Disney Review: The Sword in the Stone (1963)

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Year of release: 1963
Running time: 79 minutes
Based on: “The Sword in the Stone” by T.H. White
Availability: last released on DVD in 2008
Sequels/spin-offs: None

Plot: When the king dies without an heir to the throne, it is feared that England will fall into civil war – that is, until the mystical “Sword in the Stone” appears in London, with the crown of England going to whoever can remove it from its pedestal. However, not even the strongest knights can lift the sword, and so England is still left without a king. Years later, a young squire-in-training named Arthur meets the time-travelling, all-knowing wizard Merlin who decides to become the boy’s mentor – much to the chagrin of his foster father and brother. Through a series of lessons involving transforming into a fish, a squirrel and a bird, Merlin teaches Arthur important qualities of character. Unfortunately, a disagreement between Arthur and Merlin leads to the latter transporting himself to Bermuda, leaving Arthur to return to his duties as squire at a jousting tournament in London. After misplacing his brother’s sword, Arthur finds the Sword in the Stone and pulls it from the pedestal. Upon realising what has happened, the crowds declare him king. Merlin returns to congratulate Arthur on his ascension and tells him how he will be remembered long into the future for all he will achieve.

The Heroes
Unsurprisingly for a film about the beginnings of King Arthur, Arthur is the main hero of this movie. As you would expect, Arthur is hard-working, enthusiastic and noble to the end, defending Merlin even at the cost of losing things he wanted. Given his young age (a mere twelve years old), he is a lot more naive and innocent than most versions of the character but proves that he is quick-thinking and resourceful when in a tight spot. His family background is bleak when studied closely – Arthur is an orphan and his foster family care little for him, calling him “Wart” with little affection – but the film never really explores his past, painting his carers in a more comical light: an inept, blundering father and a brutish, bullying older brother. Where the character of Arthur really falls down is the voice acting: Arthur has three different voice actors in this film, all of whom speak with a clear, American accent (the only character in the film to do so). The change in voice is quite noticeable and can become a major distraction.

While I said that Arthur is treated as the main hero of this film, it would be wrong to name him the lead character. The winner of this position is Merlin, whose boisterous, zany characterisation steals all of the spotlight from Arthur. It has become almost commonplace in recent animated films to have historical settings undercut by wacky characters referring to modern popular culture, and it could easily be argued that the trend started here, with the time-travelling Merlin, who is often referring to modern inventions, theories and figures who should not be known at the time the film is set. Disney never really use this aspect of Merlin’s character to set-up big jokes (unlike Aladdin’s Genie three decades later) but instead just let it add to the quirkiness of the wizard’s sayings.

Another reason that Merlin easily outshines Arthur is that Merlin is a much deeper character, with noticeable flaws and a less-than-patient manner when teaching Arthur about the wider world. Arthur, on the other hand, almost never makes a mistake and – even when he does – we are supposed to sympathise and agree with every action he takes. Merlin is almost portrayed as a bad guy towards the end of the film, flying into a wild temper when Arthur decides to return to his squire duties instead of furthering his studies and walking out on him entirely. Merlin is not corrected – or properly apologies – for his actions (which, almost accidentally, led to Arthur being crowned king anyway) which may leave a bad taste in some viewers’ mouths, though it is clear that there is no hard feelings between the two.

Finally, we have Archimedes, Merlin’s talking pet owl. Archimedes’ character is typical talking-animal-sidekick material, but still acts as a decent foil to Merlin, showing patience when Merlin is in a temper, loyalty when the wizard abandons Arthur and a cynical attitude whenever his owner is in a particularly over-enthusiastic mood. All-in-all, Archimedes is amusing but not anything extra special.

The Villains
And now we run into the first major problem with this film: it is almost entirely devoid of conflict or hardship. There is no overall enemy in this story, merely a few people who get in the way for a while. Arthur’s foster brother, Sir Kay, is a brute and quite mean to Arthur, but his characterisation never extends further than “he likes to bully Arthur” and this only really happens twice: at the start of the film, leading to Arthur running into the forest and meeting Merlin, and near the end of the film, leading Arthur to find the Sword in the Stone and accidentally fulfil the prophecy. Essentially, Sir Kay’s (mild) acts of cruelty actually improve Arthur’s life considerably. Not much of a great villain, then.

The only clear-cut “bad guy” is Madame Mim, who appears in the latter third of the film for less than ten minutes. She is an old rival of Merlin and is supposed to be deeply evil but – like most aspects of this film – is highly comedic and probably the funniest character in the cast. The “Wizard Duel” between her and Merlin is definitely the highlight of the film and is an original and entertaining take on the idea of a wizard battle sequence (put it this way: they don’t teach these duelling techniques at Hogwarts). But while Mim is certainly a brilliant character, she has been defeated and set aside only a few scenes after she is introduced, making her more of a side character than a main villain.

The Story
Like Alice in Wonderland before it, The Sword in the Stone seems to follow quite a modular plot. The first act has Merlin meeting Arthur and the former becoming the latter’s mentor. The second act features three teachings from Merlin, where he and Arthur turn into different animals to learn a different skill or life lesson: a fish to teach Arthur about “what makes the world go round,” a squirrel to teach Arthur about gravity and “looking before you leap” and a sparrow to teach Arthur how it feels to fly. In most films, this would be an obvious piece of foreshadowing where Arthur would be placed in a dire situation in the third act where he would have to use his new knowledge to save the day or prove himself to be worthy of the crown. The Sword in the Stone is not one of those films.

These lessons are of no plot relevance whatsoever; Merlin’s teachings are never referred to again. Instead, when the third act arrives, Merlin storms off after a (rather petty) argument with Arthur and Arthur accidentally makes himself king by pulling the sword from the stone. This leaves Arthur crowned king with no idea of how to be one, which is an interesting place to take your character. Arthur now has a huge responsibility and is desperate for Merlin to return. Where will the film go from here? The answer: nowhere. That’s the end. Merlin returns for 30 seconds to congratulate Arthur and tell him that it will all work out okay and then we cut to credits. The film doesn’t come to any form of climax: the story just stops.

Due to this questionable pacing and complete lack of a coherent character development for Arthur, this film’s plot is undeniably dull, brightened only by a few comedic moments (the aforementioned wizard duel and a living, over-enthusiastic sugar bowl being the highlights).

The Visuals
The Sword in the Stone does not visually stand out amongst the Disney library: the art style is quite scratchy and muted, befitting the Dark Ages setting. Nevertheless, the animation is fluid – albeit lacking in detail in places – and a few aspects of the visuals (water reflections being a prime example) definitely rise above the rest. The animal designs for Merlin and Mim’s wizard duel are inventive and amusing, really enhancing that scene. My main complaint is that there are a few too many examples of recycled animation. It is a well-known fact that Disney occasionally uses animation from older films and replaces the new characters over the top, but it is rare to see it happen within the same movie. The most noticeable example of this is a shot of Sir Kay tripping over as he chases Arthur: in the opening scene, he trips over a log and in the second instance he trips over a pile of weapons, but otherwise the shots are identical. Like Arthur’s multiple voice actors, this design choice is distracting and unwanted.

The Music
The music in this film is decidedly hit-and-miss but still almost totally forgettable. Most serve as the main portion of Merlin’s lessons to Arthur, with the exceptions being Merlin’s packing song (mostly consisting of gibberish – it’s amusing, but, again, forgettable) and Madame Mim’s song (again, amusing but, again, forgettable). The score is decent and even secured an Oscar nomination, but has little time to shine in the film, since it is rarely given a space to call its own, usually being drowned out by the dialogue.

The Sword in the Stone – unlike the other Disney films from the 1960s (101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book) – is often ignored or forgotten, despite its financial success upon release and subsequent re-releases. The film has had no TV or feature-length follow-up (again, very different from the other Disney movies of the time), though its characters appear in small roles in other Disney crossover properties, such as Kingdom Hearts and House of Mouse. Also, the film was one of 50 nominees for the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Animated Films list, though it ultimately failed to make the cut.

Ultimately, the weak narrative of this film really lets the rest of it down. This film has plenty of good things about it but, in the end, all of these positives cannot overcome the great big negative: The Sword in the Stone is dull, with a conflict-free plot, a weak main hero and some distracting design choices.

I award this film 4 out of 10 over-enthusiastic sugar bowls.

Next review: The Jungle Book (1967)

So, what do you think ?