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"The Sword in the Stone": Disney’s Camelot Is a Silly Place

by on July 2, 2008

If you are the parent of a small child, you should definitely have Disney’s The Sword in the Stone in your DVD collection. If you are a Disney completist or are otherwise interested in the history of the studio, you should also make sure that you own this movie. And if you’d just like to have a fun film on hand, one you can stick in your PC or DVD player when you need a smile—well, you just can’t go wrong with this 1963 feature from the Disney cartoon studio.

On the other hand, if you have any real love of or respect for the Arthurian legend—and especially if you have any love or respect for the rich and vibrant culture that was medieval Christendom—I urge your to run fast, run far, and by all means run away from this travesty. I don’t feel any great sentimental love for that period in European history, but Disney’s ignorant condescension toward medieval art and science set even my teeth on edge.

Well, there are a lot more people who will answer to one of the former descriptions than to the latter, and there’s no point in batting around pedantries. The Sword in the Stone is supposedly an adaptation from T. H. White. I can’t speak decisively to the faithfulness of Bill Peet’s work, though I do doubt that White was one to give Merlin a lot of routines and chorus scenes with footwork impeccable. It’s also a bit puzzling that Walt Disney himself should have given his imprimatur to a story so thin as to be vaporous. The movie’s entirely notional plot has Merlin finding and tutoring the twelve-year-old Wart (the future King Arthur) by metamorphosing him (by turns) into a fish, a squirrel, and a bird; by battling the comically evil Madame Mim; and by abandoning him to his fate just before young Wart more or less accidentally pulls the sword-of-the-title from the stone-of-the-title, thus demonstrating that he is the rightful king of England.

Really, even Disney’s The Jungle Book, a film whose story is also notional, feels like a densely plotted Russian novel when placed next to this one. Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are infamous in some quarters for heroines who do nothing but wait for a prince or some dwarves to plop them onto a modest throne. But, if anything, the young Arthur of this picture is even more passive; mostly he’s just the short, thin straight man to a fuss-and-feathers vaudeville act put on by Merlin and his owl Archimedes. Viewers of a certain age who remember the highlights of the film—the fish, squirrel, bird, and Mim sequences—from old Disney TV broadcasts will be astonished to find that the film itself has nothing but these sequences. It is as if Uncle Walt had gotten tired of trying to tell coherent, classical stories and was well on his way to developing the animated nightclub revue format that was to fully flower in Jungle Book.

As a story The Sword in the Stone has nothing to recommend it. As raw entertainment, it is certainly very minor when set beside what Disney was to give a few years later with the Kipling adaptation. But the shows it puts on, though very modest, are also formidable. It brims with small but nicely developed characters, especially a rambunctious sugar bowl (surely an inspiration for some of Beauty and the Beast‘s animated tea ware), a mangy wolf, and a couple of female squirrels who make life very difficult for Merlin and the boy. This last sequence, which has a girl squirrel flirting in a very feminine but also very squirrel-like way with Wart, deserves an honored place in the Disney canon—more so, I think, than the more popular Mim sequence, which, though very funny, hasn’t the former’s range of emotions. The girl squirrel runs subtly but believably through love and fear and heartbreak, and the animators don’t just give her “business” but let her interact with Wart, taking cues from him and turning his attempted rejections into part of the courtship game. Too often animators will slide through characterization by giving their drawings some stock expressions and clichéd attitudes, but the squirrel sequence was plainly done by artists who thought very carefully about what the characters were feeling and how they would express themselves nonverbally. Worse artists might try to mine it for attitudes and poses; ambitious artists, though, I think could hardly find a better place to look to see what they should go through when trying to invent something new but very real.

The Sword in the Stone was the first Disney animated feature to have songs by the Sherman brothers; it’s a good thing Disney let them go on to develop their craft further in Mary Poppins and in other features, because this film many times will give us rhymes that are quite unsingable.

Notwithstanding the fun to be had in this feature, careful DVD collectors can almost certainly give the mostly recently released DVD a pass. The subtitle pretty much gives the game away: “Forty-fifth Anniversary Edition.” When was the last time anyone celebrated the “45th anniversary” of anything? This is plainly just something stuck into the release schedule, to smooth out the DVD division’s cash flow operations, and it is almost a certain bet that a much plusher edition will be forthcoming in a couple of years. There is nothing very plush at all about this release. It comes with only four short bonuses: a seven-minute extract from a Wonderful World of Disney TV broadcast; an eight-minute interview/documentary with the Sherman brothers; and two classic Disney shorts (Mickey’s “The Brave Little Tailor” and Goofy’s “A Knight for a Day.”) There are also some games/activities. It comes with none of the historical or behind-the-scenes documentaries that would give insights into the development of the film.

The Sword in the Stone is (barely) a feature-length film, but it actually feels much closer in kind to the Winnie the Pooh featurettes that were made about the same time—or even to such minor sub-features as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Crane or the musically minded anthologies the studio made in the 1940s. Neither a full-fledged revue nor a fully developed feature, it falls between two stools. Viewers will certainly have fun with it, but they are also apt to go away with the feeling that it’s not a film to be sat through. It’s basically a highlight reel collecting some clever animation, and is probably best taken—by children, completists, and those looking for YouTube-type “bits” to get them through a dark patch—in that spirit.

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