Monthly Archives: July 2009

July 12, 2009

Disney Canon #21: Robin Hood (1973)


ADAM That was like all the delights of childhood in a single package. I remembered everything about it.

BETH I had never seen it before, so it wasn’t nostalgic for me.

ADAM Then maybe you should tell us what it was like to you as a grown-up, before we wallow.

BROOM Let me say first that of all of the movies so far, I felt I had the least perspective on this one. Several times during the movie, I thought to myself, “You really ought to come up with a new, adult perspective on this,” but that would have taken effort that I just didn’t feel like exerting. I had immediate access to the way I felt about every moment when I was eight, but I’m still not sure what this movie is like from an adult’s perspective.

BETH What was it like from your childhood perspective?

BROOM We should hear from you first.

BETH It was a little bit dull and it felt cheap, but it was fine. I almost fell asleep. But it was fine.

BROOM Elaborate.

BETH The music felt like Love Story to me, like a live-action romance movie.

ADAM The music was very distracting.

BETH That’s the one thing that stood out to me. The rest felt like a very long Saturday morning cartoon. A cartoon that I would have watched on TV as a child. It was nothing: it was not exciting, it was not suspenseful, it was not terrible. It was solid.

ADAM Not even during the jailbreak?

BETH The jailbreak was pretty good.

BROOM I said the other day that it was going to have the best “taking something from a sleeping person” scene in the Disney canon. And I think that’s right. That scene has gotta be the apotheosis of the “taking something from a sleeping person” scene.

BETH Yes, it was good. The disguises were used well. I liked all the disguises throughout the movie.

ADAM I agree. They always looked like what they were supposed to be, but you could also tell what they were made of.

BROOM Really? What was the beak of the stork made of?

ADAM That was the weakest element.

BROOM I think it may have been made of a real stork’s beak.

BETH It could have been made of really good construction paper.

ADAM I was thinking of the sock that formed the vulture’s beak.

BROOM How did you feel about the script?

BETH I just feel like everything about the movie was fine. Nothing was bad, and nothing was great. The script was fine. Many of the voices were familiar from The Jungle Book, and that was actually a little distracting to me.

BROOM Besides Baloo, who else?

ADAM Wasn’t Sir Hiss in The Jungle Book?

BROOM No; this was Terry-Thomas; Kaa was Sterling Holloway.

BETH And the evil guy…?

BROOM Shere Khan has the same sort of lion mouth as Prince John, but he didn’t have the same voice. Shere Khan, remember, was like James Mason; he was very smooth and commanding.

ADAM It definitely had a Hanna-Barbera look to it. The very thick black lines around the characters and the backgrounds that stay perfectly still while people run through them are deeply familiar to me from The Smurfs. In The Smurfs, they would run through the same four background panels over and over again.

BROOM I remember being aware of a lot of repeated or reused animation in this one when I was a kid, but it didn’t bother me now as much as it did then, oddly enough. I thought they had disguised it pretty well, as opposed to in Sword in the Stone where it seemed very exposed.

BETH I think that’s just you. There were a lot of obvious repeated moments.

BROOM I noticed that every time the Sheriff of Nottingham walks in, he’s swinging his arms exactly the same way.

BETH They reused the shot of the little girl bunny laughing and falling against a tree.

BROOM Did they? When was the second time they used it?

ADAM It was when Maid Marian kissed the little boy, and, uh…

BETH It must have been during the party, because I remember that it seemed like nighttime the second time we saw it, and daytime the first time; something about it was different.

ADAM You can see why Robin Hood is a sex object to me. He has those big huggable eyes, like a Japanese anime hero.

BROOM Like I said the other day, this movie must be the founding document for Furries.

BETH Maid Marian is appealing.

ADAM She’s pretty sexy. She makes that wimple look genuinely feminine — and kind of slutty, frankly.

BROOM I think that’s going a bit far.

BETH I think she’s very pure.

BROOM In the scene where we’re introduced to her, she does come off as knowing, at least in relation to seven-year-olds. She’s very much a grown-up. That was an interesting dynamic to see, that she and Lady Cluck are playing around explicitly for the children’s benefit. Yes, Marian and Robin Hood are both appealing, and they have exactly the same face, down to every feature. I think they even have the same eyelashes and the same hair, which is usually how you can tell women from men. [Ed: the eyelashes are in fact different.]

ADAM Maybe that’s why I found them such an appealingly matched couple.

BETH I liked the Lady Cluck character, and I liked her costume.

ADAM All the supporting characters were very strong. I mean, they were pretty obvious — to have your pathetic townspeople be a cripple, an elderly owl couple, a mother with sixteen children, and a little minister mouse and his wife —

BROOM Church mouse.

ADAM — that’s pretty blatant. But they were all compellingly pathetic.

BROOM There were a lot more supporting characters than that. There were all sorts of bad guys: there was the Sheriff, and Nutsy and Trigger, and the elephant guards, and the rhino guards, and the weasel-ish guards, and the alligator from Fantasia making his triumphant return appearance, where we finally got to hear his voice.

ADAM Speaking of repeated voices, I think the sheriff’s voice is the same as the hound from The Aristocats.

BROOM Pat Buttram.

ADAM It was distracting that some of the characters had British accents and others did not. It reminded me of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, in which Kevin Costner does not have a British accent and everyone else does.

BROOM Robin Hood’s voice was just right. He was easier to like than the actual Errol Flynn ever was. I guess Phil Harris as Baloo is a little more memorable than Phil Harris as Little John, but it still works pretty well here. Though I don’t know why we have to spend so much of the movie looking at him in that “crazy duke” outfit.

ADAM That was part of the 70s jauntiness of it, which I found touching. The music had a very easy-listening quality. But also folky.

BROOM I think “folky” was a better way to handle the 70s than to try to keep up with other popular music.

ADAM Right. I was glad there was no rock band.

BROOM Well, the chase scene did have a little bit of “wooka-chocka-wooka-chocka” guitar. And there was that “sneaking around” music.

ADAM The sneaking around music was really good. It was more than just [imitates cymbal shuffle].

BROOM Well, it was a variant of that.

BETH It was funny. It was kind of all over the place.

ADAM I liked it. It sounded like what sneaking around in the dark sounds like.

BROOM That was one of those moments where I felt that I couldn’t get any perspective on it, because it was almost exactly the same style that I complained about in The Aristocats, and yet here it somehow seemed right. We know that they’re being really quiet, so the music is really loud — to show us how intense their effort to be quiet is.

ADAM It’s like their hearts thumping. It’s quiet and then you get erratic beats, like… … … BUMP BOMP.

BROOM The trombones play a short little noirish figure, and then you get some kind of k-k-klonk in the percussion.

ADAM Yes, because all sounds seem magnified when you’re creeping around.

BROOM I think the script is more grown-up in its construction than many of the movies we’ve seen, and certainly more than any of the Hanna-Barbera-type cartoons that you’re comparing it too. It really has a challenging structure, to a child. It starts out with the rooster telling you that he’s going to tell you the story… but he doesn’t. He sings a little song that introduces you to the scenario, and because of what’s being sung, you don’t really know whether what you’re seeing them doing is generic or specific storytelling.

ADAM “Robin Hood and Little John, walking through the forest…”

BETH I thought that was a clever song. I really enjoyed it. I liked how the lyrics of the second verse sounded like the words of the first verse but were different.

ADAM I liked that it contained the word “other’ne.”

BROOM During that sequence, you don’t know whether you’re seeing “a day in the life of Robin Hood,” or a particular day that starts the plot. Then it jumps to the Prince, and we have a little scene with him alone before they meet him, and then after that it jumps to the people of Nottingham and the sheriff. Then Robin Hood comes in and gives the kid the arrow, and then the kid — and we don’t know whether the kid is going to play a role at this point — goes and meets Maid Marian, and then we end up with her, and her thought of Robin Hood finally takes us back to him. We’ve met all these different people in their various relationships without being sure whether the plot has started or not, or what it is. I also remember from when I was a kid that it was particularly complicated that so much of the premise has to do with things that happened before the movie started. Maid Marian and Robin Hood had a love affair before, and King Richard left the country before.

ADAM Which is not totally spelled out for a kid.

BROOM Right. It felt complex.

BETH So what is the deal with King Richard? He left and came back? He took a vacation?

BROOM He went on a crusade, as they said.

BETH I totally missed that.

BROOM Possibly because he was hypnotized by a snake. But history doesn’t record that.

ADAM He went on a crusade and was gone for like twenty years, and John, who I think was just the regent, usurped in his absence.

BETH Is that the Robin Hood story that everyone knows? I don’t know the Robin Hood story.

ADAM All I know about the Robin Hood story comes from this movie and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and they both have the same story.

BROOM Is it also the same story in The Adventures of Robin Hood? We watched part of that at Beth’s parents’ house but I don’t remember it. There are also books about Robin Hood, of course.

ADAM Yes, I’m sure there’s other source material.

BROOM Probably some of it predates the 30s movie, eh?

ADAM Do you think this movie had a Reagan-era quality?

BROOM Nixon era.

ADAM I understand that… but I mean like a “morning in America” silent majority heroic opposition to taxes. A hearty male opposing an effeminate, weak ruler. No?

BROOM I felt like all the elements of it had been taken from all kinds of kids’ culture, and did not add up to any preconceived political worldview. I thought that the wimpy bad guy was just one of several possible kinds of bad guys, one that would keep the movie feeling light.

ADAM It’s true that he wasn’t expressly effeminate in the way that, say, Scar will be expressly effeminate. He was just childish.

BROOM He was just a baby-man. But he was probably gay too, right?

BETH I think he was nothing.

BROOM Yeah, he was just cranky. As the kid said: “I don’t like him; he’s cranky.” And the grim brown town that at the end is all the colors of the rainbow because life has been restored to it — that’s just a standard device.

ADAM It’s very The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

BROOM Isn’t it in everything? Isn’t that what happens to Shire? No, I guess that’s the opposite. But, I mean, the Care Bears do it all the time. The water flows at the end. Is this the first Disney movie we’ve seen where the benighted countryside comes back to life? No, it happens at the end of Sleeping Beauty too.

ADAM The thorns go away.

BROOM The frozen kingdom reawakens.

ADAM Specific things that I remember from my childhood: the scene where they know he’s alive because they see the straw in the river is burned in my memory. At the time, that seemed like an unbearably long interval before he reappeared. Even though I knew what would happen because I’d seen it before, it was always upsetting. And then always a burst of joy when he would return. I loved him. I loved the character. I believed in him and I trusted him. It was so thrilling. I just loved it, as a kid, and those good feelings are sort of slopping over my recollections now. The way he tricks them in that stork costume! And he’s so good at archery!

BROOM It’s pretty impressive that he’s tricked into shooting an arrow in the wrong direction, and he shoots another arrow and makes it go the right direction! And it goes so in the right direction that it blows open the Sheriff of Nottingham’s arrow. It goes right through it!

BETH I guess if I had seen this as a kid I would have liked it.

ADAM We are telling you: you would have.

BETH I didn’t dislike it. I just thought, “okay, fine, I’m watching a kids’ movie.”

BROOM I can see that it has a lot of standard fare common to other kids’ stuff. But I think from a technical standpoint, the character animation is very good.

ADAM It’s very expressive.

BROOM There’s a lot of kinds of acting and expression in it that they haven’t tried before. Sarcasm and joking around. Well, I guess we noted that in 101 Dalmatians the couple had their own sense of humor within the movie.

ADAM Like when Cruella leaves and they make fun of her.

BROOM Right. The characters joke around here; again, that scene with Lady Cluck and Maid Marian, but also Robin and Little John.

ADAM There’s that scene with the puppet play, where it’s clear who the characters are supposed to be… and it’s so winning when Robin Hood pops his head up! I think I just fell for his big eyes when I was a kid.

BROOM About how winning that moment is… Anything that happens in a cartoon has to be elaborately pre-planned; nothing just happens. I appreciate that they decided and calculated that the appeal of certain scenes should be “they’re all joshing around, and you’re with them when they’re having a good time.” I respect that, and I think they got it pretty well. It certainly communicates that feeling when you’re a kid. And it’s the same kind of appeal at the end when they’re going off, and the camera warmly pans past all the characters that you’ve gotten to meet. Whereas in The Aristocats they did that and it felt unearned. But maybe if I’d known The Aristocats as a kid, I would have happily thought, “look, it’s my friends cat X and cat Y!”

BETH I think you would have. I think if I had seen this even once before, I would have had a different opinion of it.

ADAM Well, it helped to have seen it eight times.

BROOM That “Whistle Stop” tune is awfully catchy.

ADAM Which one is that?

BROOM [whistles]. You know it from The Hamster Dance.

BETH What’s that?

BROOM “What is The Hamster Dance?”?!? You don’t know??

ADAM An early internet meme.

BROOM The first contentless, pointless huge internet phenomenon. We’ll look at it in a second.

BETH No, I’ve seen it.

BROOM Any last thoughts about Robin the Hood?

ADAM I feel totally satisfied.

BROOM I really enjoyed it. I’m sorry that it doesn’t mean the same thing to you when you’re a grown-up.

ADAM But I will say that it has a sort of “François le champi” pleasure to it, which I don’t think it would have a second time. In Proust, it’s this thing that he reencounters, but it’s only significant because of the long period that has elapsed, and he knows that the second time that he reencounters it, it won’t have that same magic, because adulthood will write over the track of childhood, and it’s only the shock of the encounter with the old that is stirring.

BROOM Well, I’ve been thinking about this recently, and I think that the fear of that happening is overstated. In the moment that you experience something for the first time, you’re overwhelmed by actually remembering it from your youth, and yes, if you do it again the next week, you mostly just remember yourself remembering. But! If you do it again ten years later, that moment of remembering is just light scratches over the deep groove of the original memory. I’ve already “used up” my nostalgia moment on certain things — senior year in college, in particular, I went back and re-experienced stuff. But then I went back and re-experienced some of the same things again recently, and it was all almost entirely as potent. Because who cares about “the day I remembered something in college”? That itself isn’t a memory that leaves a heavy track behind it.

ADAM Fair enough.

BROOM So you might enjoy this again in a few years.

ADAM But not next week.

BETH I want to say that I would not have any problems showing this to my children.

ADAM Oh yeah, I endorse all the values here. And then some.

BROOM Me too. I was thinking, in fact, about the one scene where some subtext was lost on me the first time around, where Maid Marian and the little boy rabbit go into the woods because he’s playing Robin Hood and has “won” her, and he says “now what?” and she says “usually they kiss.” The point is “oh, the innocence,” and that was lost on me, of course. And then she kisses him and the little girl rabbit says “they’re kissing!” and laughs and laughs, and it fades out on that. I was struck by the implication that it’s a little bit titillating to the girl, who’s a little bit older — she’s a little embarrassed and she’s also a little delighted by it, because she has more of a romantic sense of what that scene stands in for. I thought that psychology was there and was sweet. Where there could have been something leering or weird, there was something touching.

ADAM And no fart jokes. I don’t think we’ll see a fart joke in a Disney movie for many years.

BROOM No. In fact, I was struck by the moment where Sir Hiss peers into the costume and sees that the stork is actually Robin Hood; he’s looking right up his butt, but that is just where he happens to be looking, and there’s no butt-related humor or embarrassment about it.

BETH That’s a good point.

BROOM It was also funny that he put his head in a balloon and propellered himself around.

BETH Actually, that was my favorite part of the whole movie. The sound that he made just sounded like a guy making that sound.

ADAM What is the first use of the visual cliche of people being pursued off the screen one way and then being pursued off screen the other way?

BROOM I think that’s from Tex Avery, from those Red Hot Riding Hood cartoons, where they go in one door and out another. That’s always a pleasure to see. It’s an old favorite.

[we proceed to read the New York Times review, which prompts no further comments]