Personal Overview: I was well acquainted with the Robin Hood legend before I saw this version of it. I’d read a number of retellings and seen a couple of films, definitely the Errol Flynn one.
This was another one my parents took me to see at the drive in. It was a summer release that year and all of my friends at school were playing Robin Hood after the holidays and we played the Disney version, with Robin being a fox, King John a cowardly lion, the Sherriff of Nottingham a wolf, etc…
I’m not sure whose idea at Disney it was to reimagine Robin Hood as an animated adventure featuring anthropomorphic animals instead of people, but it was actually a good one. I still think this is the best filmed version ever made, Errol Flynn’s old movie runs it a close second.
It is possible that the mess that was The Sword in the Stone convinced Disney that they did better with cartoon animals than they did with drawn people and that’s why they took the tack they did.
It was a masterstroke really, though and they managed to touch on pretty much every area of the legend.
Hero/es: the wily fox Robin of course, although Friar Tuck (an American badger), Little John (a bear, once again voiced by Phil Harris), Maid Marian (a cute vixen, apparently even though she is technically a Princess she can’t become a member of Disney’s Parade of Princesses because she’s fox, how speciesist!) and her friend Lady Cluck (a feisty hen) all have their moments of heroism.
Villain/s: there are three genuine villains and this is the first time I can remember seeing three that deserve the title. One is of course the cowardly thumb sucking Mama’s boy Prince John (a rather scrawny looking maneless lion. I do wonder if there was any genuine historical research behind the comment about Richard being their mother’s favourite, because while Eleanor of Aquitaine is not acknowledged at all in this, Richard was most definitely her favourite). Then there’s his advisor, the snake Sir Hiss, who owes almost everything in his creation to Kaa two films earlier and the Sherriff of Nottingham, who was rather jarringly voiced with a broad American accent by Disney favourite Pat Buttram.
Cuteness Factor: this one is just dripping with it. The idea of doing a version of Robin Hood entirely featuring cartoon anthropomorphic animals is very cute and very Disney, but even over and above that were the impoverished rabbit family and their friend the bespectacled turtle. You can almost hear the audience sigh every time the young hero worshipping (Robin) rabbit appears on screen.
Animation: the backgrounds in this appeared more solid and there was one sequence where Robin escapes from a burning castle which is worthy of addition to any list of action movie sequences. Mostly the animators contented themselves with seeing how many various animal species they could draw and how apt they could make their roles.
Final Words: although this one really isn’t regarded as a high point for the franchise I loved it as a kid and I still love it now. It plays around a lot with the legend, but it’s huge fun and it doesn’t fall into the trap that more recent adaptations have, in that it never takes itself too seriously. It possibly more than anything cemented Disney’s reputation in this period as the company that did those funny animal cartoons. Oh special mention must go to Peter Ustinov for his turn as Prince John and King Richard, I hadn’t thought it was possible for a voice actor to chew scenery before that, but he did a great job and clearly enjoyed the hell out of himself.