The other day I sat down to watch all of the old Disney films I have on VHS.
Some, I never liked, like “Aladdin.” Even as a kid I couldn’t stand Robin Williams playing Robin Williams. Some aren’t as good as I remembered; I couldn’t finish “The Rescuers” movies, and I love Bob Newhart.
But the Disney version of “Robin Hood” was surprisingly good to the point that I had to watch it several times over, and in fact it got better each time.
There’ve been many film adaptations of the English legend throughout the years, from the Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn pictures to the more recent “Prince of Thieves” and “Men in Tights.”
Some of them are better movies than Disney’s, and there are certainly better Disney films. You could actually make the case it’s the worst animated Disney film ever made, had “Home on the Range” not come out.
But I don’t like any of them near so much as I do it, and it’s a bit of a puzzle why.
I mean, the setting is supposedly medieval England, but all of the characters are anthropomorphic foxes, bears, turtles and crocodiles. Animation is heavily recycled, most obviously and commonly from “The Jungle Book,” but even from “Snow White” and from within the film itself. Gags and character designs get lifted straight from previous movies; “The Jungle Book’s” Baloo and “Robin Hood’s” Little John are almost identical except for fur color and that Little John wears some clothes. Phil Harris even voices both.
It’s a Disney movie, so we can forgive talking animals, but again, it is medieval England and about half the cast – including Harris – are from the American South. An Okie rooster with a banjo bumps shoulders with a Scottish hen in a nightgown as hooded weasels shoot arrows all around them. Nothing about that formula sounds like it should work. But is does.
Well, sort of.
That Okie rooster is none other than country singer-songwriter Roger Miller (as minstrel Alan-a-Dale), and I credit him with most everything successful about the movie. The soundtrack is about half written by him, and it’s the good half. “Whistle Stop,” “Oo-de-Lally,” “Not in Nottingham” and the various reprises get the movie and what it’s all about: ease and fun and wry humor even in the worst circumstances.
“I’m inclined to believe/ If we weren’t so down/ We’d up and leave.”
It’s not a good movie because it’s just a series of disjointed sketches and romps connected by some dental floss standing in for a plot. The end comes out of nowhere between scene changes and sews up everything in a bow.
The point isn’t that it shouldn’t have ended this way, but that it shouldn’t have ended at all. Robin Hood was a television show compressed into less than an hour-and-a-half.
“Robin Hood and Little John/ Walkin’ through the forest/ Laughin’ back ‘n’ forth/ At what the other’un has to say/ Reminiscin’ this ‘n’ that/ And havin’ such a good time/Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally/ Golly what a day.”
That’s a theme song if I’ve ever heard one, and predates “Hakuna Matata” by 20 years.
Throughout the movie there’s never any sense of real danger until just before the end, and it’s out of place there. The bad guys can’t shoot, the good guys never kill, certainly no one is going to die, and Robin and Maid Marian are going to happily-ever-after. Everyone knows this, and it doesn’t matter.
It’s all there in Roger Miller’s drawl at the beginning.
“My job is to tell it like it is. Or was. Or whatever.”
And in this I hear him whisper, “This is a yarn, through and pure, and I could spin you a new one each day until the end of time that neither of us would tire of and we’d both already know because we long for it. I whistle a joyful tune and sing a place of ever-summer where there is Good, and it’s a-winking, and there is Evil, but it’s harmless, and there is Love, and it always conquers all.”