as things do take a turn for the worse—another of Miller's songs, the excessively downbeat "Not In Nottingham," alongside the imagery (rain animation and colors muted almost entirely into grays, a big contrast from what has been a resolutely sunny, bright picture), manages to conjure atmosphere like a Disney musical hadn't done since Cinderella's "So This Is Love."

It's not too much to say—not at all—that Robin Hood is Disney's best proper musical made prior to its Renaissance.  "Oo-De-Lally," Miller's expositional song, is one of the company's most memorable.  "Phony King of England" (this one written by John Mercer) is funny and bouncy.  The only song that isn't a straight-up banger is "Love," by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns.  (The latter was also the film's composer; his score is perfectly fine.)  But even if "Love" is just a wimpy ballad, it's not unpleasant, and it has the definite benefit of being paired with a romance between Robin and Marian that is sufficiently compelling so that, thirty years later, there were furries.

Obviously, that wasn't on anyone's mind at the time, and while I appreciate the tenderness of that scene, Robin and Marian together aren't a big enough part of the movie that I'd call it a romance.  As usual in this era, it's a comedy first, and it's not flawless at that, either: there's a whole bit with Hiss flying around inside a (plastic, lighter-than-air) balloon at the archery tournament that I wish Reitherman had stomped on hard, because it's Robin Hood's most shameful flirtation with animators' fun at the expense of maintaining a coherent, believable world.  Much of the film's other license on this account is just good old-fashioned fairytale efficiency (the Kingdom of England appears to be one single castle, overlooking one single town, which happens to neighbor some woods, and literally nothing in the film is more than five minutes' walk from anywhere else); much else is simply neutral (the fact that Robin Hood contains roughly a dozen regional accents, some of which are even British).  But its aggressively anachronistic jokes can be low, low stuff.  Thank goodness, they are mostly contained to the archery tournament; and even then, I like most of that sequence's off-the-wall cartoonish comedy.

Inevitably, the principal butt of Robin Hood's jokes is John, and in the midst of their newfound penchant for hiring celebrities, this time Disney got a ringer: Ustinov is without a doubt this film's actual star, and besides Miller's music, its single most effective individual element.  John's a miracle on that count, for, in him, Disney's endemic problem with unacceptably weak villains during this period actually becomes an out-and-out strength.  Some of that's the writing, which pushes John so far into petty idiocy that he becomes more of a Looney Tunes villain than a Disney one, a punching bag for an omnipotent, even somewhat cruel hero, whom we're invited to laugh at, and never asked to take seriously.  (Heck, the film starts out with a straight-up "Bugs Bunny in drag" scene.)  His own lieutenants think he sucks—one of the film's best grace notes is when the Sheriff reprises "Phony King of England" in Buttram's hillbilly register.  In fact, one of the reasons John can be such a terrible villain, while still  allowing the film around him to maintain some sense of drama—at least on the kid's cartoon level it asks to met at—is that John's kingdom is still pretty threatening, even if its leader is an inept boob.  So it's functional—but it's still mostly Ustinov who turns that into comedy.  It's Ustinov, hamming it up with all of John's mewling and crying for his mother, who makes John a figure you enjoy hating.  And that's why it's so clever, intentionally or not, that the brother of the Lionheart had to be a lion, too, because here's the very icon of monarchism—reduced to sucking its thumb in the mud.

It all dovetails with the core theme of Robin Hood: that anybody that doesn't deserve the throne but gets it anyway deserves, instead, to be robbed and beaten up and—above all—humiliated by the earthy manifestation of individualistic resistance, who emanates from the woods and refuses to wear pants.  Robin Hood, for this reason, is also one of three good uses of the xerographic technique during the 60s and 70s, where the stark black outlines and scratchiness actually contributes to its aesthetic instead of degrading it.  For starters, it's just better: cleaner and, perhaps due to the blatant cartooniness of the characters, more convincing in its illusion of life, thank you Ollie and Frank.  Even the cheapness doesn't work that much against it: like, I'm aware of the recycled animation, but I only care when it recycles from within the film we're watching (which Robin Hood does, though I think it tries to make a deliberate joke out of it); meanwhile, the huge emphasis on lateral staging might be budget-driven, but has a "crappy tapestry" charm to it anyway.  (Plus, the backgrounds actually look pretty swell; and occasionally they even get slightly ambitious with them, like during a push-in through a window into John's extremely sad gold-strewn bedchambers.)

Between the rebellious spirit of the story, the metaphorical animals, and the graphic simplicity of the animation, Robin Hood winds up a little like a 19th century radical pamphlet in motion.  It's not, of course, actually politically radical, so I almost feel stupid putting it that way, but in play-acting towards radicalism, and in grabbing at all its various influences (the Robin Hood legends themselves, 60s country music, accidentally-Victorian-looking line-drawings), it comes out the other end a little more timeless, and a lot less disposable, than almost anything else of its era.

Score: 8/10

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