I’d never seen Disney’s 1973 animated film Robin Hood before. Theoretically it could have been playing in the background at some point during my childhood, but I don’t have any memories of it that can’t be explained by way of pop-cultural osmosis. Nevertheless, I went into it with some preconceptions: the first being that, as a rule, 70s Disney sucks; the second that, as furry trash, I’m supposed to adore this movie, as this is supposedly the flick that irrevocably warped many young, impressionable minds, single-handedly creating the first wave of furries – or so the story goes. And feeling like I ‘should’ like something on account of my belonging to a particular group rather than on account of its aesthetic merits makes me more suspicious and critical than normal (see also: the Christian film market). Even a critical darling like Zootopia wound up being merely ok in my books.
In spite of that I rather enjoyed Robin Hood.
Anyway, the 70s were a dire time for Disney animation. Walt’s death had left the studio creatively aimless, while the higher ups were increasingly convinced that the theme park stuff was where the future of the company was. So the animation became something of an afterthought, and Robin Hood is indeed a pretty cheap, bare-bones production. Everything about it, from the animation to the film’s overall structure, feels small and shoestring.
And yet it manages to turn this around and make it into a strength. Film Critic Hulk has an excellent essay arguing for Robin Hood as a kind of minimalist masterpiece, where the budgetary and technical constraints put on the team forced them to think economically about what was essential for story and character. He’s also right to point out that there’s a melancholy, world-weariness permeating the whole affair that makes it surprisingly poignant at times.
But there’s also a sort of laid back quality to the film that also makes it a bit special. There’s no way that this take on Medieval England’s legendary outlaw-hero could aspire to any real gravitas or epicness; it doesn’t even work as a swashbuckler. What saves it from degenerating into a complete Saturday morning cartoon (although I don’t think that’s the worst fate a Disney film can face) is its own languidness.
There isn’t much to the plot: after setting up the basics of the Robin Hood story, the film unfolds mostly as a series of vignettes, with the characters milling about and doing stuff. Although I hate to use the hackneyed term, it’s very slice of life – if robbing from the rich and giving to the poor were an everyday activity for you. This, combined with the melancholy atmosphere, gave it an undertone of gracefulness in the face of danger. It actually reminded me a lot of Rio Bravo, a movie which similarly managed to make characters stuck in a life-or-death situation feel like they’re just hanging out and being cool together (and if you haven’t seen Rio Bravo yet, I strongly recommend you do, as it is quite possibly the manliest movie ever made).
The animation is a bit depressing if you compare it to golden age or renaissance Disney, but otherwise quite passable. The sketchy style that Disney films picked up in the 60s helps with the low budget factor, making a lot of it seem quaint rather than cheap, for the most part. And the anthropomorphic character designs are quite charming – there’s a reason the furry community has latched onto it.
All this has me thinking: I’m increasingly noticing that the real death-knell of a film for me is for it to be competently made, moderately enjoyable, but otherwise bland, homogenized and forgettable. The majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance, falls into this category. It’s all perfectly acceptable, decent stuff. But with a kind of homogenized, calculated quality that makes me less and less willing to part with my $13.
And I think a lot of modern Disney fare has a similar problem. There’s no question that movies like Big Hero 06, Frozen and Zootopia reflect a much stronger commitment to quality animated entertainment on Disney’s part than something like Robin Hood does. And yet they don’t have its poignancy and sense of identity.
Or maybe I’m just becoming cheaper and crankier. I dunno.