The Sword in the Stone is the most underrated animated film from the Silver Age of Disney. Not that it would ever be considered one of the all time greats. And certainly not when compared to everything else released during the 50’s-60’s era. Of course Mary Poppins was released the following year. So it’s possible Disney put all his energy into that. Although One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a budget friendly success, Roy Disney still urged his younger brother to shut down animation. Succeeding only in limiting the production of animated movies.
The Sword in the Stone is both based on Arthurian legend and a 1938 novel of the same name written by T. H. White. Most people are familiar with the basics of the story. Of how Arthur pulled Excalibur from the stone, became King, started the Knights of the Round Table, and was mentored by Merlin. Well Walt Disney was more interested in the younger days of Arthur. In favor of another movie called Chantecler. The rights to the story were bought as far back as 1939. Although the war was a factor, it was really a lack of development that kept the eighteenth production in the stone for so long…
The Sword in the Stone was not something I saw often as a lad. I saw it maybe twice when I was younger, but it never really stood out much to me. At least not as much as my brother. Just like in the book that’s opened, former King of England Uther Pendragon dies without an heir to the throne. So to decide who would rule, a sword is sent down from Heaven. Placed in an anvil stone that only the true king can lift. Many have tried to pull the sword from the stone, but all have failed. Plunging England into the Dark Ages. That’s where Merlin comes in. Disney’s greatest animated wizard. The movie may be generally forgotten, but Merlin is still the most memorable character. He’s much more eccentric than in the legend with a cartoonishly long beard and pointy cape. He’s definitely the funniest character, matched by his back talking owl Archimedes.
Merlin predicts a child will fall through his hutt in the forest. The child turns out to be 12 year old orphan Arthur. Nicknamed Wart by his brutish foster brother Sir Kay and foster father Sir Ector. Although trained to be a lowly squire, Merlin sees the potential in the lad. As he seeks to educate the boy with magical lessons. Wart is a fine enough lead full of heart, but his voice is really distracting (and not just because it’s American). He was voiced by three separate child actors. The first went through puberty, so he was replaced by two brothers. Strangely enough, Wart’s voice actor even changes in the same scene.
The magical lessons are probably the most memorable scenes outside of the titular climax. Merlin’s magic shows Wart the perspective of a fish from the sea, a squirrel from the land, and a bird from the air. The squirrel segment always stood out to me the most. It features a girl squirrel that falls in love with Wart. Although it sadly ends with the poor squirrel discovering he’s human. Along the way, Wart encounters the mad Madam Mim. A villainous, but not at all intimidating black magic witch. The animal transforming wizard’s duel she shares with Merlin is colorful fun. Eventually Wart, Kay, and Ector leave for a jousting tournament in London.
It’s pure happenstance that Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. A true Disney moment that grants him the rank of King Arthur. Even if he doesn’t want the honor at first, a time traveling Merlin convinces him otherwise. The only real problem with The Sword in the Stone is a lackadaisical sort of aimless plot. Comedy is more important than making the legend epic. Especially evident with the even more sketchy animation that I feel works more against the film. It doesn’t help that none of the songs became classics. Although if I had to pick a favorite, I guess it would be “Higitus Figitus.” The Sword in the Stone is not the definitive take on King Arthur, but it’s still a fun enough romp that offers harmless Disney magic.