The Sword in the Stone (1963) Review
What do I know about the film?
Rather fittingly there are literally no interesting anecdotes or behind the scenes production information for this one. This might be my shortest review yet. Hell, even the War Films had the War as an interesting backdrop. What I am trying to say is…Well you will soon see. Unless you turn back now. Which might not be a bad idea…
Ok, fine I have two bits of trivia one of which will prove to be something I repeat several times as we dive deep into 60’s Disney. The other is that apparently the characterisation of Merlin was based on the personality of Walt Disney himself: Sort of cantankerous but ultimately a good buddy. I call bullshit. I have been keeping up. The man was a nutter butter whose ambition made him personally horrendous. I don’t care what the people who knew him say.
So the other trivia…Yes. Here we go. If you happen to watch a bunch of these films in a row, like me, you will notice a strange phenomenon: A lot of the animation comes from stuff we have already seen. I won’t talk about this too much as there is plenty of video evidence for it online and describing it doesn’t work as well as that but, to save money during leaner years, Disney started recycling animation from previous scenes and even previous movies. It is kind of bizarre when you recognise it. ‘Sword in the Stone’ is not the worst culprit but it is the first where it is extremely noticeable.
Wait don’t go, I have a third piece of trivia for you, you lucky people. ‘Sword in the Stone’ is the only 60’s movie not to receive a sequel or a live action remake or a TV show or a platinum DVD. There we have all learned some stuff. ‘Sword in the Stone’ was cheap and a one off. Onwards!
Did I see it as a child?
Significantly I did not. I never owned/watched it and while images from it are familiar if I ever did see it all the way through it was at an age too young to recollect. I had one of the songs on one of my Disney sing a long videos and I remembered being curious as to why I hadn’t seen the film it was from.
At the age of about 12 I became very interested in the legend of King Arthur and consumed quite a few different stories about him and his knights so I consider myself pretty well read on the subject…It didn’t really help me here. I never read the TH White story on which this film is based and I suspect I never will. Hint: The sexually harassing squirrel from the film is not present in any of the versions I had previously been aware of.
Pictured: Not cool.
Despite never having seen it I get the impression it is a favoured addition to the canon and many of my friends who watched it as a kidling have very fond memories of it. So I was looking forward to watching it for the first time, from start to finish. I was. I really was. It looked charming and funny. It did.
WARNING: Anyone who watched this film as a little kid and loved it and can’t stand the idea of it being criticised may want to look away right…about…now.
A little kid meets a wizard who teaches him some lessons that he will never use then he pulls the sword from the stone (74 minutes into an 80 minute film) and then he becomes King cause it turns out he is the King Arthur and while this idea is confusing and stressful to him…Nope. That is it. The film ends on this note.
I can see why this film appeals to young children. It is all about an ordinary boy known as Wart (I am going to refer to him as Arthur throughout the review, just a heads up) having small, isolated adventures where he and his magical mentor turn into different animals. The ‘seemingly average kid is actually extremely important’ is a very old and well tested story telling framework and there is a reason it appeals: Every person wants to believe they are special but they don’t want to put in hours and hours of hard work. They want someone to come along and tell them they were special all along, exactly how they are. Seriously don’t change a thing. You are a winner. You. Reading this. Everything is about to change cause you are super exceptional…
Not really. That never happens. Sorry. But you get my point. It is the ultimate fantasy for everyone and for kids an additional upside is if they are the Chosen One their siblings are not. So of course, Arthur has a crap Foster Brother who makes his life a misery who then has to literally kneel down and worship him at the end of the film. So he gets magical adventures and then a Kingdom, his family pay for being mean to him and everyone thinks he is great despite him having done NOTHING except removing a sword from a stone with very little effort as was his destiny all along. Grand.
‘Well…that was easy.’
So what else is on the wish list of children who dream of power and a life more than their own? Metamorphosis? Check. Occasional peril? Check. Magical protection from an all powerful Father figure? Ok, so maybe this one is a bit of a stretch but it is certainly an important part of the fantasy adventure and one that is done very well here. Merlin is a pretty great character, as is his long suffering owl buddy Archimedes, who is very brave while simultaneously grumbling about having to be so. Never change dude.
Merlin’s constant references to things that haven’t happened yet (electricity, the world is round, holiday packages to Bermuda) gets a bit tiresome, but I like little touches like the way he sets up tea time for Arthur’s arrival before they have even met. As a Wizard who can see the future he knows that Arthur is about to fall through the roof and has a chair ready for him. Cool. Also the packing scene, while a lot faster than I remembered it from my Sing a Long Songs video, is a lot of fun too.
While Merlin is by no means a perfect character For example, when he can’t be bothered to spy on some people himself he tells Archimedes to do it. Archimedes declines and Merlin threatens to turn him into a human. Similarly when he tells Arthur’s Foster Father that he plans to stay and educate the boy and is told to piss off, Merlin responds by turning himself invisible and freaking the poor guy out. Way to abuse your power constantly Merlin. I like that he is unsentimental, manipulative and grumpy as it highlights how being friends with a wizard would often be a pain in the ass:
‘Hey! I know it is short notice but can you cook a seven course meal for me and several friends tonight? My friends like chicken, start with that’
‘Wait..What? No! I have to finish my dissertation and visit my ailing Father…’
‘Do you want me to turn you into a frog?’
‘What was that?’
It’s awesome being me!
The best showcase for Merlin is his fight with the Marvellous Mad Madam Mim, the closest thing we get to a classic Disney antagonist who shows up 60 minutes into the film. Arthur stumbles into her house while being a bird (we’ll get to that) and things escalate quickly when she goes from happily jumping around to attempting murder. But Merlin comes to save the day and the two magic people step outside for a Wizard’s Duel. Excellent. Basically they get to turn into different animals (no vegetables or minerals) in a battle of wits. It is creative, it is fun and is only let down by the anticlimactic bloodless conclusion. But mostly it works. The Animal Off. I especially liked Merlin as a crab. With a moustache.
Pictured: The highlight of the film.
So we have two pretty good characters, one pretty good scene and an occasional moment of mirth, like a determined Wolf who keeps stalking Arthur only to be left near death by the effort. It is funnier than it sounds.
And if you are under 12 all the various turning into colourful animals in order to learn lessons such as…Use your imagination, and erm…Make sure and…knowledge is important and…A lovestruck squirrel will never move on thus inspiring a worrying amount of fan fic (Don’t google it. Learn from my mistakes) is all very fun. And it turns out I am a sucker for animals wearing glasses. Who knew?
And we’re done here.
What Doesn’t Work:
I have been working on these reviews for a while now and I don’t really feel that anything I have criticised has been especially controversial until now. With ‘The Sword in the Stone’ I have hit upon a Disney film that seems to be truly loved by my generation. However I was in the rare position of having not seen it as a child. So I had no nostalgia for any of it. And as a result I watched it with clear, open eyes. And my findings are as follows:
NOTHING. FUCKING. HAPPENS.
I kept waiting for the plot to kick in…
‘Any second now’ I thought to myself, hopeful, optimistic, young.
Fish, Bird, Squirrel, Wizard Fight, Sword out of the Stone, Film Over.
I was left dumbfounded. I am not just saying that. I couldn’t speak for quite a few minutes after the credits. Seriously? That was it? Merlin turns a prepubescent King Arthur into a few animals and then the film ends?
What was the point in any of it????
Why did they bother?
Do you want to know what happens in the legends after the credits role?
After proving himself in many battles, Arthur falls in love with Guinevere, going so far as to push Merlin away as he warns Arthur she will be the end of his kingdom. Arthur’s power hungry half sisters make several attempts on his life, meanwhile his court of courageous and skilled knights continues to grow. Then he unknowingly sleeps with one of his half sisters and she has a child she leaves with him to raise and while he considers just murdering the kid he relents and keeps him at Camelot but not as his son and heir. His right hand man Lancelot also has a son by a woman who commits suicide when she realises Lancelot loves Guinevere. Despite knowing his wife loves his best friend back, Arthur tries to keep going but never confesses to Guinevere the identity of the angry boy who was created with the soul purpose of destroying Arthur from the inside. Many years and many adventures later (Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristram and Iseult, and Percivale’s Revenge to name a few) Lancelot’s son, Galahad, goes looking for and finds the Holy Grail and pays with his life, meanwhile Arthur’s son Modred manipulates him into starting a war against Lancelot for the affections of the Queen leading to the end of Camelot as Merlin predicted…
But no. Fuck all that. It’s for kids! Let’s turn Arthur into a fish for LITERALLY NO REASON AT ALL!!!!
It was one of the biggest wastes of time I have ever sat down and watched from beginning to end. Disney or no. Now, before I get drowned out by outraged 20 somethings who still sleep with their ‘Sword in the Stone’ VHS copies under their pillows, let me count the ways the film sucks.
They had a good story to tell and they blew it. Ok, they even could have made a good story out of Arthur’s childhood instead of focusing on his complicated adult life. Sure, the abused kid who turns out to be special has been done to death but this kid has a wizard to teach him things. There could have been something here if these ‘lessons’ turned out to be significant once he was King but we don’t get to SEE him be King. Plus the lessons are really stupid, you guys. Stupid and boring. Stupid and boring and so pointless.
Lesson One: ‘Have you ever wanted to be a fish boy?’ ‘Of course Merlin! I think about it on a daily basis’
‘So imagine yourself as a fish and I will turn you into one! Then we will swim around spouting gibberish in the hope that it sounds wise…’
This goes on for a while
Then they get attacked by a scary fish and the Owl saves the boy. So Lesson 1: Always keep an owl around in case your misguided Father figure puts you in danger. Got it. What’s lesson 2?
Lesson 2: ‘Have you ever wanted to be a squirrel?’ Now on this occasion, Arthur admits, he had never, ever considered contemplating such a worthless waste of screen time. Well tough. Merlin has a point to make and that point is…
Squirrels are sexually aggressive. It is funny to Merlin til it happens to him.
Disney’s take on a classic adventure story. Molesting squirrels. For kids.
But this whole scene is pretty uncomfortable. Merlin actually tells Arthur to stop resisting the weird Squirrel who won’t respect his personal space. I am not trying to be a killjoy. Honestly I am not. But I don’t find it funny. I find it disturbing. And, more importantly, POINTLESS.
Again, I assumed this character had a role to play beyond some playful rape, perhaps she is an enchanted human trying to communicate with him? Or maybe she will come back later and help them out? Nope. The scene ends with her devastated and Merlin citing the whole endeavour as a prime example of the power of love. Ok…
Lesson 3: Being a bird is harder than it looks. And watch out for that Hawk! Why is Arthur constantly being attacked? Is it all a metaphor for his complicated reign as King? Or did they just have very few ideas for this story? Yes. I am going with that one.
Just tell me why. Please. I’d love to know. Really. Why is this what they decided to do with the legend of King Arthur? If anybody has any ideas beyond: ‘It kept me amused when I was 5’ I would really be prepared to listen and adjust my opinion accordingly. Unless you have just written fan fiction where the Squirrel was Guinevere all along. I…Don’t want to talk to you.
Next up on my hit list is the following confusing double blow: The assumptions I made that the strange direction this film went in was at least in part because of the Disney staple of there being multiple directors and the crappy songs were helmed by some rank amateurs were both wrong.
Unlike every other Disney full length animated feature up until this point this film was guided by a single Director, in this case Wolfgang Reitherman. So why does it feel so confused? There are some real creative moments here and there but then it is all such a hodgepodge of messy, messy non-ideas…Previous Disney films that feel stylistically uneven usually had multiple artistic voices clawing for attention but this one has no excuse. ‘The Sword in the Stone’ just does not seem to know what it wants to be. It is just a comedy aimed at kids? Is it trying to teach them something? Is it trying to do something new with an old story? Is it about the Father/Son relationship between Merlin and Arthur? I don’t know. And apparently neither did he. Even if you could accuse me of reading too far into a film made for keeping crotch dumplings quiet for an hour and a half I give you this: I was bored. It is dull. So they couldn’t even get the ‘It’s just entertainment, don’t think so much!’ part right.
And the music…My God. The intro song is sung by the Mayor of Vibrato Town and is totally naff, Mim’s song forgets to have a melody, Merlin’s packing song doesn’t have any real lyrics and lasts about 40 seconds, and I have listened to ‘That’s What Makes the World go Round’ four times in the last hour and I couldn’t hum it for you…And here are the lyrics:
Like day and night
That’s what makes the world go round
In and out
Thin and stout
That’s what makes the world go round
For every up there is a down
For every square there is a round
For every high there is a low
For every to there is a fro
To and fro
Stop and go
That’s what makes the world go round
If you are reading that and thinking: ‘Clever stuff’ Well…You are not are you? You couldn’t. One of my viewing companions turned to me during the second verse and said: ‘Is he just making it up as he goes along?’
None of the songs are long enough or memorable enough to leave an impact on me and fail completely to meet the Disney standard so who is responsible for brilliantly rhyming down with round mere seconds after using the word round in a different context? Was it some intern? No. It was the sodding Sherman Brothers. The self same Sherman Brothers who wrote the music for ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ Wow. Just…This really hurts me. I didn’t know. I am sorry. I love so much of their work. But I maintain the music is abysmal compared to those two films I just mentioned. And you would have a hard time convincing me otherwise.
I don’t care about Arthur. Ok, so this is hardly a new complaint in terms of Disney leads but this one hits a new low. To say Arthur has the personality of drywall is like saying Hitler did some bad stuff in 1939. It just doesn’t tell the whole story. What do we know about him? He wants to be a squire, he has imagined being a fish but not a squirrel, he doesn’t take kindly to being sexually harassed by tree climbing animals and he is clumsy. Yes, clumsy. He drops dishes three times. Clumsy. The last refuge of a personality free protagonist.
I sure hope he doesn’t drop them! Whoa! Etc.
He is so Milquetoast he barely reacts to a wizard serving him tea and informing him that he is going to teach him stuff because he is destined for greatness. This kid. Great? Hell, even the film-makers didn’t care about Arthur based on the genuinely appalling continuity with his voice. Three different actors played him and they do not sound alike. It is the worst voice acting I have ever heard and I do NOT say that lightly.
You could argue, oh I am ready for you, that his changing voice from prepubescent to teenager is to signify time passing but sometimes his voice changes BETWEEN LINES. In the final scene he says ‘I wish Merlin was here’ in his more teenage/broken voice and then shouts ‘Merlin!’ in the voice of a child. Observe. Feast your eyes on the terrible voice acting and terrible editing:
This is one of a million examples I could give you. Just how much of a fuck did they not give? Why should I care if they didn’t?
And I didn’t care. Not one bit. Not one of his voice actors does good work here but the first voice in particular really grated on me and was annoying as hell. Maybe they heard me complaining and changed the actor for me. You really shouldn’t have guys. You really shouldn’t have.
Even Merlin, one of the few redeeming characters, is too much of a dick to really care about. He is mean to Arthur for no reason in the final section of the film just so there can be a third act conflict leading to Merlin being absent when Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone. He is a snob who constantly goes on about Arthur focusing on education so as not to waste his potential by getting a, shudder, job and is extremely cruel when Arthur is excited about being a squire. He claims it is because he does not want to see his talents wasted. What talents though? What is he learning via his bonkers Wizard pal? And what talents does he need to pull a sword from the stone? None as it turns out. So what talent does he need to be a good and wise King? We’ll never know because the film ends before we get to that point. Nothing Merlin does has any positive impact and his dickishness is not endearing and is only present to move what passes for the plot forward.
Even if you can get past the fact that this film has no plot or story of which to speak of despite, and I can’t stress this enough, being based of one of the most exciting, long lasting and action packed legends of all time, you could try and claim, and many do, that this is a clever little comedic venture. I am not going to spend too much time disputing the take as comedy is a personal thing and I can’t really say you are wrong if you enjoy the humour on display in ‘The Sword in the Stone’ Hey, I laughed a bit. But it is not consistently witty which makes it all the more frustrating to me. If it had just been dry and without any decent laughs I could write it off as a load of crap and move on but there are hints that the script could have been more than it is. Archimedes is great comedy foil, Merlin has his moments, the wolf is the worst hunter ever and animals with glasses. But then there are moments like when Merlin causes an indoor snow storm that he declares ‘A Wizard Blizzard!’ And you are reminded that nobody making this film was trying.
The animation is pretty bad. Many of the characters are out of synch with their speech and several cells of animations are reused obviously. Apart from some of the colour choices and the Wizard Duel there is nothing visually pleasing in sight.
Also, it bugs me that Merlin complains about being put in a leaky tower when he could just use magic to fix the roof. Seriously. He can pack his whole living room in a small suitcase and turn into a disease at a moments notice but slate repair is too advanced?
Also, also, considering this is supposed to be set in England a lot of the voices are distractingly inconsistent. Where in the name of ‘Medieval London’ is Kay supposed to be from anyway?
And that ending…Fuck that ending. So Arthur is a boy king and 24 hours a day there are enthusiastic townspeople bellowing: ‘Hail! King Arthur!’ outside his castle so he can’t leave despite severe anxiety about the huge responsibility that has been foisted upon him all because he was looking for a spare sword after proving to be the world’s worst Squire. Don’t despair Arty! Just remember your lessons from the brilliant and wise Merlin! Up and Down! Right and Left! To and Fro! Try Not to Let, The Yo-yo Down! Or however the fuck that terrible song goes…
Then Merlin comes back and promises him someone will make a film about all his adventures someday…End of film! You wanted closure? A moment where Merlin admits he was being a nasty snobby little brat earlier? Perhaps a glimpse at some of the exciting adventures he will have as King? Tough luck! This is Disney and 80 minutes away from your kids is all you are getting bitches!
It was so rushed and so anticlimactic. Hell I didn’t even know a film this plot-free could be anticlimactic but they managed it somehow. Good job everyone involved. You made me wish for more film from this film I didn’t like.
Fine. I will cease with my vitriol. I don’t want to upset anyone. It would have pleased me no end to have enjoyed this as much as my peers, to be able to write an enthusiastic piece about how joyous this film is but I just didn’t see it. I am not a naturally negative or demanding viewer. I was just disappointed with the film, my expectations were pretty high and I don’t get the hype. This is the first film I have really come down hard on that people actually seem to care about so I have mixed feelings about the tone of this review. I don’t want to imply that if you love this film you are wrong. It doesn’t work like that. But equally I can feel let down by ‘The Sword in the Stone’ because I know Disney can do so, so much better than this. And if you are really honest with yourself…Don’t you know it too?
No? Ok. I give up. I love The Boring Sword in the Pointless Stone. Everybody now!
Up and Down! Side to Side! That’s What Makes, the Pony Clip Clop! Or however the fuck that terrible song goes. Don’t worry guys. What goes down is about to come back up. In the next film Disney and the Sherman Brothers smashed it right out the park. But until then…
While it has flashes of funny and some enduring characters in Merlin and Archimedes, this is one of the laziest efforts of Disney so far. This is the ‘Cars’ of the Disney cannon. It is one of the most aimless films I have ever seen and when your subject matter is King Arthur there is no excuse for that.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 2
The scary fish who attacks Arthur Fish genuinely freaked me out and I would love to learn more about his back story.
Why so mad bro?
And Mim’s sudden switch from singing about being awesome to wanting to kill Arthur Bird. Not that I can blame her.
Oh God. Never have I been more tempted to skip this bit. It is surreal to me how much I resent the forgetfulness of this score here when the Sherman Brothers are about to do some truly incredible work in the very next film.
Not all that surprisingly I am NOT giving it to the Up and Down! Back to Front! That’s What Makes, The Froggies Hop! Or however the fuck that terrible song goes. Fine I will reward Merlin’s song that I can’t spell cause I enjoy it a bit:
Next Time: Walter Disney’s last hurrah and what a film to go out on…Oh Disney, I could never stay mad at you…The Jungle Book (1967)