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.
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.
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.