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.
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.
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.