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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Friday, November 12, 2010

“Why, They Might Even Make a Motion Picture About You”

            The Sword in the Stone seems to be one of those forgotten Disney films that don’t immediately come to mind when one thinks of Disney.  That being said, it was a film that served as a quite a few important firsts for the studio.  For one thing, this was the first Disney animated picture Richard and Robert Sherman worked on (they’re the same guys who wrote the songs for that small independent feature called Mary Poppins).  Plus, it was the first animated film directed solely by Wolfgang Reitherman; a big first considering that he would direct all of the Disney animated films up until the 1980’s (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057546/trivia). 
That being said, this film receives very little attention.  The most love it gets is in the theme park side of the equation.  There is an actual sword in the stone at both of the Fantasylands in America and Merlin is the only character from the film available for greetings.  While it might not be the most famous Disney film, it is one that I remember vividly from my childhood.
Of course, I don’t remember watching the film in its entirety.  I remember seeing bits and pieces of it when it would come on Disney Channel, so I certainly have not seen the entire film as an adult.  After viewing it in its entirety, I have to say that I really didn’t miss much not seeing it all the way through as a kid.  The film is very segmented, almost evoking the feel of a package film.  First, Wart and Merlin learn about brains over brawn during their time as fishes in the moat.  Second, both Merlin and Wart learn that love is the greatest force in the universe when they are squirrels.  Third, Wart learns that knowledge and wisdom are the ultimate power when he is transformed into a bird and Merlin duels with Madam Mim.  Fourth, and finally, Wart becomes a squire, goes to the big tournament in London, and discovers his ultimate potential when he pulls the sword from the stone and becomes the king of England. 
I’m not saying that was a detriment to the film.  I just can’t help but think that maybe The Sword in the Stone was a story told in the wrong medium.  Its episodic nature makes me think that it might have lent itself very well to being an animated series.  Wart could have learned a different lesson every week, they could have multiple encounters with Madam Mim, before the series finally culminated in Wart becoming King Arthur. 

            That being said, there’s some really amazing animation in this film.  The animators had dealt with talking animal characters plenty of times in the past, but this film presented a new challenge: how to design animals that are normally humans and still retain their personalities and physical traits.  Overall, they did a really astonishing job.  Aside from the color designations (Merlin blue, Wart burnt orange), each animal they changed into still retained some of their physical traits, whether it is Merlin’s bushy eyebrows and mustache or Wart’s scruffy hair.
Of course the scene that did this best was Merlin’s wizard’s duel with Mim.  This was not a scene where two characters remained just one animal; Merlin and Mim changed into several different animals across the spectrum of the animal kingdom.  Personal favorites: crab Merlin and worm Merlin.  If I had to choose the two strongest moments in the film, this would definitely be in second place for me.

First place?  That’s definitely towards the end when Wart has to prove to all the citizens of London that he did indeed pull the sword from the stone.  The whole sequence is so unbelievably moving; as well it should be, since it is where the film derived its title.  I loved the big burly knight named Black Bart (voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft, of “Grim Grinning Ghosts” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” fame) who came to Wart’s defense. 

All throughout the film, Wart had been the eager to please young squire hopeful who cried when he stood up for himself.  But in this moment, he gets this determined, almost angry look on his face to show all the naysayers what he was capable of.  But when his hands come into contact with the sword, and the heavenly light reigns down upon him, he looks so humbled and awestruck.  What makes the scene work though is when Sir Ector commands Sir Kay to bow to his new king. 
That animation of Kay - who throughout the movie has been this uncaring, cocky, bullying lummox of a human – specifically the look on his face when he is forced to bow to this scrawny boy he had done nothing nice for in his entire life is one of my all time favorite pieces of Disney animation.  He doesn’t say a word throughout the scene.  The way he looks at Wart tells the audience that this young man just learned what humility is.  It’s probably the most effective piece of animation in the film and it’s definitely animation acting at its very finest.
The same could not be said for the voice acting, though.  Don’t get me wrong; Karl Swenson was fantastic as Merlin.  It was a kick to hear Junius Matthews in the role of Archimedes, sounding almost identical to the character of Rabbit that he would go on to play in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  Sebastian Cabot was great as Sir Ector, at once caring for Wart while at the same time never really sure what to do with him.  And a round of applause for Martha Wentworth as Madam Mim; she really killed that role and made Madam Mim one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. 
No, my problem with the voice acting stemmed from Arthur himself.  If you’ve seen the movie, then you know exactly what I’m talking about: Wart’s voice goes through more high and lows than a teenager before prom week.  Why is that?  IMDB doesn’t lie; Wart had not one, not two, but three different kids providing his voice, and two of them were Wolfgang Reitherman’s sons. 
The reason for so many voices for one character?  Rickie Sorensen’s voice changed midway through production, so they had to sub in other voice actors.  The way his voice fluctuates not from one scene to the next, but literally from one line to the next is quite distracting, to say the least.  Which is a real shame, because Wart’s animation is top notch and he could have been such an effective character had his patched together voice work not detracted from the animation’s subtleties.
While the film is by no means Disney’s finest hour, audiences shouldn’t be so quick to forget about this one.  It definitely is a story making use of the classic Disney themes of the underdog and transformation.  Come for Merlin and Mim and stick around for some unique Disney animation and some really well performed character moments.  And while you’re at it, help me remember that darn spell.  Now does it go Higitus Figitus mitigus mum, hockity packity… pockity, wait, that’s not right.  Hitgitus Figitus mitigus mum…


  1. Sword in the Stone was the first Disney video I ever owned, so I've seen it an enormous amount of times. The Sherman Bros. tunes are fun, and there are a lot of fun moments in the film. Again, it's boy-centric which doesn't happen often in the Disney canon. The Xerox look mostly works for the kind of dark ages feel of the piece though sometimes the backgrounds are a little too lush or colorful for it. That said, I love the color work in that bit where Wart and Merlin walk by the moat.

    Yes, the voice oscillations get annoying. For me though, it's that fumbly Wart thing that keeps getting repeated. Seriously, you've got a great drinking game here; just drink every time Wart goes "Whoa, whut, whoa!!"

    The opening song is beautiful. While I love Higgitus Figgitus and all, I think its the best song in the film. It's also a nice way to get a little more mileage out of the storybook opening. Love when it builds to that note on "London town".

    Madame Mim is a lot of fun, and in her pretty form, kind of a looker. Sometimes I wanna dream about girls with long purple hair (and not like Sarah Jessica Parker in Flight of the Navigator). The wizard duel is a highlight of the film. And I like Archimedes, who's name is referenced in Watchmen.

    But the worst thing about the film is that it has no discernable theme. The whole movie seems to be rather a heavy-handed "stay in school" message, but then in the end Wart becomes king entirely through divine providence. So all of that "you need education or you'll never make anything of yourself" wasn't true! Wart was right when he told Merlin off and said that just learning things wouldn't necessarliy get him anywhere because he was a nobody. So what's the movie saying? Is it PRO-education? In the end it didn't mean a hill of beans to Wart's becoming King. Or are we to presume that the lessons he learned help him be a great ruler? Because they seemed unrelated. If that was the point, it could have been made clearer. ...And knowing that Arthur eventually is undone by a coup and a cheating wife and dies in battle doesn't make that lesson any clearer. Bill Peet is a good story man, but I feel like his screenplay (the first to actually have a full screenplay, not a collection of story pitches) is disjointed and unclear as to its point.

  2. This movie I hadn't seen since I was little. Watching it now, one thing about his movie made it hard for me to concentrate. Arthur's constant voice changing and his "Woah-whut-WOAH". A major thing with me is voice acting and having a voice change whether in a show or a movie has always driven me crazy.

    That doesn't mean I hate this movie of course. I enjoy the squirrel scene especially. I always feel bad for the girl squirrel though.

    I always feel strange watching this because then I think about all the things that happen in the King Arthur stories. It almost seems like the calm before the storm.

    Madam Mim is one of those characters that you love because she's insane in a fun way. She loves causing problems. However, I love Merlin outsmarting her by becoming a germ. I guess that means cheaters don't always win.

    I must also agree that this seems a lot like a package film. It's a bit disconcerting. While I won't watch it over and over, it will still be in my movie library when I'm older and I will definitely watch it every now and then.

  3. I have not seen this one! Or Sleeping Beauty. Now I feel like I'm missing out.

  4. Enjoy your comments. Sword in the Stone remains a favorite, so that makes me likely to apologize for some of the shortcomings (like people do).

    The different voice work for Arthur is the only thing about this I don't like, but I'm willing to forgive that by saying his voice is cracking as he matures, and this is helped because mostly his voice is higher in the earlier part of the story and then becomes deeper more often than not by the end, with occasional pitches into high mode when he is upset (Merlin! Merlin!).

    Much of the commentary is extremely clever and ties directly to the book source "The Once and Future King." I know you try to keep the films separate from the source material and that's good policy as far as it goes. Yet to me it is very telling as to what a movie chooses to keep or ditch from a book, why changes were made and how the movie is impacted. Choosing to end Cinderella with her and prince riding off into the sunset, rather than having Lady Tremaine dance in red hot shoes until she dies, would be a good change in harmony with the them of the picture.

    In this case, I think they did an excellent job of preserving the main themes of T.H. White's "The Once and Future King", namely analyzing our modern life by looking at Arthur. Merlin's comments about how happy he is to be back in the medieval times after spending the movie complaining about the lack of modernization is very telling. Also the focus on learning as the source of power is telling because learning is one of the few things people can control. For keeping enough of the book to stay true to the theme, while cutting enough to make it a move, this deserves some credit.

  5. Wow, I didn't know about the Three Warts; I thought his vocal issues had something to do with the sound. That certainly clears that one up!

    I can certainly agree with the 'packaged' feel of the film; it is very episodic, almost as though Merlin hosted one of those afterschool educational program and Wart was his curious kid sidekick. "On this week's episode, we journey to the depths of Sir Ector's moat to learn how brains triumph over brawn..."

    The squirrel sequence always leaves me a little sad. That poor girl squirrel! She was clingy and a bit obsessive, but she really seemed brokenhearted in the end.

    The magic duel was very innovative and fun to watch, but some of the (perhaps unintentionally) funniest moments are when Merlin grumbles about the lack of modern conveniences in the Middle Ages. That outfit he wears when he comes back from the Bahamas or wherever he was at sends me into fits of laughter, not least of all because I had the same sneakers.

    The theme is a bit confusing in the end; Merlin's all for education, but Wart's ascent to the throne is more destiny than hard work. It's a weird combination, to be sure, but maybe what Disney's hinting at is that Wart needs to use his education to rule wisely.