Review: Whimsical Wizardy and Fun Reign in "The Sword in the Stone"
Although overshadowed by the fine company it keeps among other Disney classics, The Sword in the Stone ranks among the most whimsically fun movies produced by the Walt Disney Company nearly fifty years after its 1963 debut. The film is a light-hearted take the classic Arthurian novel by the illustrious T.H. White, chronicling the education and rise of the boy who will one day become King Arthur of Camelot.
It’s the 6th century in England, presently in the midst of the Dark Ages following the death of Uther Pendragon with no heir to succeed him as king. The lands might have fallen into chaotic war but for the appearance of the mythical Sword in the Stone, sporting an inscription declaring that the one able to pull it from its resting place would be the one true king. Years later the sword is unclaimed and the legend unfulfilled, and Arthur is a meek young lad oblivious to the destiny that awaits him. As an orphan taken in by the knight Sir Ector, “Wart” aspires to one day be a squire to Ector’s trueborn son, the buffonish and prideful Kay, who treats the poor lad little better than dirt. In practice Wart lives a servant’s life, but his life begins to change when he encounters the great wizard Merlin by chance in the nearby forest. Here Disney portrays Merlin as a quirky and eccentric magician but also a foresighted one, so he promptly resolves to tutor Arthur so he can realize the potential he sees in the boy. As Kay is knighted and a jousting tournament approaches that is meant to determine the new king, Arthur finds himself dividing his time and effort between his mundane life and one of education and discovery.
In this way, I view The Sword in the Stone as a kindred spirit of Disney’s Cinderella.¬† Sir Ector is certainly not cruel, but nonetheless in both films we find lead characters that are fundamentally good people but stuck in a lowly station serving relatives that undervalue them before magical beings intervene. The film certainly has other roots in Disney’s traditional fairy tale storytelling, primarily through Arthur’s unique experiences that compose the bulk of the film. Arthur learns life lessons and has his horizons broadened as he’s transformed into different creatures on separate occasions, and ultimately saved from a goofy but dangerous witch named Madam Mim. Thanks to the nature of tale the film is drawing upon though, The Sword in the Stone manages to deliver a positive (albeit overly blunt) message about the value of education and the merit of keeping ambitions to strive for. For Cinderella, salvation from her fairy Godmother is about getting to attend a fancy ball just once; finding a handsome prince and true love turned out to be bonuses won by good fortune. With Wart and Merlin, the wizard is thoroughly invested in making sure his charge will “amount to something” and preaching the value of knowledge and wisdom.
Disney doesn’t miss chances to play this for maximum humor, as time and again Merlin makes room for Arthur’s education by magically automating his chores, and also delights in explanations of scientific discoveries centuries off that a boy of the present day has no hope whatsoever of understanding. Merlin also has a wonderful proverbial straight man in Archimedes, a talking owl constantly ready to call out Merlin on his whimsical eccentricities and the occasional deficiencies in his teaching style.
However, the levity of The Sword in the Stone is both its great strength and weakness. The slapstick humor and Arthur’s whimsical adventures when transformed into an animal by Merlin’s magic still entertain, and the magician’s “wizard’s duel” with the witch Madam Mim is perhaps the highlight of the whole movie. But these experiences are so prominent that the film more closely resembles a series of events than a fully-fledged story in its own right. The final act where fate leads Arthur to claim Excalibur vindicates Merlin’s judgment and can hardly be called unfaithful to Arthurian lore, but the event feels almost divorced from the rest of the film. Ultimately Arthur becomes king because fate says so, and by the end he’s changed very little and had no opportunity to put any of his education to good use. As Disney films go you don’t get much lighter than this, and if what you want is adventure Peter Pan is without a doubt a superior choice. This is a movie to be seen for amusement, nothing more and nothing less.
In relative terms, the Blu-Ray release for The Sword in the Stone is modest. Extras include two bonus Disney shorts A Knight for a Day and Brave Little Tailor, which have nothing in common with the film besides being set in medieval times. There’s a Sing Along feature that families with younger children may get a kick out of, while the extra “Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers” offers a shallow but entertaining look at the composers’ approach to executing the movie’s whimsical tunes. Of greatest interest is the presence of an alternate opening to the film where Arthur meets Merlin in a different way, explained via excellent narration and concept sketches. There isn’t much explanation or rumination on the history of why Disney ultimately took the approach that it did, but the extra is still fascinating for its portrayal of what looks to be a dramatically different approach that could well have given The Sword in the Stone an identity as an adventure film.
When it comes to presentation, this is one of Disney’s least impressive HD releases. Disney’s remaster of the video results in an extremely soft picture, while detail is very much lacking. With such classic films as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Bambi the improvement was such that seeing the movies in this format was truly a genuinely new experience that offered viewers a feast for the eyes. That is most certainly not the case here. On the bright side colors are improved for the better, and this release is undoubtedly a step up from prior editions on DVD. Ultimately neither this release nor the movie are exceptional, but it is a worthwhile addition to any collection nonetheless. I would hope that Disney will one day make a serious and meticulous effort to restore this film, however. A lesser gem this may be, but it’s a worthy part of Disney’s treasured history nonetheless.