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Endearing & Underrated: The Sword in the Stone

Endearing & Underrated: a film series from Thishappyplaceblog.com

James stops in to make a case for the film he believes doesn’t get enough recognition — The Sword in the Stone!

Released on Christmas Day in 1963, The Sword in the Stone features many classic Disney hallmarks and bears the sad distinction of being the last animated feature released before Walt’s untimely passing.  So why does it seem so under-appreciated?

Sure, Disney never made any sequels, or released any super-enhanced Diamond Platinum Gold triple Blu-ray packs with digital copies and second screen functions.  Sure, The Sword in the Stone is not likely to play on an endless loop on the Disney channel or in your room at the parks or on the Disney Cruise Line.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937 and everyone knows it by heart.  The Sword in the Stone was released 26 years later and seems all but forgotten.

What gives?

The credits read like a who’s who of classic Disney animation.  There’s Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, and Frank Thomas, all members of Walt’s “Nine Old Men,” who worked on the animation.  Their handiwork features bright colors, whimsical characterizations, hard lines, and occasional pencil marks which lend a hand-drawn authenticity that’s quite refreshing in the current age of digital animation.  Another “old man,” Wolfgang Reitherman, directed the film, and the Sherman brothers made their musical Disney animation debut as songwriters.

The film features a classic fairytale opening, complete with old English lettering, a Gothic book look, and the page turn to begin the story.  There’s even an introductory song sung by a minstrel!

One of the most endearing characters is Merlin, the bumbling wizard who looks like Gandalf and acts like Goofy.  He lives in a hut/house full of talking owls, enchanted sugar bowls and chairs, and predictions of the future.

Endearing and Underrated: The Sword in the Stone

He says early on, “my magic is used mainly for educational purposes,” which is an oft-repeated theme throughout the film.  The film continually teaches and reinforces the lesson that brains and intellect will always be stronger than brute force and brawn.

Another notable quote from Merlin: “knowledge and wisdom is the real power.”  Perfect example: a scrawny, illiterate orphan boy (Arthur, referred to as ‘Wart’) with no real physical strength grows up to remove the immovable sword in the stone and become the king of England.  Along the way he learns a number of valuable life lessons from Merlin and his cantankerous talking owl, Archimedes.

So how come this movie doesn’t have the same lasting appeal as classic fairy tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  Is it because there is no damsel in distress?  (One thing I did notice is that there are only 2 recurring female roles: a kitchen maid and the villainous witch, Madame Mim.)  Is it because there is no love story?  Is there some unwritten rule that says we can’t adore fairy tales that feature three male leads and lacks a true villain or conflict?

To be fair, The Sword in the Stone is by no means perfect.  As noted, there is no overt story arc.  We all know that the weak little kid will wind up pulling said sword from said stone and becoming king, but what happens along the way is the heart of the tale.

However, the film does feature some familiar story mechanics.  There is a weak protagonist who grows stronger and learns lessons; a kooky but enlightening father-figure; and a wisecracking sidekick bird (think of him as your grandfather’s Zazu or Iago, but less annoying).

Merlin enchants a kitchen full of dirty dishes like Yensid enchants the brooms in Fantasia (and there are even a few brooms thrown in for good measure), although things go easier for Merlin than they did for Yensid.

Wart gets turned into a little fish and fights a big, mean fish, and learns to outsmart those who are stronger and tougher than he is.

He later runs into the aforementioned marvelous Madame Mim, a wacky old witch with wild green eyes who lives in the woods and aptly plays the role of villain (albeit briefly).

Of course, we know how the story ends.  And it really is a fabulous little film that, in my opinion, does not get nearly as much attention nowadays as it should.  I would love to see some plush Merlin or Madame Mim toys in Sir Mickey’s in Fantasyland, or even at my local Disney store.  I wish more parents were plopping their children down to watch this film, which teaches the importance of brains over brawn, rather than a princess fairy tale where doe-eyed damsels wait for their princes to sweep them away to lives of royal luxury.

All I really want is for people to watch this film and appreciate it for what it is.  It’s not the Walt Disney Company’s finest work.  It’s not even the finest film made during Walt’s lifetime.  But it’s a damn good film that somewhat eschews the traditional mechanics of the time and tells an important story that remains highly relevant today.

Fun side note: Bill Peet, who began working for Disney on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, brought the source material, a novel by T.H. White, to Walt’s attention.  Walt liked the idea so much he had Peet write a screenplay, which was rare for animated features as they usually used storyboards.  After Walt approved the screenplay for production, Peet used his relationship with Walt as the basis for Merlin’s character, and even admitted later that he used Walt’s nose in his drawings of Merlin.

About James King


James is a fun-loving character who wishes he could just ride Space Mountain all day, every day, instead of sitting in his office at work. He first visited WDW as a young teen but didn’t really catch the Disney bug until a more recent trip with Estelle, when he realized that you don’t have to grow up just because you grow older. He loves to play video games and listen to loud music in his free time but nothing compares to the joys of roaming the Disney parks with his beautiful wife. When’s the next trip again?

Q. G-SJuly 13, 2012 - 10:42 am

It baffles me when Disney chooses to ignore the potential of real gems like this film! Especially thinking of the shallowest end of appreciation – merchandising! So many great characters and funny moments, there should be some plush toys at least. And yes, learning that it’s not always the destination, but the journey that’s important (for the lessons learned on the way) is a lesson that’s always worth teaching. Thanks for the great article!

ChelleJuly 13, 2012 - 4:48 pm

You know James, you bring up many interesting points. I want to like this movie. I REALLY DO, but it seems so disjointed to me as if the movie is just a bunch of smaller vignettes put together. But I do agree that it does have some awesome elements such as kooky Merlin and Madam Mim (who I wish had a bigger part b/c she was so great). But you are so right about the story mechanics and I’ve never really thought/realized that. I also didn’t know about Bill Peet which is an awesome fun factoid. I say, bring on the merchandising! Ultimately, I think the lack of is what is this movie’s major problem in the mainstream arena. I would totally buy a plush Archimedes that when you pull a string, he laughs for a solid minute like he did in the film. That’s merch gold right there, my friend.

VeganYANerdsAugust 10, 2012 - 7:13 pm

Yes!! This movie is one I remember fondly, especially the That’s What Makes The World Go Round song, the magic fight between Merlin and Mim as well as grumpy old Archimedes! I watched this again recently and agree it’s not Disney’s best work but it is full of heart and a lot of fun to watch :)

[…] classics–but for some reason, The Sword in the Stone just gets no respect! There was even a post about the film in This Happy Place Blog’s Endearing and Underrated […]

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