For some unknown reason, 1973's "Robin Hood" tends to get the cold shoulder from Disney animation purists whenever it comes up in genre conversation. For the life of me, I just don't understand the hostility to this cozy, endearing adventure/comedy.
Released during the open-wound period after Walt's death in 1966, "Hood" was the first Disney production that didn't benefit from the maestro's personal touch. The picture was created by a studio still jittery when it came to artistic direction, unsure of what the public wanted or expected of such an iconic family-friendly studio now that their greatest supporter was gone.
At its worst, "Hood" is fraught with the pangs of filmmakers who didn't really know what they wanted from their story. It's an unusual Disney film because it stays exceptionally tight on characterization, leaving the plot twisting in the wind at times. Of course, this robs the movie of a truly exhilarating payoff, but the leisurely, affectionate direction (by Wolfgang Reitherman, "The Rescuers," "The Jungle Book," "The Sword and the Stone") grows on the viewer as the film strolls along.
On a more curious note is the picture's notorious animated corner-cutting, some of which can only be perceived by the highly-trained eyes of a Disneyphile, the rest of it is as obvious as a whore in church. Reusing bits of animation from "The Jungle Book," "Cinderella," and "The Aristocats," "Hood" doesn't exactly have the sparkling hand-drawn detail of earlier Disney masterpieces, or the glitzy sheen of the latter ones. It's certainly one of the more crudely-drawn productions of the company; a colorful and jubilant film, but as low-tech as the Mouse House has dared to go with a feature.
Even when you stack up the complaints lobbed at "Hood," they are merely grains of sand in a desert of richly entertaining, swashbuckling good times. Overcoming the lack of polish, "Hood" is a tremendously ingratiating and snappy animated film, dispensing big, lovable characters and winning vocal performances.
Brian Bedford lends his titular fox a mischievous spirit with a gracious air of pub nobility; Monica Evans makes for a tender and winningly love-struck Maid Marian; Peter Ustinov imagines the wicked lion Prince John as a thumb-sucking momma's boy, smashing his snake lackey Hiss (Terry-Thomas) around in comic frustration; ex-cowpoke Pat Buttram slides awkwardly but effectively into the role of The Sheriff of Nottingham; and singer Roger Miller sets the folky mood with his opening song ("Oo-de-lally") and countrified narration as rooster Alan-a-Dale.
Of course, I can't forget about Phil Harris as Little John, Robin's best bear friend and refrigerator-sized conscience. Sure, there's a case to be made that John is just Baloo with a fresh coat of paint and a fondness for women's clothing, but I'm telling you, I could listen to Harris's daddy-o baritone all day.
"Robin Hood" is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Since this is a Disney Animation scrap from the 1970s, the sound is predictably thin for moments of dialogue, but grows to more lush realms when the songs kick in or the action heats up. It's not "The Lion King," that's for sure, but it's a nice presentation of a film Disney doesn't seem too proud of.
"Hood" has been given a bit of a visual upgrade since we last saw him in the 2000 Disney DVD release. Now presented in a 1.75:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, the image feels more cropped and claustrophobic than expanded. Still, colors pop right off the screen in splendid detail, with print damage at a bare minimum. The image looks much sharper than the previous release.
The most important addendum to this "Most Wanted Edition" is the inclusion of an alternate ending. Now, before "Hood" fanatics get all excited, it should be noted that the finale presented here is just a series of storyboards with newly recorded vocal performances to help give them new life.
The alternate ending takes "Hood" down a slightly darker route, with our hero wounded in the final battle, nursed to recovery by Marian while King Richard returns to discover his kingdom in ruins. It's a terrific ending in that it bridges the final moments of the story more concretely than the theatrical version does, while still retaining the festive air of matrimony between Robin and Marian for the final scene. It was wonderful to see a glimpse of this potential conclusion, but I'll state the obvious here: I wish this ending was offered in animated form.
"Disney Song Selection" offers the viewer three of the film's tunes to sing along with. "Oo-de-lally," the Oscar-nominated "Love," and "The Phony King of England" are offered with or without lyrics onscreen.
"Robin Hood's Merry Games" are two short trivia and memory games for the younger viewers.
"Backstage Disney: Robin Hood Art Gallery" gives the viewer a look at conceptual artwork, character designs, behind-the-scene photos, and one-sheet art. You can choose to step through the gallery on your own, or have a very young voice artist act as your docent through this small nibble of Disney history.
"Ye Olden Days" is a Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1933 included here as a bonus short to get the viewer into the "Robin Hood" mood.
Finally, "Sneek Peeks" are provided for "Cinderella III," Enchanted Tales: A Kingdom of Kindness," "Disney's My Friends: Tigger and Pooh," "Little Einsteins: The Legend of the Golden Pyramid," "Peter Pan: Special Edition," "The Fox and the Hound 2," "Meet the Robinsons," and "Air Buddies."
The enchantment of "Hood" is portioned out in small doses, and I can imagine it might resemble an 80-minute still frame to those younger viewers weaned on the bombastic highs and lows of current Disney animation. "Robin Hood" might be something of a mess around the fringes, but there's a kindness, joviality, and lovely sense of community ingrained in the picture that makes it irresistible. It truly is one of the forgotten gems of the Disney Empire.
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