Disney’s 50th anniversary release of The Sword in the Stone is a beautifully remastered edition of a sometimes overlooked classic. Though many other Disney releases such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Lady and the Tramp stand out as high points of classic animated film, The Sword in the Stone is just as gorgeously rendered, cleverly told, and emotionally resonant.
The movie, based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, is the story of a boy Arthur – although referred to as Wart until the end – and his unorthodox education. As a young page in a castle, he is tasked with the most menial chores and offered very little kindness and respect. Regardless, he is sweet and innocent, quick to want to help, and always compassionate. It’s only when he meets Merlin that these characteristics play a larger role in a larger story.
Disney’s version of Merlin is not that of the wise, solemn old man, but instead he’s more of an absent-minded professor type. He’s constantly getting his beard caught in contraptions or twisted in knots. His companion, an owl named Archimedes, is often exasperated and comic relief. Despite outward appearances, Merlin is intelligent and quick to see something special in Arthur. He takes Arthur under his wing and begins an education that, while unorthodox, is effective in teaching him lessons on varied subjects.
Much of Arthur’s education occurs as an animal. Merlin transforms both Arthur and himself into fish, squirrels, and other animals in order to cleverly teach him about science and in turn, larger lessons about the world. Most importantly, the lessons extend to how to treat those around us. One sequence, in which they are squirrels interacting with other squirrels, is almost heartbreaking in its earnestness. One of the squirrels quickly becomes attached to Arthur as a squirrel and when he is transformed back into a boy, the squirrel is scared, betrayed, and brokenhearted. The lesson about gravity is not only scientific, but also extends to the importance of relationships formed, no matter the length.
As a squire-in-training, Arthur is enlisted to help Kay, the son of his foster-like father, Sir Ector, train for a jousting tournament. The winner of the tournament will become king and therefore, Sir Ector and Kay embark on a serious training mission. Arthur’s role in the castle he serves, as well as in the family he is begrudgingly taken in by, is at best, looked down upon and at worst, seemingly inconsequential. The mistreated and underestimated orphan is nothing new in Disney movies, but the characterization of Arthur’s optimism and innocence plays a more important role with much higher stakes when it comes to actually attending the tournament.
However, Arthur’s adventures with Merlin and Archimedes aren’t always happy and without danger. For much of the movie he is being chased by a wolf, a Wile E. Coyote type, but narrowly misses being caught over and over. Apart from the wolf, Arthur, as a bird, comes into contact with a dark witch named Madam Mim. She is the antithesis of Merlin in that he uses magic to explore and to bring wonder to Arthur’s world, while Madam Mim uses black magic to scare and kill. It is only with Merlin’s intervention that Arthur is able to escape unharmed from Madam Mim. The scene with Arthur as a bird and Madam Mim in her various incarnations is terrific. The animation is imaginative and clever, yet still somewhat menacing, or at least as menacing as a children’s animated film can be.
In today’s Pixar-dominated animation landscape, hand-drawn films seem almost quaint in comparison and less impressive. However, one look at The Sword in the Stone is enough to put that argument to rest. Rather, the fact that each animation cel was drawn by hand is an astounding feat that used to be the norm. Several of Disney’s famous “Nine Old Men” – their most respected early animators – worked on The Sword in the Stone and their skill is evident throughout.
The Sword in the Stonemay have first been released in 1963, but 50 years later it holds up as a wonderful example of Disney’s classic animation. Arthur’s inherent goodness combined with Merlin and Archimedes’ magic and humor make for already enjoyable story, but adding to much of the charm of the movie is the characters’ transformations into animals as an illustration of the film’s lessons. The transformations are also used to great effect in the battle between Merlin and Madam Mim. As they quickly change over and over again, The Sword in the Stone again highlights the beauty of hand-drawn animation, as well as classic Disney storytelling.
The DVD release contains several bonus features including an alternate opening scene, several featurettes, the best of which is Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers on the music written for the movie. There are also two shorts, A Knight for a Day and Brave Little Tailor, as well as a sing-a-long.