” Why, they might even make a motion picture about you.” – Merlin
“Motion picture?” – Arthur
“Oh. Well, that’s something like television… without commercials” – Merlin
Hey hey, it’s our first Walt Disney era single story feature! Amazing, isn’t it? All of Walt’s main features managed to make it into my Top 25. Quite an accomplishment, eh? The films released during his lifetime are all absolute classics. There was a ton of talent throughout the studio during this period of nearly 30 years, and they certainly knew what they were doing during this time.
The first Walt era Feature we’re looking at is actually one of the films released towards the end of his lifetime, and the last animated film he saw released. The Sword in the Stone is the feature from 1963, and puts a spin on the legend of King Arthur and Merlin. Instead of focusing on the adult Arthur, however, the movie follows the young Arthur, much before the time of his true fame.
The film takes place during a dark period of England’s history, when the king passed away without an heir to the throne. A sword was soon discovered placed in a stone, with an inscription that said that the one who pulled the sword from the stone would become king. No one was able to pull it, and the land remained without a king. Meanwhile, Young Arthur, called Wart by most, is out searching for an arrow that his older and arrogant brother when he stumbles upon the cabin of Merlin, who was expecting him. Merlin reveals to Arthur that he will be Arthur’s new tutor, and moves to live with Arthur in the castle. There, Merlin and Arthur have many adventures that lead to Arthur’s eventually pulling of the sword, including stints as Fish, Squirrels, and a battle with the nasty Madam Mim.
The Sword in the Stone is a Disney film that has an episodic style to it. Rather than have a single story with a single villain, the film features the loosely connected adventures of Merlin and Arthur, each with their own obstacles and lessons. Though The Sword in the Stone is not the best episodic film in Disney history, it still does a great job with the process. Each segment is engaging on its own, yet works within the larger overall arc. Each lesson learned makes sense within the story, and Arthur’s journey is believable and the progression of the lessons makes sense. Arthur and Merlin also are consistent throughout the journey, yet they never feel like they’ve digressed or remain the same. They feel like they’ve grown throughout their journey.
I like the way Arthur is built up. We are able to get both the sense that he is a young lad with a lot to learn, yet we see that he has the ability to eventually rule England. This is especially evident in the Fish segment of the film, where he learns to use his wits to battle a brute. We see that he has this ability, but at this point he is still a kid, and he needs the help at the moment. I see this as well in the film’s other two major episodes. The lessons he learns about the gravity of disappointment, the beauty of freedom, and the existence of evil all are evident and seem like great lessons for the eventual king, alongside his natural curiosity. Yet, we still see him learning, and that is important.
Merlin eclipses Arthur as the film’s most memorable character. He was The Genie before Genie was even conceived. The character of Merlin is a lot of fun to watch in action, and his antics never get old no matter how far into the film you get. His befuddled old man nature, his references to the present day, and his constant feuding with men and squirrels alike make for a very entertaining character. He is also a really good teacher for Arthur, and his wildness perfectly counter balances Arthur’s more calm demeanor. Many times, Merlin injects an energy into the film when other characters need to be a bit more calm or somber. Merlin is directly involved in most of the film’s best and most memorable moments, and that’s mostly because he is the film’s best character. You can tell that the animators really had a lot of fun with him.
I know it seems a bit early to be talking about Best Scene, but it’s difficult to mention The Sword in the Stone without mentioning the completely awesome Wizards Duel sequence, one of the absolute classics of animation. It’s everything that’s great about this film and everything that is great about Disney Animation during Walt’s era. It is hilarious, uses Merlin and Mim to the fullest, as brilliant pacing and timing, and pushes character design to the limit. I could have said all of this in the Best Moment and Song segment, but it is too good of a segment to just wait to mention. It’s really good. Scroll down to see it in action.
Finally, there is a ton of great visual humor littered throughout the film. The perfect example of this is when Merlin is first leading Arthur out of his house while going the wrong way. The humor comes from the misadventures of the wolf following them, and it becomes even better with the juxtaposition of Merlin’s speech. The sugar cup continually filling up Merlin’s tea and many elements of the Wizard Duel also fall into this strength. There are tons of visual gags littered throughout the film, and visual humor is always great.
In terms of the episodic nature, the film does everything right up until the ending. To me, in episodic storytelling, you still need to raise the stakes for the character at the end and give them one final obstacle, their greatest challenge. I do dislike to compare films directly, as I’ve mentioned before, but Alice in Wonderland is a great example of this. The Queen of Hearts is the most powerful force Alice faces, and even with using all of the things she has learned and experienced, she has issues overtaking her foe. We’ll talk about this more later in the countdown, but the point is that Alice in Wonderland has a great ending to cap off the journey. The Sword in the Stone does not.
The first issue with it is that the biggest foe and stakes come just before the final scenes. In comparison to the highly energetic, extremely fun Wizard Battle, the final ten minutes feel slow and anticlimactic. As much as I like how the sword pulling is presented, it still feels like Arthur needs one final obstacle to hurdle over before becoming king. It all seems too simple, and that’s because it is. It ends with nothing for Arthur to really do, nothing to show who he is and who he will become. And though it may be necessary for Merlin to be gone for the final moments, the film does feel his lack of presence.
The other issue is that this ending does not allow Arthur to have any sort of triumph or final defining moment. He doesn’t even factor into the Mim battle. His build up of character is so good, but there’s nothing to show for it at the end. And this means at the end, the character of Arthur doesn’t show much change. He needed some sort of venue to show what he learned, and to show his confident side. The one this his arc was lacking was a sense that he had become more confident. I know that I said that I liked the fact that he still felt young, but we needed a for definite showing of his development.
Now, I’m the biggest fan of subtlety there is, but I wish the film was a bit more forward about the lessons learned. The segments have their lessons attached to them, but admittedly you do have to think about each one a little in order to truly get it. It also doesn’t help that we never see Arthur use his lessons in the movie. Again, let’s look at Alice in Wonderland. At the end of her episodic adventure, we at least see Alice taking in what she learned though her adventures. We never see Arthur in this role, and it hurts everything the episodes did so well.
Though I’m not saying much about the rest of the movie, it isn’t perfect. While I do like each segment of the film, I feel the connection between these segments, which really build the relationship between Arthur, Merlin, and the masters of the castle, could be stronger. They’re good, but they could have built up a stronger emotion within the characters.
(A final note. I really don’t like any of the voice actors for Arthur. Not only is he the only character to obviously lack an English accent, he is also voice by three different actors. It’s inconsistent and distracting at points.)
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
I raved about it above. No need to repeat myself. The best scene is the Wizard Duel. No question.
Even though it is a short song, “Higitus Figitus” has some great moments and jokes, has some great visuals, and is a classic Sherman Brothers song. It shows their great ability to make up words year before they wrote a famous hard to spell song for Mary Poppins.
Though not entirely perfect, The Sword in the Stone does so much right in its first 9/10 that is really was heading towards being a Disney classic. Through its characters, its humor, and some particularly amazing scenes, The Sword in the Stone is throughly entertaining. However, that final 1/10 does enough to prevent it from rising to that next tier. Merlin needed to put some magic there as he did in the rest of the film. Though I find it Walt Disney’s weakest feature, it still is a classic, and it still ranks at 24.