Throughout the year, THN will look at 53 Walt Disney Animated Classics, from SNOW WHITE to WRECK-IT RALPH, through the obscurity of FUN AND FANCY FREE to the second Golden Age of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. These are the films the Walt Disney company are most proud of, the ones that hold a special place in our hearts, the ones that still cost a fortune to buy on DVD.
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
1963/ 79 minutes
Budget: $12 million
Based on the novel by T.H. White, itself based loosely upon Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, THE SWORD IN THE STONE is not a strictly faithful adaptation of either version of Arthurian legend. However, it keeps to the basic outline of King Arthur’s formative years, and White’s conviction that people are for the most part basically good, but many do not have the means to direct their power toward positive ends.
Disney was enamoured with the story when the book was brought to his attention by veteran storyman Bill Peet. The film’s philosophies, mixed with the animation potential of sorcery and an appealing boy hero made the book a tantalising basis for an animated feature. The Broadway musical Camelot also had Walt’s attention. It just so happens that the leading lady on Camelot was a young Julie Andrews, who would have some dealings with Disney of her own.
Using the same animation methods as 101 DALMATIANS, the film has very dark, visceral art – all jagged, knotted trees and dingy shadows, a world away from the “classic” Disney fantasy movie formula, but it suits the generally more serious and philosophical tone of the film rather more.
It’s not widely known whether Disney ever planned to adapt the rest, but I think it’s safe to say it may have been a bit heavy for the general Disney audience. In any case, the movie was a success, becoming the sixth highest grossing film of 1963 in North America.
It’s interesting to note that THE SWORD IN THE STONE was the first solo directorial project for Wolfgang Reitherman, one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, a team of core animators and, later, directors. His influence would be felt on several subsequent Disney films, most notably his tendency to recycle animation in his films.
THE SWORD IN THE STONE would be Walt Disney’s last animated feature, as he passed away from lung cancer before the release of THE JUNGLE BOOK in 1967.
SYNOPSIS: The film opens with an overly cheery orchestral medlee and another storybook opening and a minstrel sings the opening narration; The King of England passes with no clear heir to succeed him. As rivals clash for the right to rule, a sword appears in London, embedded in a stone anvil, bearing the inscription, “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of England.” Many try to free the sword, and all fail, and it soon becomes forgotten, leaving England in the Dark Ages.
Time passes, and we’re soon introduced to a very well-informed Merlin, and his grouchy familiar, Archimedes the Owl. Merlin is fully aware that someone will be coming to their little cottage within the next half hour, and moreso, Merlin knows it will be a rather weedy 12-year old boy.
Cut to a 12-year-old boy, Wart, accompanying the headstrong blockhead, Kay. When Wart accidentally makes Kay miss the deer he’s hunting, he promises to retrieve the arrow, mainly to get away from Kay. As Wart wanders aimlessly through the forest looking for the arrow, he’s stalked by a rather pathetic wolf, and winds up dropping in – literally – on Merlin. Merlin wastes no time in telling Wart – whose real name is Arthur – how generally magnificent he is, and how he has seen and even visited the future; he shows off a model steam train and some enchanted crockery, whilst asking the lad about his education. Wart begins to tell him about how he’s training to be a squire, but Merlin cuts him off, asking if he’s had any real education; language, the sciences and whatnot. Merlin then resolves to be the boy’s tutor. When Wart insists he must return home to the castle, Merlin invites himself to join him, and sets about packing the contents of his little woodland hut into a gladstone bag, to the tune of the movie’s first song. Not exactly Macbeth, or even Bibbity Bobbity Boo, but it gets the job done, and the three of them head off, trailed by the wolf, who goes ignored by the travellers and effectively gets the Wile E Coyote treatment.
Exterior shot. A castle, falling into disrepair. A single light from the main hall. Inside, Wart’s foster father, Sir Ector, admonishes an apathetic Kay for letting the boy go into the forest alone. Just then, Wart returns, and is warmly greeted by a pair of hunting dogs, Tiger and Talbert. His attempts to introduce Merlin go unheeded and he’s ordered to the kitchen. Archimedes agrees that young boys should be treated firmly and with strict discipline, and Merlin introduces himself, proving himself to Ector that he is indeed a wizard by creating a localised snowstorm, a “Wizard Blizzard”. Merlin convinces Ector that’s he’s to stay and educate Wart, and Ector sets him up in the “guest room” in the Northwest Tower, which is about a sneeze away from collapsing and leaks like a sieve. Merlin, however, is determined to stick it out. From outside, Merlin hears a horn; it’s Pellinore, who has news from London. Merlin dispatches Archimedes (under threat of making him human) to investigate.
Pellinore’s news is indeed big; there’s to be a tournament on New Year’s Day, and to the winner goes the Crown of all England, which naturally gets Ector riled up, who plans to have Kay and Wart step up their training. Next morning, Kay’s training is not going well. As Merlin and Archimedes watch, they observe Wart’s inherent spirit. The boy throws his heart and soul into everything he does, which Merlin intends to capitalise on, even if he has to cheat.
As Merlin and Wart walk along the moatside, Wart confesses his wish to be a knight, but knows it can never be; he’s an orphan, after all, and Knights must be of proper birth. (Yeah, right) He only hopes he’s worthy to be Kay’s squire.
Merlin agrees it’s going to be difficult, but changes the subject, explaining that when he said he could “swim like a fish”, he meant AS a fish, and promptly turns Wart and himself into one. Merlin teaches Wart the basics, and soon they’re off into another little musical number, teaching the lad how to use his brain to overcome any obstacle, even if it’s trying to eat you, which it is in this instance, the obstacle being a pike. Learning his first lesson, Brain Over Brawn, he’s saved from the pike by Archimedes (who admits nothing) and summoned back to the castle.
Wart is banished to the kitchen again by a disbelieving Ector. Merlin shows up and asks Wart if he’s ever considered being a squirrel, a creature whose life is full of dangers and challenges. Wart declines; he has too much work to do. Merlin sets up an incantation to have the kitchen cleaning itself, and the two of them abscond for the boy’s next lesson. In the forest, Wart is diving right in, literally, while Merlin tries to teach him to Look Before he Leaps. While Merlin tries to explain to art about gravity, a concept about a millennium ahead of its time here, Wart wanders off and bumps into a cute little doe (lady squirrel), who immediately gets twitterpated by the lad. Wart tries to escape her, but Merlin informs her that squirrels mate for life (they actually don’t, because they’re promiscuous little buggers). As Merlin sings about how love is a “most befuddling thing”, Wart stumbles and falls from the treetops, just as the wolf walks by. Merlin gets some attention from a rather… large and, let’s say, not-as-attractive-as-the-other-doe doe while Wart tries to evade not only his own admirer, but a nesting bird he’s also managed to anger. Falling from the trees again, Wart is pinned down by the wolf, and his prospective mate wastes no time in scurrying to his rescue. Tired of all the hi-jinx, Merlin transforms them both back into humans, breaking the wee dear heart of the young she-squirrel in the process.
Meanwhile, back in the castle, the kitchen is still hard at work cleaning itself, which Ector is most unhappy about. Wart’s attempts to defend Merlin only land him in deeper trouble, and he’s fired from the post of Kay’s squire. As he sits amid the ruins of the kitchen, heartbroken, Merlin reappears. He tells the lad that while he’s at his deepest ebb, there’s nowhere to go but up, and Wart finally begins his tutelage under Merlin.
Merlin’s attempts to teach Wart about the world around him, and the discoveries that will be made in the centuries to come, confuse the boy and anger Archimedes, who actually comes to Wart’s defence, somewhat, saying that Merlin is jumping the gun and teaching Wart things too advanced for him, too soon. Incensed, Merlin goes off in a huff and leaves Archimedes in charge of Wart. Archimedes does actually have a point, when it’s revealed that Wart can’t even read or write. Merlin’s tinkering with a model aircraft gets Wart going about how he’s always dreamed of flying, and Merlin quietly provides the opportunity, turning him into a sparrow. Archimedes swiftly gets angry with Merlin for trying to teach Wart the mechanics of flight, and takes the boy off for his first flight.
All’s going well, until a hawk drives Wart into the forest, and into the fireplace of the Marvellous (Mad) Madam Mim, an old rival of Merlin’s. And here we have, unless I’m mistaken, the very first Disney movie villain to have her own song. Yes, Cruella had a song about her, but this is the first time the villain had a song all to themselves. It’s not very good, but it’s a start. Mim wastes no time in showing off her darker streak of magic, withering flowers and changing her size and her appearance. Wart is impressed, but counters that Merlin’s magic is always useful in a good sort of way. Mim agrees that there must be something really good in Wart, for which she cannot stand, so sets about destroying him. Transforming herself into a cat, she chases Wart around the house and makes one hell of a mess, until Merlin arrives. Mim challenges Merlin to a Wizards’ Duel, so they step outside. The rules, set by Mim, are simple: They can only take the form of animals, and only real ones, so no pink dragons; and no disappearing. Merlin adds “no cheating”, for all the good it does him, but in the end he wins out, defeating Mim’s purple dragon form by becoming a germ. Malagalee Teropterosis, in fact, which as far as google is concerned, doesn’t exist.
As they leave Mim to recover, Merlin asks what Wart has learned from the whole experience. He replies “Knowledge and wisdom is the real power”, and they head for home.
Christmas comes along, and Sirs Ector and Kay are busy celebrating, toasting to Sir Kay’s success in the tournament, when grave news arrives; Hobbs, Wart’s replacement as Kay’s squire, has come down with mumps. Ector sees no alternative but Wart. Wart rushes to Merlin’s tower to tell him the news, but the old wizard is disappointed to say the least. In his anger, he accidentally blasts himself to Bermuda, leaving Wart and Archimedes alone in the tower.
The day of the tournament arrives, but Wart suddenly realises he’s left Kay’s sword back at the inn. As he rushes to retrieve it, he finds the inn is locked; everyone’s gone to the tournament. Desperate, Wart finds an old sword, embedded in a stone anvil, in a neglected churchyard. As soon as his hands touch the hilt, an angelic choir and a shaft of white light beam down. Archimedes is wary, but Wart is adamant, easily pulling the sword from its stone and rushing it to Kay. As he hands it over, Ector notices the inscription on its blade… soon the entire tournament’s attention is on Wart. The assembled knights have a hard time believing the young pipsqueak, and Ector drags him back to the stone, followed by everyone else. Ector sets the sword back in the stone, and after Kay’s fruitless attempts, Wart amazes all by drawing it again, before promptly being hailed as King of England.
Alone in the throne room, the new King Arthur panics and tries to flee, only to have every doorway blocked by his new subjects. Out of his depth again, Arthur calls out for Merlin, who arrives, and sets about advising the new King for his long and glorious reign.
1. Brain Over Brawn; use your wits and knowledge against a stronger opponent.
2. Look Before You Leap: make sure you understand the situation, and your limits, before you charge in and put yourself and others at risk.
3. Knowledge and Wisdom are Real Power: You can be the strongest man in Christendom, but it won’t do you any good if you’re not smart enough to used your strength wisely.
Protagonist duties are split between young Arthur and old Merlin. Arthur, voiced by Rickie Sorenson and the directors own boys, Richard and Robert Reitherman (you can tell, as his voice goes all over the place, but he’s a teenager, so it kinda works) is a clumsy but well-meaning wisp of a boy. Hardworking and – for the most part – obedient, he does have a noble heart, standing up to his foster father in defence of Merlin.
Voiced by Karl Swenson, Merlin is a rather unique version of the classic character. Playing on the concept that Merlin lived in reverse – he began life in the future and is slowly making his way back through time – he’s full of wisecracks about the “modern” day and eager to tell Arthur about what’s to come in the passing centuries. Kindly and eccentric, and a bit childish when he doesn’t get his way, Merlin serves as a good – if not great – mentor to young Wart, even if he does get things muddled a little too often.
There are only three female characters. Four if you count Bambi’s mother, who cameos as Kay’s would-be prey. While Merlin’s admirer is mainly there for laughs, the doe that dotes on Arthur manages to become a rounded, sympathetic character with only her actions and a few vocalisations. She’s a real little masterpiece of animation and I defy anyone whose heart doesn’t break a little when hers does.
There are various animals that take a swipe at Arthur (literally), and Kay could be at best described as less than an ally, but Mad Madam Mim certainly qualifies. Scatty, psychopathic and hilarious, Mim is shown as a worthy and longtime rival to Merlin, with whom he shares the climactic Duel.
I don’t think she’s actually based on anyone in particular from the books; some say her hatred of sunlight is a sneaky way of getting back at Disney’s critics who disliked the light and wholesome tone of most Disney films, though she was probably written in so that they could go to town animating some more magic, and to give the film more of a climax.
HER FATE? Contracts a rather nasty illness off Merlin, who prescripes her with bedrest and a healthy dose of sunshine, which Mim has a severe aversion to.
Archimedes. Quite possibly the creative genesis for Iago, the grouchy owl gets all the best lines in his role as Merlin’s familiar and quite possibly conscience. As he mellows out and comes to accept Arthur, the audience find themselves coming to love the little featherbrain.
Aside from him, Arthur’s life is filled with characters, from the blustering Sir Ector and the thuggish Kay to the unnamed castle cook who does little but get all hot and flustered about Merlin’s magical attempts to make Arthur’s life a little better.
The plot is on the slight side, taking a back seat to the lessons being taught to Arthur and the moral core of the film. Most anyone can see where the film is going, and Disney makes no attempt to hide the fact. We’re just along for the ride.
Unlike many other animated Disney films, THE SWORD IN THE STONE was actually intended as a comedy from the outset and it goes some way to deliver. Most of the comedy is at the expense of background characters, like the poor wolf, whose every attempt to get a decent meal is thwarted, leaving him humiliated and starved. Kay and Ector also find themselves the brunt of much slapstick comedy, mostly involving a deadly object and someone’s head, but Archimedes gets another mention here for his wit and banter with Merlin. Archimedes often seems to be the most intelligent one in the room. The trouble is, he believes it half the time.
Aside from various thrills and suspenseful moments, scares are pretty… well… scarce. The opening sequence goes some way to establish a dark and dangerous world, but it’s swiftly undone by all the comedy.
MORAL/ EDUCATIONAL VALUE
The whole picture is intended as an educational morality piece on philosophy and the nature of the world. It doesn’t go as deeply as some other adaptations may delve, but it certainly works in the context of an animated Disney movie. Arthur provides a strong moral core to the film, but then again he is King Arthur, England’s greatest champion – depending on who you read – and the template for countless other kings and heroes throughout the ages.
Almost all the songs are lessons sung by Merlin, who makes for an entertaining listen. He may not win any awards but he gets the job done, which for me works a lot better than having an established singer taking on a role just so they’re alright with the singing sections. The score itself is suitably heroic in a faux-medieval kind of way, and is very much the kind you get in all those medieval epics that clog up the daytime schedule on Film4.
Surprisingly, the one to get the most out of this is Madam Mim, who was adopted into the Duck universe and made various appearances in Ducktales, and even the Mickey Mouse universe, teaming up with Pete. She’s also been romantically tied to Captain Hook of all people, though she seemed to mellow out and lose her mean streak in the European comics.
FINAL SCORE: 27/53
Sources: Wikipedia, Disney Wiki, IMDb