Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Cast: Karl Swenson, Rickie Sorenson, Junius Matthews, Martha Wentworth
Plot: Merlin (Swenson) responds to a prophecy that tells him he needs to mentor Wart (Sorenson), a young boy in the Medieval era, also known to some as Arthur.
Disney’s films can almost always be traced back to a source novel of some kind. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, Hans Christopher Anderson’s The Snow Queen, a Grimm fairy tale… Here, we get perhaps the biggest story adaptation yet with King Arthur. However, as expected from Disney, this isn’t a Guy Ritchie take on the character, nor a traditional adaptation of the Romantic genre. Walt Disney’s vision of the character is a young lad mentored to greater things by a kooky but wise wizard, Merlin. It is a story about chasing something better than your current surroundings, relying on brains over brawn and having faith in yourself to do more. Sword in the Stone is less about King Arthur and more using the Legend of King Arthur pulling Excalibur from the Stone to work as an allegory for what we are capable of.
Compared to most Disney movies, this one is a little more vague than most. The Medieval stuff provides the background with a family bustling over a joust competition that could result in the winner being crowned King, but it features very little in the story. The story is pretty much an amusing tale about a wise man teaching a young boy the ways of life. The most used Medieval trait is Merlin’s magic, as he teaches young Wart about the ways of life by transforming the pair of them into various animals (fish, squirrels, etc…) and exploring the world from a different pair of eyes. In fact, the Sword in the Stone suffers from a lack of ambition. Beyond Merlin and Wart, there isn’t really much to recommend in the film. The Sword in the Stone segment is a brief wrap-up to the story, rather than a poignant narrative point. The villains are, for the most part, thinly written, or kept to compartmentalised parts of the story. Little is done with Wart’s strict family, a knock-off male version of Cinderella’s supporting cast, only this time given English accents so poor you will be begging for Dick Van Dyke to join the voice cast. It is hardly bad, but when it closes after a brief running time, you cannot help but feel that this production didn’t quite have the scale or staying power of the Disneys that came before. The film almost hopes that the random musings of Merlin and the cynical asides of Archimedes, his pet owl, is enough to fuel the entire film. In fairness, both characters are a great example of Disney’s ability to write strong roles, Merlin filling each scene with energy, from his spells comprised of nonsense words (“wickety wackety”), and Archimedes be able to win over an audience with little more than an exasperated sigh. It makes Sword in the Stone a pleasant distraction, but one without the depth of Bambi, the fame of Sleeping Beauty or the depth of Pinocchio. That being said, it is hardly a poor movie, merely one more aimed at the young kids wanting to be entertained.
While Merlin is the only character who consistently shows staying power, the movie is littered with smaller roles that are bursting with energy. A stick-thin wolf dogs the heroes (pun intended), hoping for a quick snack in beautifully written slapstick gags. Wart spends time as a squirrel and ends up getting advances from a female squirrel. It is a great scene, surprisingly touching by the end of the moment, and another part of Sword in the Stone that could have benefited from an extended running time. Outside of the fun, there are some strong action sequences. Few remember the startling confrontation with a terrifyingly animated pike in the castle’s moat, the scene made alarmingly vibrant due to the speed of the hungry predator. This is the one villain in Sword of the Stone not played for laughs and all the more better for it. The final villain is the excellent Madame Mim. Alas, you feel sorry for the character, a wonderfully written nemesis trapped in the wrong movie. She is a wacky beast, addicted to causing as much mayhem and misery as possible, fuelled by all things ugly and horrible. She is also totally bonkers, challenging the characters to daft games, rewriting her own rules at a whim and cackling madly to herself, as she goes off on a tangent. But alongside her humour, she is also pretty scary. She has the ability to decay anything she touches and, like Merlin, holds unlimited magical powers. In another movie, she would have been introduced in the first act and built up over the course of the film, a wicked plot making up a large portion of the film. As it stands, she is reduced to a last act climax, popping up out of nowhere and providing the film with its biggest fight sequence, a glorious battle where Merlin and Mim turn to various creatures in a battle of both wits and strength. Mim’s segment is a strong way to think of the film as a whole. The scenes in themselves are strong, but they don’t connect into a coherent story as much as you want them to. It is a film that wins you over on the visuals, which makes it a fairly forgettable affair when held up to Disney’s greater efforts.
Final Verdict: Disney aren’t quite at their best with this charming, but smaller affair of a film.