Brooks doesn’t ever quite pinpoint why it is that Robin Hood himself – both as a cinematic legend as a mythic one – is a character worthy of spoofing.
At first glance, the most clever asset of Mel Brooks’ 1993 comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights is that it is more of a takedown of previous cinematic adaptations of the Robin Hood story rather than a direct approach to the myth itself. Brooks’ primary target is 1991’s Kevin Costner vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, though it also takes on 1938’s Errol Flynn-starring The Adventures of Robin Hood and the 1973 animated Disney version the tale. While the original Robin Hood tale explores focuses on correcting inequality, the film variations have, as Brooks notes in the title, been about men in tights (or, in the Disney iteration, foxes in tights). And while those men often looked great in those tights, their floppy-haired good looks and hose-clad legs weren’t really in line with the late ‘80s early ‘90s line of sweaty, muscular action hero.
However, while his dissection of a spandex-wearing hero might have been appropriate for the audiences of the early ‘90s, society has since moved on. We’ve since had the flamboyant Austin Powers, the feminine, bow-wielding Katniss Everdeen and many incarnations of Nintendo’s tights-wearing Link, among others. It’s no longer that funny to poke fun at a feminized hero (not that it ever really was), leaving Robin Hood: Men in Tights as something of a cultural relic. So while Brooks cleverly pointed out that the traditional cinematic embodiment of Robin Hood was discordant with Hollywood norms, it doesn’t create as strong of a foundation as the themes of his strongest films do.
Tellingly, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is Brooks’ second-to-last directorial effort and one in which he isn’t featured in a starring role. The film lacks the same energy of many of his previous efforts, and beyond that, it fails to differentiate itself from the work it is mocking, which makes for failure in the world of satire. Brooks not only takes on the aforementioned Robin Hood adaptations, he also punches at The Princess Bride, Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet, much of the charm here comes from mimicking those films rather than lampooning them.
Yet Robin Hood: Men in Tights is not without its merits. The film’s original songs, all written by Brooks himself, are charming and clever. And, as is the case with many of Brooks’ works, the performers are completely gung-ho. Standouts here include Cary Elwes as the earnest Robin Hood himself, a then-unknown, teenaged Dave Chappelle as the incredulous Ahchoo, Amy Yasbeck as the clueless Maid Marian and the great Tracey Ullman as the gross Latrine. And the plot, which adheres closely to the 1991 Costner version of the tale, maintains its momentum and contains a few nice surprises (including an appearance by Patrick Stewart as King Richard).
Though it certainly isn’t his best work, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is still distinctly a Brooks’ film. It’s well-made, musical, well-acted and pretty charming. He also has a particular skill for bringing together new and established talent. And though some of its attempts at humor are offensive by today’s standards, they were lazy rather than cruel at the time of production. Intent does not to appear to have been Brooks’ problem here, or even ambition. Rather, he fails to live up to the lofty standards set by much of his previous work because he can’t quite consistently distinguish why this story should be so funny. Though he correctly contrasts his and the preceding Robin Hoods from the Arnolds, Sylvesters and Sigourneys of the decade before, Brooks doesn’t ever quite pinpoint why it is that Robin Hood himself – both as a cinematic legend as a mythic one – is a character worthy of spoofing.