I’ve been meaning to write my thoughts on The Sword in the Stone for a little while, as – being one of the few Disney films we had on VHS – it was one of the animated films I watched the most as a young child. Since I had the happy experience of waking up on a Christmas morning and turning on the television to see it there, bringing back waves of nostalgia, I thought now was as good a time as any.
There are many ways in which this film has influenced my psyche. My love for all things strigine surely derives in part from the loveably grumpy Archimedes the Owl. Wart’s voice actor(s) inured me to the idea that if you are young, attractive and sympathetic in a world full of people with English accents, it makes perfect sense for you to sound American – long before I had any idea about accents at all. And though the film’s art perhaps had the opposite effect on some, I think it may on some level have been the film’s firm assertion that human-animal romance is weird, comic and doomed that steered me well away from furry propensities, whatever effect Thundercats may have had on my young mind.
The Sword in the Stone is an adaptation of one of the Once and Future King books, and takes a stab at Arthur’s youth, a subject that Malory doesn’t cover. In this version, Uther is dead and his bastard child (it can be inferred, though all we know from the film is that he is an orphan) Arthur has been fostered by a noble household, working for them as a lackey and hoping to one day become a squire. He is clumsy, scrawny and accident-prone, though, and is referred to by his surly foster brother Kay as ‘Wart’. Everything changes when Wart meets Merlin, who decides he will tutor the boy, moving into the castle and teaching him various things by turning him into different animals – which gets him into various scrapes, one leading Merlin to take part in a Wizards’ Duel with the barmy Madam Mim. When it becomes apparent that the boy’s ambition falls far short of his potential, Merlin loses his temper and gets ‘blown to Bermuda’, but quite on his own, Wart manages to find the Sword in the Stone in London and pull it out, securing his future as King of England.
Like many Arthurian stories, this one is set when many of the stories were written down – in Medieval England – and not when they were set, making Arthur English rather than a Breton. I’ve never worried about anachronisms in Arthurian stories, though, as they’re all based on very fanciful myths and legends and it isn’t as though what’s in Geoffrey of Monmouth is by any means a universal tradition. Besides, the film (and book) embraces anachronisms and makes a point of it – indeed, Merlin’s return from Bermuda is so jarring the style of humour preempts that of Aladdin by decades.
The plot is very thin, and arguably nothing in the story really affects the final climax, but this is really a series of setpieces and works very well for an animation: it’s great seeing (some of) the Nine Old Men really having fun with animation, from underwater scenes to birds in flight to magical transformations, giving a real exuberance to the story. It’s all helped along by the slapstick humour, much of which is based on the Tom & Jerry idea of predators deserving to be painfully foiled.
Sword in the Stone isn’t the best-known Disney film. Its songs are too character-based and situational to get onto the various Disney compilations. It doesn’t have great revelations of characters or tragedy to give its story weight. But as a light comedy, it’s almost peerless, and the animation was fine enough Disney recycled it several times in their usual way that generation after generation find shocking and scandalous, as though it was a great deception and Disney (or at least, director Wolfgang Reitherman) were horribly cheap. As Floyd Norman pointed out, he did it because he wanted to, not because he had to, or because it cut costs. He actually liked reusing favourite sequences in different films.
Disney has revived its tradition of fairytail princesses. I’d like to see them revive stories centred on preteen (human) boys like The Jungle Book and Peter Pan. That tradition died with The Black Cauldron, and it’s a shame. The Sword in the Stone is remembered primarily for Merlin (he alone shows up in the Kingdom Hearts games), but there’s much more to it than just him. Funny, sweet, witty and exuberantly animated, it’s a very fine piece of Disney animation.