Robin Hood, who is about 700, is one of the most filmed characters of the human imagination. There are far more English language movies about Robin of Loxley than about Jesus of Nazareth, who is even older. I suppose they have a thing or two in common.
Douglas Fairbanks pulled on the green tights back in 1922 and his Tasmanian successor Errol Flynn followed suit in 1938. In the decades since some A-list names have gallivanted into Sherwood Forest, including Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe.
I don’t think any actor has been both Robin Hood and the son of God. Only Monty Python and Mel Brooks are up to that level of shapeshifting. The Pythons did it with Time Bandits (John Cleese as RH) and Life of Brian (Kenneth Colley as JC) and Brooks did it with Men in Tights (Carey Elwes as RH) and History of the World, Part I (John Hurt as JC).
This vast, innovative and sometimes erratic Robin Hood screen history came to mind as I prepared for the latest instalment, Robin Hood, directed by British filmmaker Otto Bathurst and starring Welsh actor Taron Egerton.
The sense of anticipation was heightened by Bathurst’s work in television. He won a BAFTA for kicking off Peaky Blinders. But it was his work on the opening episode of Black Mirror, the one where a terrorist forces the British prime minister to have televised sex with a pig, that made me think anything was possible in his big screen debut. Black Mirror is a mind-blowing show, but that first episode is unmatched.
“Forget what you think you know,’’ we are told at the opening of Robin Hood. “This is not a bedtime story.” That’s partly right. The story Robin Hood (MA15+) National release The Grinch (G) National release from Thursday that unfolds is similar to the one we know, about the folkloric hero who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but it branches off into strange and interesting directions. Here are some movies that came to mind as I watched: Oliver Stone’s Platoon, William Wyler’s BenHur and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
In the end, this is an overacted, over-styled comedy, and therefore quite enjoyable. The action scenes are spectacular, turning the bow and arrow into a modern weapon, and there is lots of violence but, like the Kingsman movies that made Egerton a star, it’s all done for laughs.
The story opens with Robin and Marian (Irish actress Eve Hewson, who is Bono’s daughter) meeting and falling in love. It all goes well until “the cold hand of fate reached out for them”. That hand belongs to Ben Mendelsohn, the Sheriff of Nottingham. In costume and demeanour, he looks as if he has walked straight off the set of the Star Wars movie Rogue One.
Robin’s toffy life is turned upside down. There’s a war in Arabia to be fought. The long sequence that follows is riveting. Jamie Foxx is the battle-scarred Moor who becomes Robin’s mentor (and takes on the name John).
Back home, Robin assumes a new life. His training regime with John, whose advice runs from archery to fashion, is laugh-out-loud funny. The hood, by the way, is attached to Robin’s black jacket. The commoners make copies and pin them to the walls. The hood becomes a symbol of resistance to wealth and power, echoing the Occupy movement.
Another modernisation is that Friar Tuck has an Aussie accent (he’s Tim Minchin, and when he talks to Mendelsohn about the seal of the confessional it is priceless). There is another scene where the sheriff recalls his abused childhood. In it, Mendelsohn shows us he is in a class of his own. And this is why the Robin Hood story continues to be told. It’s still relevant. Crusades against infidels, abusive priests, the rich getting richer … not much has changed. The Grinch is younger than Robin Hood and Jesus, having been brought into the world by Dr Seuss in 1957. There was an animated TV movie in 1966 with Boris Karloff voicing the lead role and a live-action feature in 2000 with Jim Carrey. A shorter backlist, but that doesn’t mean Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t have a bit to live up to in The Grinch, a 3-D animated movie directed by Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney.
Cumberbatch, who I think delivered the per- formance of his life in the recent TV series Patrick Melrose, does not let us down. It didn’t take long, watching this grumpy green Christmashater, for me to see Cumberbatch’s face merging with the character’s. The 3-D animation is excellent, down to the wind ruffling green whiskers, but it’s also in the voice. The scene where he wonders how much “emotional eating” he has done lately is hilarious.
We all know the story of the Grinch. He lives in a mountainous cave, only his loyal dog-servant Max for company. The moment where Max imagines what he’d like to do today is also very funny. The Grinch is 53 (as was Seuss when he published the book) and he loathes Christmas and despises all the cheerful, carol-singing souls in the town below his cave, Whoville. He decides to steal Christmas.
This movie succeeds on a couple of levels. First, it is not backward about showing how mean the Grinch can be. A sequence where he goes into a supermarket is wonderfully wicked. Second, it builds his backstory slowly and compassionately. He didn’t always have a heart “two sizes too small”. By the end, I wondered, albeit briefly, if I should become less grinchy. Finally, two new characters, a rotund reindeer and a garrulous goat, are scene-stealers.
I saw this with my 13-year-old son and his best mate. They deigned to see an animated movie because the main song is performed by someone called Tyler, The Creator. Well, it is a brilliant song that quirkily tells us what it’s like to be the Grinch. Which suit to wear today? Perhaps the Very Miserable one. But here’s the surprising bit: that song is done and dusted in the opening minutes and the two teens both loved the whole movie, from beginning to end.
Taron Egerton as Robin Hood; Benedict Cumberbatch voices Grinch, below The