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The Sword in the Stone is the final Disney feature-length animated film to be released in Walt Disney’s lifetime. It is a major milestone in the canon as it is the first full-length animated film from Disney to credit only one director – Wolfgang Reitherman, and also the first to feature a screenplay written by one writer (usually the film is developed progressively on storyboards). Also it is the debut of the glorious Sherman Brothers (at least in animation, they had done the scores for a few live-action Disney features) and we have been very excited about their arrival. Let us get to the point – it is really unfair that The Sword in the Stone, unlike all of the Golden Age films, the Restoration (Romantic) Era films and all of the other 1960s films, does not have a special documentary – that truly says something with regard to the studio’s feelings about this film. Consequently it has been trickier to find information on the film’s production, therefore this is what we have discovered from various scraps of research:
The film is adapted by Bill Peet from the first novel in T.H. White’s tetralogy, The Once and Future King. Published in 1938, Walt bought the film rights in 1939, twenty-four years before the film’s release date (it makes one wonder how different the film may have been had it been created during the Golden Age!). The novel had ‘special attraction’ for Walt; allegedly he was enamoured by Arthurian legend. In fact, by the date in which The Sword in the Stone was released, Arthurian legend was IN. Camelot, the musical ran on Broadway from 1960 to 1963 (immediately followed by a two-year US tour), won four Tony awards, and the album was a top selling LP for 60 weeks.
(Special Note from Melissa: Even we were wrapped up in Arthurian legend while watching the film and writing the review; David was playing the lead role in a production of Gawain and the Green Knight)
Consequently The Sword in the Stone seemed like an ideal candidate for a Disney animated feature.
However there is a major conflict – Mary Poppins was in production at the same time as The Sword in the Stone. The former was a labour of love for Walt and for the Sherman Brothers, and it was a huge undertaking. According to Marc Elliot, Walt became ‘obsessed with Mary Poppins the way he hadn’t been with any film, animated or live-action, since The Three Caballeros’.
(Special Note from Melissa and David: The Three Caballeros … really Walt?)
Consequently The Sword in the Stone became somewhat of a B-project in comparison with the attention that Mary Poppins received. Walt approved the script, and let Reitherman and Peet essentially roll with it. Was this an error? Perhaps … let’s dive in to this review!
By the way, there is no original trailer … so no original trailer time.
We are miffed
Arthur / The Wart … He is a character to whom we should root. We love underdogs and Arthur has all of the potential for a character to embrace: a small scrawny child, an orphan, mistreated at home, but truly the son of a King (debatably illegitimate but of course the film will not address that subject matter) and destined for greatness to be the ‘once and future king’. However, unfortunately we believe that the characterisation of Arthur is one of the film’s main problems. There is nothing wrong with a character like Arthur being an ordinary child who does not necessarily seem special or destined to be king. But Arthur is disappointingly dull. The misbehaving sugar bowl has more gumption and spirit than he does:
The film takes great delight in Arthur being clumsy to the degree of repetition. How many times did we hear ‘Woah wit WOAH!’ and proceed to fall down some stairs or off a tree or down a chimney, etc …
He is quite one-note, and rather than learning from Merlin’s lessons and using his wits, he continues to be a bit of a ninny (isn’t Kay supposed to be the stupid one?). He has to be rescued in every transformation episode, by Archimedes in the fish episode, by the young female squirrel in the squirrel episode and by Merlin in the bird episode.
He does not use his wits to escape from the hawk, he just flees and falls down the chimney, accompanied marvellously by ‘Woah wit WOAH!’. Bravo future king of England.
No wonder Kay did not want the Wart for his squire. He forgets Kay’s sword … it is a tournament and he forgets Kay’s sword.
The fact that Arthur was voiced by three different actors is a huge detriment to the film. None of the three voice actors sound remotely alike and one of them in particular (the one with the deepest voice), is simply not a good actor. Just listen to him in the final scene:
Plus who can forget that clear difference between two voices in the space of a few seconds!
The first voice actor, Rickie Sorenson’s voice broke during the recording process, so two of Reitherman’s sons filled in for the rest of the film. Perhaps it would have been a better idea to have simply recast the role completely and re-record all of the dialogue (this was not at all impossible – a similar situation happened while recording The Jungle Book and they simply re-recorded all of Mowgli’s lines with a new actor). It just feels inexcusable – Disney have had many child actors feature in the canon and never has there been such blatancy. Did they honestly believe that no one would notice?
Arthur seems like a different character when he is in his animal personas; we have a strong suspicion that each transformation episode has a different voice actor, and consequently you feel as if you are losing track of who your character really is. His voice in Merlin’s cottage is probably the closest to what would have been ideal throughout the entire film – his voice has not broken yet, but it has a humble quality.
Also here is a similar issue that came up in the previous review: One Hundred and One Dalmatians is set in contemporary London and everyone speaks with British accents, except for the puppies, which we found particularly jarring. Now technically because The Sword in the Stone is set in the Middle Ages in Britain, the accents would not sound like anything we would hear today, but the film has set up a world in which everyone speaks with English accents, except for Arthur, who speaks with an American accent. This time it is more jarring because he is the protagonist. They have cast English actors to play children before, what on earth has happened? When it is only one character that speaks with a very different accent from everyone else in the film, it makes such little sense to us. Plus for us it is hard to ignore the fact that King Arthur is a British legend. Imagine if The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was made and everyone spoke with an American accent except for Tom Sawyer.
However, we feel like what they were trying to with Arthur is great. Again it is all there on the surface, the small underdog who comes out victorious – that is terrific. But they made a bit of mess by thinking that the viewer would not notice major editing blunders and of course by not showing Arthur using his wits more.
Arthur has better moments of acting when he is silent:
‘Would you stop repeatedly hitting me with your wand???!’
This is excellent animation character acting. This is the boy with gumption and spirit that we would have liked to have seen more of in the film! WE WANT YOU TO PULL OUT THAT SWORD HOORAY! And then …
‘I CAN’T BE A KING ARCHIMEDES. I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT RULING A COUNTRY’ (from a voice that sounds like he’s 25 rather than 12)
… Nice job idiot!
It just goes to show how incredibly important it is to get the right voice for a character, as it inevitably has an impact.
(Special Note from Melissa: I checked foreign language versions on YouTube to see if Arthur’s voices were any better, and was pleasantly surprised. He sounds particularly good in French: youthful and feisty!)
After a single stand-out moment that defines the character Arthur is destined to become the film then manages to undo all that good work by proving that he has not really learned anything. He tries to give up the crown, and to run away from his newfound responsibility and then calls for Merlin to help. The fact that he needs to ask for help is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does further solidify the ineffectiveness of Merlin’s lessons. Worse still, the film then ends on something of a whimper and Arthur never really proves his worthiness. Merlin tells him that he will do so one day … we just did not get to see it. Or even a snuffle of it.
But as a final note, check out the many amazing faces of Arthur:
Did Arthur just watch The Three Caballeros?
There are no major through-line antagonist figures in The Sword in the Stone, but rather characters that antagonise the protagonist, akin to Lady and the Tramp.
Sir Ector could be considered an antagonist within this film, as he is an oppressive parental figure who has the authoritative power to deny privileges to the protagonist. This does not make him a villain by any means (Madam Mim is more clearly a villain, but she is only involved in two sequences). Quite often Ector is portrayed as a blustery old traditionalist, who is frequently made a fool of by Merlin’s trickery. This does undermine his status somewhat, and yet he still possesses a clear authority over Arthur. Although he is most frequently depicted as a fool, he does have occasional moments that show a bit more depth to his character: he clearly has affection for Arthur, and does not always want to treat him poorly, but rather feels responsible for his welfare. During the film’s climactic moment, just after Arthur has pulled the sword from the stone, Ector states ‘forgive me, son’ which is a very poignant moment – one of the film’s strongest points. Sebastian Cabot’s voice is excellent (including his narration) – such a rich voice!
Kay is the brawny lunkheaded, older-brother-figure, who is treated as Arthur’s superior by Sir Ector, despite his obvious shortcomings. He is an entertaining presence within the film, largely due to his general lack of interest in most things (‘Hey Kay, would you look at this? An indoor blizzard! And in the month of July!’ / ‘So what!’) and his blunt stupidity. He has MANY amazing faces:
Kay is shown getting knocked off his horse whilst, training for the major tournament, and yet Arthur still desperately wants to be his squire. Poor sod.
(Special Note from David: I think it’s pretty clear that if the tournament had played out, Kay wouldn’t have won – come on Arthur, raise your ambitions a little bit)
There are also countless beasts that wish to nibble the future king of England, in the form of a starving wolf, an evil pike and a shrieking hawk:
They serve their purpose as threats in the moment. The pike is particularly threatening – however this is what Merlin should have been teaching Arthur:
The closest that the film has to a villain is Madam Mim.
She is a comical villain, as opposed to a sinister one – and although she threatens to eat Arthur whilst he is in bird-form, this is no worse than the threat posed by the pike and the hawk that we have already encountered at this point.
She makes no pretence about her villainous agenda, and indulges in a song that emphasises how much she loves being bad – it is basically a ‘Look how marvellous I am’ song as she shows all of the different forms she can take:
Arthur suddenly discovers that allure of ladies that Merlin was trying to teach him in the previous episode …
She engages with Merlin in a Wizard’s Duel, during which she immediately breaks all of the rules that she laid out, and tends to favour assuming the form of large or predatory animals. She seems to get the better of Merlin for the majority of this sequence, and it’s only when Merlin cheats by turning into a germ, that she is declared the loser. It’s hard to really rate her alongside the majority of Disney’s villains, because of her limited involvement in the film – but she makes for an enjoyable diversion in the film’s meandering narrative and is truly a memorable character, primarily due to her gleefulness and zest for everything she does:
And of course her excellent self-esteem
Lastly her relationship with Merlin is very entertaining:
Would love to know their history! They could have had their own sitcom …
Merlin is a rather contradictory character within the film, an amusingly eccentric yet crotchety old tutor. Allegedly, storyman Bill Peet modelled him loosely on Walt in early character sketches, giving him Walt’s nose, and clearly Walt’s cantankerous nature. Merlin is a very rich character is many respects; his expressions are excellent and his outbursts are some of the most hilarious moments in the film, courtesy the animation and Merlin’s voice actor, Karl Swenson, who does a wonderful job. Check out this video as it truly displays all the moments in which Merlin is particularly eccentric or goes completely ballistic; it is terrific for a giggle!
To quote Archimedes, he can be a bit of a ‘bumbling blockhead’ as he simply bulldozes his way through and does what he wants, often completely unaware of the welfare of others (not unlike Walt) but he can also be caring and compassionate, very persuasive, and with a twinkle in his eye (not unlike Walt).
A significant issue with Merlin’s character within this story is that he can travel through time, and consequently knows all about the future. This is a highly problematic element within this film (particularly in relation to Merlin’s character) because it doesn’t seem to have been used very effectively. The fact that Merlin has been to the future allows for the inclusion of modern-day references within a Dark Age setting, and leads to a couple of clumsy segues (this will fly one day/man won’t fly/do you want to fly?) This is a big factor within the film’s plot; if Merlin has seen the future, how does he not know that Wart would become King Arthur? And if he did know that, why weren’t his lessons a bit more tuned towards preparing him for Kingship? The time-travel element feels frivolous here, and we are not saying that it should not have been used, we just think that it could have been used more effectively.
To a certain extent, he is the most entertaining character in the film, primarily due to his enthusiastic nature in juxtaposition with his cantankerous outbursts. In a way, he is rather like Mim … and yet Arthur claims that unlike Mim, Merlin’s magic is ‘useful’ and ‘for something good’ … yes causing snowstorms in the month of July is incredibly useful … alongside nearly getting Arthur killed on numerous occasions … and threatening to turn his owl, Archimedes into a human if he didn’t go and spy on Ector and Pelinore for him, which being magical, he could have done himself. And yet he chooses not to use magic to repair the tower that is flooding … WHY? Merlin the Martyr we believe!
Archimedes shares an enjoyable dynamic with Merlin, as the two of them frequently bicker and squabble like an old married couple. At first he is very dismissive of Arthur, and denies the fact that he saved Arthur from the pike, by claiming that he was trying to eat him. His low opinion of him continues for a while, and then he suddenly does a complete switch-around and takes responsibility for the boy. After Merlin throws a massive tantrum, Archimedes teaches Arthur the beginning of the alphabet (although the literacy skills lessons end there – at least Arthur can write his first initial) and then he teaches him about flying. He plays a part in rescuing Arthur from Mim, and then takes full responsibility for him after Merlin leaves in yet another outburst. His character-change is a bit clumsy, but for the second half of the film he is a reliable friend, and a stable guardian.
The scene in which Archimedes becomes hysterical with laughter is a golden moment!
Small characters like the female squirrels are very memorable. The young female squirrel who becomes besotted with Arthur is adorably animated, as she expresses her feelings with abandon:
Also she is one feisty lady, rescuing Arthur from the wolf using her wits.
(Special Note from Melissa: Ironically she learns Merlin’s lesson in brain over brawn more so than Arthur does!)
When she discovers Arthur’s identity, her heartbreak is painful and genuinely poignant, especially since we never see that character again, and we can only assume that she eventually dies of a broken heart.
The pudgy and lusty older female squirrel is hilarious! There is nothing else to say about her other than everything she does made us laugh. She may be a caricature, but it serves Merlin right for laughing at Arthur getting pursued:
She seems like Madam Mim in many respects. It turns out that she was voiced by the same actress, Martha Wentworth
Sir Pelinore has limited involvement in the film, and serves mostly as a device to remind us of the build up to the film’s conclusion – the tournament in London in which the winner will become the King of England. In spite of this he does have one or two standout moments, including this zinger made at Kay’s expense:
‘Kay the King? What a dreadful thought …’
(Special Note from David: He is also in possession of a rather humorously animated moustache – but then again, so is Merlin)
(Special Note from Melissa: Pelinore’s moustache is a character in itself!)
Pelinore and Ector marks a return to the skinny lanky man and short pudgy man dynamic that we have seen before … at least three times … we are sure we will see it more!
Lastly we love Pelinore for insisting that Arthur try pulling the sword from the stone, with the gentle ‘Go ahead son’. Alongside Black Bart who insists that it is not fair when all the men push Arthur out of the way to try and pull the sword out.
We wish Black Bart had been in this film more – Thurl Ravenscroft is the boss!
Artwork and Imagery
The financial strain that the studio’s animation department was under is shown even more strongly here than in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Recycled animation is used several times throughout the film, at one point animation is re-used three times in the same scene. This is a trend that will continue into the next decade, so certain shots in later films are going to look very familiar. It even becomes a trademark of Wolfgang Reitherman’s direction as he liked to show his knowledge of Disney classics by recycling animation from previous films.
Where the film excels in artwork and imagery is primarily through character animation and comic creative sequences. The pencil sketch lines really highlight the expressions of the characters and the work of the animators. Interestingly enough, there was no live action reference done for the human characters in The Sword in the Stone, and consequently the character designs are excellent, allowing the animators to be much more creative and thus creating vivid looking characters that leap off the page and screen.
The images of Merlin’s entire house being packed into a single suitcase – hovering and shrinking as they dance around in circles – as well as the self-cleaning kitchen, are the film’s most fun visual set-pieces, and the Wizard’s Duel is a moment for the animators to show exceptional creativity and quick pace, particularly as the various different animal personas retain clear visual indications of their human counterparts.
The image of Madam Mim as a purple dragon almost seems like a deliberate parody of Maleficent’s far more impressive dragon in Sleeping Beauty.
Animators frequently refer to the Wizard’s Duel as a milestone achievement in comical animation. It would even work well as a standalone short; it is that strong a sequence!
Then there is something of an elephant in the room, the moment when Kay slices a broom with his sword, which had previously been cleaning the floors. We know from films such as Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty that Walt had a real fondness for dancing brooms, so was this a deliberate act from the animators to voice their annoyance at Walt’s lack of involvement in The Sword in the Stone? Merlin’s character was partly inspired by Walt, and Merlin is the one who makes the brooms animated objects, akin to Walt’s many magical brooms, therefore the slicing of the broom by Kay feels very purposeful, like the magic has stopped. This may just be speculation, but because of how deliberate the moment is, and the fact that the scene then transitions into Arthur holding the broken broom whilst looking forlorn, we feel that the troubled behind-the-scenes relationships were making their way into the film (similar to the circus performers in Dumbo).
Although there has been a clear downgrade in Disney’s usual standard of gorgeous animation in terms of backgrounds, it does not mean that there are not any moments of beauty. Here are a few of our favourite shots:
The first song, ‘The Legend of the Sword’ was a surprise in many respects because we really enjoyed it and it is a song that is never really mentioned. It is a standalone number within the film as it is the only song that has a very traditional folksy sound that is in keeping with the film’s setting. It does trick you however, as it sets you up to believe that the film is going to be something that it is not – it offers the impression of something closer to the excitement and boldness of Arthurian legend. It reaches a terrific crescendo, building up the appearance of the titular sword in the stone.
The Sherman Brothers were inspired by English and Latin lexicon when writing ‘Higitus Figitus’ and is definitely an entertaining number. It is a little short, but it is an enjoyable, humorous, energetic and catchy ditty – likely one of the best from the score. It gets somewhat reprised when the dishes are washed, in a delightfully jazzy form.
‘Mad Madam Mim’ is really fun but we find it hard to consider it a song. It is more like a raving monologue of a mad woman who has a desire to show how brilliant she is with a little musical accompaniment – a funny character number. ‘That’s What Makes the World Go Round’ and ‘A Most Befuddling Thing’ are somewhat similar in the sense that they are less like songs and more like monologues set to music – less sung, more recited. Perhaps more like poetry accompanied by music, with repetitive melodies. Not the best of the Sherman Brothers’ we believe.
(Special Note from David: Although I really got a kick out of Arthur’s terrible singing during ‘That’s What Makes the World Go Round’)
(Special Note from Melissa: I don’t think it has been this bad since Pinocchio’s infamous ‘IIIIIIIIIIIIIII’VE GOT NO STRINGS!’)
The Sherman Brothers were somewhat miffed by the fact that the melodies of their songs were not integrated more thematically into George Bruns’s underscore. This seems to be down to the fact that they were new to this medium, and they wished retrospectively that they had given every character a musical theme and had the confidence to work more closely with the musical director. The Sherman Brothers in a tiny documentary on the DVD (8 minutes) seemed to have forgotten that ‘The Blue Oak Tree’, technically a deleted song, was sung in the film. It can be heard through the castle walls; it has a nice medieval folksy tune, but the lyrics do discredit the activities of knights somewhat. Plus we discovered a song that was deleted called ‘The Magic Key’ … such a pity that it was a deleted. It is not one of the best of the Sherman Brothers but it has excellent storyboarding, and the song has a definite point and purpose, like a montage highlighting the importance of education and learning to Arthur, thus packing a LOT in terms of narrative. Plus it ends with a marvellous shot of Merlin playing the saxophone:
(Special Note from Melissa: Why they cut that shot alone is beyond me!)
(Special Note from Melissa and David: We got a great kick out of how amusingly passive-aggressive the Sherman Brothers are in that documentary. It’s subtle but we can tell …)
There is plethora of storylines and characters within the legends of King Arthur, which makes this film’s almost total lack of story inexcusable. Even though this story takes place before the Knights of the Round Table, or Arthur’s ascension to the status of King, there is still a tonne of potential ideas that could have been used to create an engaging storyline. This film uses none of them, other than pulling the sword from the stone.
To its credit, the film starts with the classic Disney tropes of the storybook opening and some exposition – accompanied by some lovely artwork, music and the dignified narration of Sebastian Cabot – which explains the legend of the Sword in the Stone. This is then promptly forgotten about until the final five minutes of the film, and until that point, the narrative is hugely episodic, containing many filler scenes.
The closest that the film comes to a through-line plot is that Merlin has a mission – to lead Arthur to his destiny – which he discovers at the end of the film (this is where the ‘time travel’ theme is problematic – you would assume that Merlin should know having been to the future, recognising familiar names like Ector, Arthur and Kay …). The majority of the film focuses on the teacher/student relationship between Merlin and Arthur (fair enough) but Merlin’s lessons don’t really make a lot of sense, and their delivery is rather ham-fisted due to clumsy writing. It is not enough to tack on a moral at the end of the scene and expect us to just accept it, it needs to make sense. It also would be more effective if the ‘lessons’ that Arthur learns were to actually factor in to his later life, but since the film concludes with Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone and ascending to the rank of King uncontested, this never factors in either.
When Arthur is transformed into a fish he is forced to use his wits in order to escape death, during an encounter with a giant pike. This makes some sense, as Arthur is a rather scrawny boy who will not be able to rely on physical strength – but the meaning of the lesson is somewhat nullified when Arthur nearly gets killed anyway, despite his attempts to outwit the big fish. If it were not for Archimedes, he would likely have perished – no wits would have got him out of that! Is it an allegory that knights will help out Arthur when he is in a pickle? Perhaps this is giving them too much credit …
Arthur is then transformed into a squirrel – and the scene results in breaking the heart of a young female squirrel. What exactly was the lesson to be learned here? It’s alright to break someone’s heart, because you can just walk away like it does not matter? Squirrels are easy to torment? Love is a complex and powerful thing? Whatever the lesson was supposed to be, it never factors into the overall story. The message itself in the moment is valid and in fact moving, that love is the greatest force on earth, and of course Karl Swenson delivers the text beautifully, but … again it never factors in to the rest of the film. Arthur’s rant to Ector is less about love for Merlin than it is a ‘Just because you can’t understand something it doesn’t mean it’s wrong’ message. Interestingly enough, it did make us think about the notion that in the legend, it is Arthur’s love for Guinevere that will not only be the downfall of Camelot but also his relationship with Merlin. Plus there is a dubious moral that if someone is harassing you, you should just give in: ‘You’re wasting time resisting / you’ll find the more you do / the more she’ll keep insisting’.
Then Arthur is transformed into a bird, because … why not? What occurs is an almost identical situation as to when he was turned into a fish, as Arthur is stalked by a large predatory hawk. It is like a copy and paste format! Are you really so out of ideas that you have to reuse ideas from twenty minutes ago?!He does not even use his wits to escape the hawk. He flees, then stops for breath on a chimney, freaks out when the hawk approaches again and clumsily falls down the chimney. Fortunately this scene is interrupted by Madam Mim, and leads to the very entertaining Wizard’s Duel. From this Arthur learns a valuable lesson:
‘Knowledge and wisdom is the real power’
(Special Note from David and Melissa: But we know that the real message from that duel is: if you can’t win, cheat)
A good thing to learn, but would you mind offering a brief explanation as to exactly how this experience taught you that? No? Oh, never mind, looks like we’re moving on again!
There are only eight minutes left in the film to have Hobbs come down with the mumps, Arthur to be asked to be Kay’s squire, for Arthur to briefly fall out with Merlin, to travel to London, to forget Kay’s sword, to pull the sword out of the stone, show everyone the sword, be laughed at, pull it out again, be hailed as king, have doubts about being king and Merlin returning from Bermuda to reassure him … again … eight minutes. This portion of the film deserved more screen time, especially since there is such fine opportunity in terms of storytelling.
It could be argued that these lessons will factor into Arthur’s life later on, but since we don’t see any of that in this film it is a moot point; if anything it makes the inclusion of such scenes seem even more pointless. What did he truly learn by the film’s end? It reminds us of this:
How amazing would it have been to have seen his lessons being practised in the real world – even an epilogue could have sufficed, perhaps going back to the storybook format from the film’s beginning to show what a legendary king Arthur became. Or maybe have a line of dialogue revealing that Arthur was the son of the recently deceased king, Uther Pendragon, justifying why he of all people was destined to pull the sword from the stone. But no … let’s end with a rubbish joke about motion pictures being like television without commercials.
Though Arthur’s adventures would make an excellent talking point at court in years to come:
King Arthur: Did I ever tell you all about the time that I was transformed into a fish?
Although effort has been made in other areas of the film, the crew do not seem to have invested much effort in the story itself – it is full of half-baked ideas, there is very little genuine excitement or drama – from a story perspective it just falls flat. And when you consider the source material, and the potential that a film adaptation could have had, it is such a shame that this was Disney’s sole attempt at tackling Arthurian Legend.
Kay sums up the attitude best of all:
‘Do you fancy writing the script for The Sword in the Stone?’
‘Sure, why not! Why not’
It is strange considering that there was only one screenwriter and one director – you would assume that it would have more focus. Perhaps collaboration is the magic key at Disney …
I find this a very hard film to summarise my feelings towards; I find it frustrating, but I could never truly hate it. The fact that I’m a big fan of Arthurian legends makes me critical of the thin plot, but moreover it makes me annoyed that the film isn’t better. There is so much potential for a film that combines Disney animation with the legends of King Arthur, especially when one looks back at the labours of love the studio had previously produced.
Walt’s lack of involvement in this film is evident (something I wouldn’t have picked up on during previous viewings of the film). He was a perfectionist, and took real pride in works that boasted his name, so it’s very surprising to encounter such inconsistent voice-acting for the main character (THREE different voice actors). I can’t help but think about ‘what could have been’ with a film like The Sword in the Stone – with the right amount of care we could have had a subtle masterpiece, but what we get is a mediocrity.
Having said that I do still like this film, and I find it very easy to watch. There are plenty of enjoyable comic moments (usually from Merlin) and I do still enjoy the sequences of Merlin’s magic in action: packing everything into one suitcase during ‘Higitus Figitus’, the self-washing plates (along with the jazzy score) and the wizard’s duel are all a lot of fun to watch. I really liked this film as a child, and can still get plenty of enjoyment from it now – but I just can’t ignore the film’s problems.
I think one of my biggest issues with the film’s story is the lack of development for Arthur himself. I’ll try not to get too high and mighty about my opinions on the plot itself, but I find it very frustrating how Arthur comes to the end of his ‘training’ feeling unprepared, and having not truly learned all that much. The film also has a real ‘damp-squib’ ending, Arthur says that he doesn’t want to be king, Merlin then makes a half-hearted joke about motion pictures, and then the film just ends. As far as Disney’s endings go it is probably the most underwhelming in the canon up to this point.
My final point is that a great many of the film’s standout scenes could just as easily have occurred in any film, and the fact that this is an Arthurian legend isn’t really a factor. The Wizard’s Duel, for instance, is a very entertaining sequence, but it could just have easily have involved different characters (I am reminded of various shorts, such as Pixar’s One Man Band in which two characters attempt to outdo each other to increasing lengths). I’ll try not to keep going on about it, but I really do think this film squanders a great deal of its source material and as such fails to realise its potential.
The Sword in the Stone is a film that I grew up watching; I have an old video that was taped from Christmas 1992 (courtesy of my Dad!), when it was broadcast on ITV as a double feature with Robin Hood (complete with many entertaining adverts). Furthermore, it is a film that my siblings and I would frequently quote as kids. This is truly one of the toughest verdicts that I have had to write so far because I loved this film as a child. But now that I am older, it is so difficult to ignore the film’s problems. I will address the good first.
The supporting characters are the film’s saving grace without a doubt, primarily because they are rich characters that are humorous, entertaining and memorable. Merlin going ballistic always proves to be hilarious alongside Archimedes’s witty quips and cantankerous attitude, Madam Mim’s endless self-centred glee is terrific, Sir Ector, Kay and Pelinore are amusing figures and even small roles like the wolf, the female squirrels and the sassy sugar bowl are excellent in terms of humour. The young female squirrel is one feisty lady and many forget that she saved Arthur’s life using her wits, and risked her own life for him. Arthur never acknowledges this however. Her heartbreak is devastating and it makes me want to throw plates at the two males as they wander off.
Or a large vase perhaps
The film particularly succeeds with quotable quips and short comic sequences, such as the Wizard’s Duel, cleaning the dishes (and the inevitable backlash with Kay and Ector), the ‘Higitus Figitus’ sequence, Merlin and the lusty lady squirrel, Mim’s ‘Look how bloody fantastic I am’ scene, and the Wolf trying but failing to catch up with Merlin and Arthur. There are many moments that make me laugh out loud! However like David, I agree that issues with story and the character of Arthur certainly pull the film down. Arthur’s multiple voices are impossible to ignore, alongside not being what Merlin claims him to be – a spirited child with spark. No, we don’t particularly see that, he is bland and the inconsistency of the voices is dreadful. Put Arthur on mute and you begin the see the superior acting in the animation than in the voice. The story becomes confused and wanders around in circles, insisting to us that Arthur is learning the value of knowledge without actually showing the results. Then at the last minute it suddenly packs in too much important storytelling potential into a mere eight minutes at the end. It is such a pity because the moment in which Arthur pulls the sword from the stone is a glorious iconic image, but it becomes somewhat tainted by the strange, confused tone of the final scene resulting in one Disney’s least impactful endings in the canon so far. An epilogue could even have sufficed, or just ending on Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and being hailed as king, with Merlin appearing to witness the event with a twinkle in his eye as he discovers Arthur’s purpose. But alas no …
The film features some absolutely outstanding character animation, aided by the visibility of the pencil sketch lines and the flourishing creativity of the animators, who for a change were not tied down by live action reference but instead were freer to imagine and draw. However, in terms of overall design, primarily in backdrops, the film looks a little dull. Now when I say dull, I mean in relation to what we know Disney is capable of creating. Disney has blown me away while writing this blog on account of its glorious layouts and backdrops, but in this film, something clearly went awry. Disney is normally terrific at water shots, but the sight of that yellow mucky water gives the ‘chocolate’ river from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) a run for its money.
I will always have nostalgic fondness for The Sword in the Stone, and enjoy the supporting characters (and their quotable lines), the rough character animation and comic sequences, but its obvious flaws in terms of story, protagonist and art design are impossible to ignore. It is frustrating as you really want this film to be better than it is, much more than any other, primarily because you know that it had potential to be great, but it just missed the mark. It should not have been treated like a B project. The exciting legend of King Arthur deserves more than that.
The Sword in the Stone was released on Christmas Day in 1963. According to research, reviews overall were mixed for the film. Bosley Crowther has returned for reviews at The New York Times, and he offers a positive review. He describes the film as ‘warm, wise and amusing’, ‘an eye-filling package of rollicking fun and thoughtful common sense’, featuring humour that ‘sparkles’. He particularly praises the wizards duel, calling it ‘a screamingly funny bit of nonsense […] pure Disney gold. This sequence alone should be enough Christmas for anybody’. A writer at Variety describes the film as a ‘tasty confection’, ‘But one might wish for a script which stayed more with the basic story line rather than taking so many twists and turns which have little bearing on the tale about King Arthur as a lad’. In Britain, reviewers were more critical. In The Times, a writer claims ‘All the darker elements of the book are gone, all Mr White’s magical way with myth … and instead everything is pretty, cuddly and fanciful’, describing the film as ‘short on plot’ and a ‘slight disappointment, but offers many incidental pleasures’. ‘Children at least should love The Sword in the Stone while adults will consent to be dragged along’. In The Guardian, the reviewer argues that the film is ‘for uncritical children and not for the cartoon connoisseur’.
The film was the sixth highest grossing film of 1963 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment (George Bruns).
It is the final film in which Bill Peet features as a screenwriter on account of a major dispute with Walt Disney … but we will have to wait for The Jungle Book for that story. Walt himself allegedly criticised the film repeatedly until his death. The film was re-released at least twice in the USA in 1972 and 1983. However it was never re-released in the UK. For many years, there was a tradition of it being played at Christmas on television, even to this day. On animator, Andreas’s Deja’s wonderful blog, he writes that ‘”The Sword in the Stone” was one of Milt [Kahl’s] favourite projects he worked on. He admitted there were some story issues that didn’t get resolved, but he thought that the richness of the characters more than made up for that flaw’.
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