First Theatrical Release: November 8, 1973
First Home Viewing Release: December 4, 1984
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Where I Found It: I borrowed the DVD (the “Most Wanted” edition) from my friend Christina, a fellow Disney/fairy tale nerd.
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Maid Marian, Madam Cluck, Mama Rabbit, Sister Mouse, and an assortment of wives and daughters. Everyone mostly talks about Robin Hood, so it ALMOST didn’t satisfy the third prong — but it squeaked by with a passing score for a scene where Maid Marian and Madam Cluck play and discuss badminton.
As one of the few Disney feature-length movies that was occasionally played on network TV, I watched this movie fairly often as a child, and never really took to it. I watched it again during my teenage Disney-crazed years and also found it lacking. When I watched it as an adult on Sunday, I wondered, What’s not to love? Maid Marian is as beautiful as any Disney princess, and every character in this film has more personality in their little fingers (claws?) than Sleeping Beauty does. In addition, it’s got a strong social justice message, multilayered villains, and folk music! Although produced on a limited budget — dance sequences from The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and Snow White were actually retraced and reused here, which is startlingly obvious when one is watching the movies in closer succession than intended — what the movie lacks in budget it makes up for in heart.
Are We the Good Guys or the Bad Guys?
Shortly after the opening credits, in the first scene in which we see Robin Hood and Little John, Little John scratches his back with an arrow and says, “You know somethin’, Robin. I was just wonderin’, are we good guys or bad guys?”
This brought me right back to the early days of dating my husband, when he said people’s opinions about whether increased taxation to fund social programs basically boiled down to “whether you believe Robin Hood was a good guy or not.”
His argument was that, since taxation is not voluntary, the government essentially plays the role of Robin Hood, “stealing” this money from those who can afford it and redistributing it in social programs for the disadvantaged.
The analogy only works if our government used taxes primarily to fund programs for the disadvantaged, which it does not. Far less of our tax money goes to “the poor” than goes to the military industrial complex. And whether you believe Robin Hood is a “good guy” or a “bad guy” essentially boils down to which version of Robin Hood you’re consuming.
As Disney’s version unfurls, it becomes abundantly clear that Robin Hood and his Merry Men are, in fact, the good guys. For one thing, because the story takes place beneath a corrupt monarch, who, unlike our governmental leaders, was NOT placed in his position of power by the people, “stealing from the rich” essentially boils down to taking back what was yours to begin with. We never see Robin Hood and his comrades steal from ANYONE except for those who have not only money, but power. He steals from the sheriff and Prince John, exclusively. This is not only because they are “rich,” but because they are DIRECTLY responsible for the widespread poverty and despair in Nottingham. So Robin Hood’s actions become more akin to vigilante justice than simply stealing from those who can afford it.
In addition to Prince John’s greed, the sheriff seems to have a sadistic streak. We see him steal a farthing from a little boy on his birthday. We see him steal the coins right out of a “beggar’s” cup. And we see him empty the “poor box” in the church of its single coin. I found my anger and repulsion at his character to be stronger and more visceral than to any Disney villain I’ve encountered thus far, probably because it’s so recognizable — because we all know our world is peopled with those who make their way to the top by trampling the souls of those on the bottom.
Needless to say, I was chomping at the bit to see him punished, and all ambivalence about whether Robin Hood was a “moral” character or not flew out the window. It doesn’t hurt that, opposite the sheriff’s sadism, Robin Hood is kind, generous, and compassionate. He gives a child his bow and cap for his birthday. He runs back into battle to save a baby rabbit. He promptly distributes the coins he has taken back from the Crown in even amounts to the peasants.
While I very much appreciate Disney’s introductory question, which encourages kids to examine moral ambiguity even if the movie makes the answer to that question abundantly clear, Robin Hood is a movie that shows whether we are “good guys” or not is not so much about what we have or what we do, but who we are.
Love Does Not Happen in Isolation
Although Robin Hood has the obligatory romance, what I love about Robin and Marian’s romance is that it is woven into the larger tapestry of the story — the world does not stop for it, nor does it revolve around it. Aside from one exquisitely boring scene wherein Robin and Marian stroll through the woods hand-in-hand, their love story plays out as part of a community. After the romantic [boring] stroll and gazing into one another’s eyes, the forest comes alive with friends and neighbors, Robin Hood’s Merry Men and the villagers he has helped, including their children. (This is also the scene, incidentally, that saw Disney lifting footage from the movies listed above, but it’s a beautiful scene and I’m glad it was included, even if the studio had to cut corners to get there.)
Even Robin Hood’s proposal to Maid Marian happens in the midst of community and action, at the archery tournament shortly after his cover has been blown. As he fights off bad guys, he discusses their future together — he declares that they will have six kids, and she says, “Oh, a dozen at least!” (This is a little less alarming when you consider that foxes have 4-6 kits in a litter.) In an earlier conversation, Robin worries that he doesn’t have anything to “offer” Marian. Both these discussions make it clear that there are consequences to love and marriage beyond the initial bliss of infatuation. Not only that, but there is also backstory to their romance, as both of them make brief reference to “being kids together.”
It’s fitting that their romance doesn’t derail the larger plot, because more than anything else, Robin Hood is a movie about community. We see the diversity of the “human” experience played out in the many animal families featured — there is a rabbit with a dozen children who seems to be a single, older mother. There is an elderly owl couple that cares for one another tenderly in prison. There is a single dog with a broken leg. This sense of diversity in community is strongest in the prison scene, where, despite everyone being at their lowest point, they all turn toward compassion and sharing rather than despair and selfishness. Although discussions about scarcity v. abundance mindsets were probably not part of the cultural discussion in the seventies, the “good guys” in Robin Hood undoubtedly operate from an abundance mindset despite having very little for most of the movie.
Also, I couldn’t help wondering if all this communal living was influenced by the cultural upheaval the U.S. was going through at the time — the folksy music style certainly helps place this timeless movie in a particular cultural era. Also, in this movie we see men cross-dressing, doing their own laundry and cooking their own meals. Sure, Robin Hood burns the soup, but so what? I love him even more for not expecting the poor women he helps to feed him in return.
In answer to his question about what he can offer Maid Marian: A whole lot. She will not be sorry to have married a man who has the capability of taking care of himself, and the generosity to take care of others.