The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
The king of England dies without an heir, and civil war grips the land. Magically, a sword appears in a churchyard in London, inscribed with a message that whoever is able to pull the sword will become the new king. Hundreds try, but no one is able to draw the sword, and it is eventually forgotten.
Years later, Arthur (or Wart, as he’s called), an orphan boy being raised by Sir Ector as a squire for his own son Kay, goes into the forest to retrieve a lost arrow. There he meets the time-traveling wizard Merlin, who takes it upon himself to educate the boy in modern concepts from the future. Merlin turns him into various forest animals to teach him life lessons, while seriously irritating Ector and Kay with his odd behavior and insistence on taking Arthur away from his duties as a squire. Eventually Arthur and Merlin have a falling out, and Merlin packs up and heads to Bermuda.
A tournament is called for New Year’s Day to finally decide the question of who will be king. Ector, Kay and Arthur head to London for the tournament, but when it’s Kay’s turn to fight Arthur realizes that he accidentally left Kay’s sword in their rooms at the inn. Finding the inn to be locked up tight, he spies the sword in the stone, and pulls it out to give to Kay. All of the knights recognize it, and bow to Arthur as their king. Later that day, decked out in robes and sitting on a throne, Arthur has no idea what to do, so he calls out for Merlin. Merlin reappears and agrees to become his advisor, telling him that they’ll make a movie based on him one day.
This is another in the long line of post-war Disney projects that had their roots early in the company’s history. In this case, Disney optioned T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone soon after it was published in 1938. It was nowhere near the production phase, however, when WWII broke out and everything got put on the back burner for a while. They finally dusted the property off in the late 40s and assigned writers to develop a film from the story.
Flash forward to 1960. One Hundred and One Dalmatians has proved that Disney could make animated films on a budget that audiences still wanted to see. Walt Disney wanted to continue making them, but he was also ramping up the planning and design work on what would become Walt Disney World in Florida, and didn’t really have the resources to put into making a new animated movie every other year like they’d done for most of the 50s. The company decided to scale back, and produce only one every 3-4 years.
They had two major candidates in the works for what would become their next film: Sword in the Stone (which was still in the script stage but only had a single person, story artist Bill Peel, working on it), and an adaptation of the farmyard-set play Chanticleer, about a rooster who believes that the sun won’t rise without his dawn crowing. Chanticleer had a full team working on it, with way more resources poured in to storyboarding and scripting. But Walt eventually rejected the project and went with Sword in the Stone instead, much to the consternation of most of the Chanticleer staff.
The movie was eventually released to mixed critical reception. They though that the animation was a step up from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but that the story was way too thin. Audiences disagreed, however, and made it the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year. It would prove to be the final Disney animated film released in Walt Disney’s lifetime, as he died of cancer while the next film, The Jungle Book, was still in production.
This was one of the Disney movies that I remember the most from growing up. We had it on a VHS tape that we probably taped off of the Disney Channel at some point in the late 80s/early 90s, and I watched it all the time when I was a kid. So I’m rather disheartened to say that it kinda sucks.
For starters, it’s a movie in dire need of an actual plot. The core of the film is a series of “lessons” that Merlin attempts to give the young Wart. He changes the boy into various animals, and then sees how he handles the situations he gets into while providing advice from the sidelines. These sequences are each self-contained little adventures, without much connecting them other than that they all involve the same people. There’s a bit of business in between each one involving Wart’s adoptive family and their mistrust of Merlin, but the vast majority of the runtime has no forward momentum. Wart isn’t really trying to achieve anything himself, other than survive the often dangerous circumstances that Merlin keeps getting him into. The ostensible main character is really just along for the ride in his own film.
It doesn’t help that one of these transformations, into a squirrel, REALLY hasn’t aged well. Wart soon attracts the interests of a female squirrel, who 1) doesn’t realize he’s actually a human, and 2) won’t take no for an answer. Merlin seems to find it incredibly funny, and tells the boy (who, we should be reminded, is only 12) that he’s on his own to deal with it. Merlin only decides to help when he has to deal with an amorous squirrel of his own. After Merlin turns Wart back into a human, the female squirrel is reduced to tears, and the sequence ends with her standing on a branch, looking forlorn as they walk away. So not only has the sequence made a joke out of unwanted sexual advances on a minor, it also leaves us with the image of a heartbroken girl. Way to go, movie!
The titular sword itself seems almost an afterthought in the script. It shows up in the opening narration, and then is promptly forgotten about until the final five minutes of the movie. Granted, that’s something that’s preserved from the original source material, as is Merlin’s anachronistic references to the future. In the book, Merlin was living backwards through time, so he’d already experienced the future. Here, it’s just implied that he can either see the future or time-travel there. He’s a bit like a dry-run for the Genie from Aladdin, although with only a fraction of the charm or energy.
Now, not everything about this movie is terrible. I do think that the actual animation is a step up from the previous film. The sketchiness is a little less apparent, and the backgrounds are more detailed. However, there’s definitely more recycled animation this time around. There’s one shot of Kay eating a turkey leg that’s repeated at least three times, and it was quite noticeable.
The best animation comes in what’s definitely the most entertaining sequence in the film: the wizard duel between Merlin and Madame Mim. Over the course of about three minutes, the two magic-users go through over a dozen transformations into different animals in an attempt to outthink and defeat each other. It’s a rather stupendous display of animation skill, and I really wish that the rest of the movie had been as amusing.
Madame Mim would have made a great villain for a movie that really lacks one – a lack made all the more apparent by comparison to the previous two films, which had two of the best villains in the Disney canon. I also appreciate it that Madame Mim could clearly appear as a conventionally beautiful woman (and in fact does briefly) if she wanted to, but rather pointedly chooses not to for her own reasons. She’s evil, and definitely enjoys being so, but she’s not outwardly vain and doesn’t use sexuality as a go-to weapon, something all too common when it comes to evil women in fiction.
I was looking forward to my rewatch of this movie, and was quite disappointed that it failed to live up to my childhood memories of it. There’s no plot, a lot of the characters are annoying, and the songs aren’t great. Let’s hope that the other movies I grew up with fair a bit better in that department. But first, we have a movie that I don’t actually remember all that well: The Jungle Book.
Animation: C+ (It might be a little more detailed than the last movie, but there’s also more obvious recycling of shots)
Main Characters: D+ (Wart is pretty much a spectator in the movie, has little to no personality, and doesn’t even get a song)
Supporting Characters: C (Merlin’s a thrift-store Genie, and none of the other characters leave much of an impression. Well, other than Archimedes the Owl. I liked him)
Villains: C+ (If Madame Mim had been in more of the movie, this score would be quite a bit higher. But unfortunately, she only gets about eight minutes or so at the end)
Music: D (The first feature-length Disney movie, barring the package films, to not have a single truly memorable song)