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Robin Hood Week Day 2: Brian Bedford in Robin Hood (1973)

Robin Hood 1973Director: Wolfgang Reitherman

Writer: Larry Clemmons & Ken Anderson

Cast: Brian Bedford, Monica Evans, Phil Harris, Roger Miller, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Andy Devine, Carole Shelley, Pat Buttram, George Lindsey, Ken Curtis, Billy Whitaker

Plot: When good King Richard (a lion) left for the crusades, he left his brother Prince John as ruler of England, despite the fact that they were both voiced by Peter Ustinov. The rooster minstrel Alan-A-Dale (Roger Miller) tells us the story of the crusader who fought against John – a clever fox named Robin Hood (Brian Bedford), who defended Sherwood Forest with his friend, a bear named Little John (Phil Harris). The two outlaws disguise themselves and rob a coach carrying Prince John and his right-hand snake, Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas).

John’s flunky, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram) makes the rounds to collect the exorbitant taxes from the townsfolk, snatching up every cent Robin’s friend Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) has managed to smuggle to them, even snaring a rabbit child’s birthday present of a single coin. As he leaves, Robin arrives in disguise and gives the boy a bow and arrow, along with one of his hats. The boy, Skippy (Billy Whitaker) leads his friends to play, but loses the bow in a palace courtyard. When he goes to retrieve it, he encounters Maid Marian (Monica Evans) and her friend Lady Cluck (Carole Shelley). The kids question Marian about her past relationship with Robin, and Skippy winds up playacting a “rescue” of Marian, culminating with her giving the unsuspecting boy a kiss.

Back in the forest, Robin is busy mooning over Marian himself when Friar Tuck brings him the news of an archery tournament, with the prize to include a kiss from Marian. Robin cannot help himself from entering the tournament, albeit disguised as a stork. He wins easily, but his disguise slips and he’s captured. Before the Sheriff can execute him, Little John forces the Prince to release him, and taking Marian with him, Robin and the others flee into the forest.

When Prince John learns how the people of Sherwood have begun to mock him, he triples the taxes and arrests anyone who can’t pay. The Sheriff tries to empty the church’s poorbox to line John’s coffers, sending Friar Tuck into a rage. He’s arrested and John sentences him to death in order to lure Robin Hood out of hiding. Disguising himself as one of the Sheriff’s Vulture henchmen, Robin sneaks into the palace late that night. Little John frees the Friar and the rest of their friends who have been arrested, while Robin sneaks off to steal the sacks of money in Prince John’s private quarters right under the sleeping prince’s nose. As he makes off with the last of it, Sir Hiss wakes up and alerts John (in a cartoonishly violent way). After a daring escape, Robin dives into the moat, followed by a shower of arrows, and Prince John believes him dead… but he pops up and chimes out “A pox on the phony king of England!” sending Prince John crying for his mommy.

Eventually, King Richard returns to England and pardons Robin and his men, placing John, Sir Hiss, and the Sheriff in irons, just in time for Robin and Marian’s wedding.

Thoughts: As with many people my age, this was the first version of Robin Hood I remember seeing, and in fact was the only version I was aware of for many years. In fact, even though Roger Miller’s Alan-A-Dale starts the movie by pointing out there are many versions of the Robin Hood and that this is, in fact, the version told by the animals, I remember being distinctly surprised when I got a little older and realized that Robin Hood was not, in fact, an original Disney character, and that what’s more, most versions of him were human and did not start anthropomorphic animals. Then I had to stop and look up what “anthropomorphic” meant, because I was like eight years old.

What’s more, this is the first time I watched this movie in years, and I’m catching a number of things I never would have noticed before. For example, the first scene with Robin Hood and Little John, after some cartoon antics escaping Prince John’s men, sees them engaging in a moralistic debate over the ethics of the whole “robbing the rich to give to the poor” angle. It’s a bit more thoughtful than one would expect from an early-70’s Disney movie, but it’s highly appropriate. In fact, there’s a lot of ethical moralizing in this movie. Whereas Errol Flynn (despite his loyalty) blamed Richard for leaving England in the hands of his brother to engage in the Crusades, Disney lightens it up a bit by making Richard the victim of the hypnotic Sir Hiss, who sent him off on what John calls a “silly crusade.”

The 70s were sort of a nebulous time for Disney. Walt was gone and, although it was still many years before the company’s second renaissance would begin with The Little Mermaid, it was also long before they would really hit the skids in the 80s. There’s a roughness to the quality of the films of the period, and while it now marks them indelibly as products of their time, it’s also the time in which I was introduced to Disney animation. I’ve got a soft spot for it. Even this film has a lot going for it in terms of animation and performance – the way Sir Hiss slithers his body underneath himself to simulate the elbows of a petulant teenager is a great image that gives you the perfect amount of character development. Brian Bedford and Phil Harris as Robin Hood and Little John remain the voices I hear when I think of the characters, and folk singer Roger Miller made for a fantastic bard.

Despite the animal players, the movie has lots of tiny moments that humanize the characters, such as Robin’s gift to the rabbit boy. As the kids leave, he gives the mother a sweet speech about keeping faith that Nottingham will return to glory. While Errol Flynn was loud and bombastic with his approach to rousing the townspeople, Brian Bedford’s Robin Hood is a quieter hero, one who sneaks in and out, going unnoticed until he’s discovered. Of course, once a disguise fails and he’s made, he’s just as likely to bring forth a spectacle as any other incarnation of the character. (The disguises, it’s worth pointing out, are only slightly above Bugs Bunny quality in the concealment department, but they usually work exceedingly well.)

The movie also sidesteps the usual beginning of the Robin/Marian relationship. In the Flynn movie, and in most other versions, the two are initially at odds, as he’s an outlaw and she’s a ward of the King and (technically) under the protection of the Prince. In this version, Marian loved Robin as a young girl and still does, eliminating the need for him to win her over and cutting right to the chase. I would imagine this is in deference to the cartoon nature of the film – while the scenes of Robin winning Marian over can work really well from an emotional standpoint, I can imagine in 1973 the animators thought a young audience would lose patience with such a thing.

Compared to the Errol Flynn film, the villains are far less menacing. Prince John is a spoiled mama’s boy with no air of danger about him whatsoever. Sir Hiss – a stand-in for Sir Guy of Ginsbourne – is a pompous, browbeaten serpent. The only thing about him that’s even remotely dangerous is his ability to hypnotize people, which he never even really uses to any serious effect once the story begins. (Dispatching Richard on the Crusades, the most important plot point to his hypnotism, happens before the film opens.) Only the Sheriff is an improvement in the villain department from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and that says more about the latter’s buffoonery than anything in favor of the Disney version. He’s less oafish and more dangerous than the other two, but still not the sort of villain that would give any kid trouble sleeping.

The biggest complaint I’ve got about the film is the ending. The final rescue at Prince John’s palace is fine, but Richard’s return to the throne and the arrest of the villains happens entirely off-camera. It’s not all that satisfying to cut from Robin’s escape, even as the prince pouts, to seeing them in chains with nothing in-between. Sure, these cartoons films are often short (at a crisp 83 minutes there’s little filler in this movie), but it certainly feels as though they could have given us just a bit more closure.

This isn’t the grand adventure of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood nor the attempt at an epic that the character would take later. It is, however, a grand and entertaining family version of the film with some sweet music, excellent voice performances, and mid-era Disney charm. It’s hard to say anything bad about that.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

The Christmas Special Day 12: Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

nestor-the-long-eared-christmas-donkeyDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writer: Romeo Muller

Cast: Roger Miller, Brenda Vaccaro, Paul Frees, Don Messnick, Linda Gary, Iris Rainer, Shelly Hines, Eric Stern

Plot: As Santa and his reindeer fly out for their Christmas Eve rounds, Santa’s donkey Speiltoe (Roger Miller) prepares for his annual rest, after a long year of pulling work carts and plows. As he observes Santa’s nativity scene, he sadly tells us the donkey doesn’t at all resemble the original, his ancestor. Breaking into song, Speiltoe begins telling us the tale of Nestor, the long-eared Christmas donkey.

Many years ago, a young donkey named Nestor (Shelly Hines) is mocked and dismissed due to his enormously long ears. On the winter solstice, the animals in the barn celebrate with gifts and goodwill, even to Nestor, who is given a pair of stockings to cover his ears. The joyful evening is ruined when a Roman soldier comes into the barn to buy donkeys for the emperor. They snag all of the donkeys except Nestor’s mother (Linda Gary), but when Nestor’s ears are uncovered they throw him into the snow and make off with the donkeys without paying. His mother breaks free and rushes into the winter night, finding her son buried in a snowbank. She covers Nestor with her own body, and perishes in the storm.

Nestor survives the winter, and as spring comes he meets a cherub named Tilly (Brenda Vaccaro), who informs him that his ears will allow him to do wondrous things some day. He is skeptical, but agrees to join Tilly on her way to Bethlehem. Eventually, Tilly has to leave him and he’s taken in by a merchant. A couple named Joseph and Mary try to bargain for him, but when the merchant realizes Mary is great with child, he gives them the donkey for nothing. Nestor, who had been sad and bone-weary, suddenly finds the strength to carry the young woman. When a sandstorm strikes, Tilly’s words ring through Nestor’s memory, and he hears his mother’s voice telling him to follow the singing of angels in the sky. He wraps his ears around Mary and leads them through the sandstorm, coming finally to Bethlehem. He finds a manger for them, and Mary bears a child. Nestor leaves them in safety, finding his way back home, where his friends celebrate him and his magnificent ears.

Thoughts: It’s back to Rankin and Bass land again, friends, for another tale of Biblical times… kind of. It’s also a return to a Gene Autry song as the inspiration, he who gave us both Rudolph and Frosty, and Nestor is the sort of character that would fit in nicely with the other two and their jolly band of misfits… although his story goes to dark places the others didn’t dream of. The threats Rudolph and Frosty face are more of the comical sort – a giant, bumbling snowman, an inept magician. Nestor’s threats are the Roman legion and nature itself. It comes upon us quickly as well, taking a shift from joy to sorrow faster than a Joss Whedon movie. Even as I was typing this paragraph, while watching the special over again, I was halfway through a sentence when I remembered what was going to happen to Nestor’s mother, and it was only through sheer force of will I managed to avoid turning it into an incoherent rant against the legionnaires and the Roman emperor and Rankin and Bass and Godfather’s Pizza. Because I was upset.

The plot itself is an odd one, bringing together elements of the Nativity story and mingling it with a character who, in many ways, apes Rudolph’s story a little too closely. Once again, we see an outcast born with some sort of deformity, driven away from home, forced into a situation where the deformity becomes his greatest advantage, and finally celebrated as special rather than dismissed as a freak. It’s certainly a positive message, but it gets repetitive after a while. If not for the last bit, these two could be X-Men. The story plays fast and loose with the Bible, of course, but not in a way that seems wrong or exploitive. Pretty much every account depicts Mary being carried on a donkey, and expanding that donkey’s story is a perfectly acceptable storytelling avenue.

Of all the Rankin and Bass specials I’ve covered, this one is probably the weakest from a musical standpoint. Roger Miller makes for a fine narrator and his voice is perfectly suited for the songs that accompany the special. The problem is that none of the songs are particularly catchy or memorable. After Rudolph and Frosty’s respective specials, you’re left singing their anthems. Nestor, not so much. If anything, it makes me want to sift through my iPod to find “Dominic the Christmas Donkey,” which I’m realizing now I haven’t actually heard yet this Christmas season, and I’d better rectify that.

My favorite bit in the special, however, comes at the end, when Santa and his reindeer return to the North Pole and join Speiltoe in celebrating the legendary Nestor. Again, the song itself is no great shakes, but the Rankin and Bass guys fill the scene with their all-stars. In the Biblical flashback scene we see the Magi and several other characters from Little Drummer Boy. When we come back to the present we see Santa, Mrs. Claus, Jingle and Jangle from Year Without a Santa Claus, and even Rudolph himself (who makes a rare appearance outside of one of his own specials). Again, this is the nerd in me, but it reminds me of when every Marvel superhero turned up for Reed and Sue Richards’ wedding in Fantastic Four, when all of the Tenth Doctor’s companions showed up together in Doctor Who, when Urkel did that guest appearance on Full House. There are certain characters you know all belong in the same family, even though you don’t usually see them together, and there’s an inexplicable sort of satisfaction that comes when you finally get them all in the same place. This is by no means a bad special, but it probably tells you something that the most memorable part is when all of the characters whose names are not in the title get together at the end.