Camelot! Camelot! Camelot! … it’s only a model. Just like this is only a model of an animated feature. It’s kind of sad, really. But I’m getting ahead of myself. On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place. Instead, we’ll go back in time to the very beginning and embark on a series of adventures and turn into fish, squirrels, a newt… I got better.
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I’m not even sorry.
Arthurian legend and Disney seem like a match made in heaven. You’ve got castles, you’ve got sorcerers, you’ve got knights, you’ve got romance…. Okay, you also have a lot of other stuff that wouldn’t make it past any censor with a brain, but that didn’t stop The Little Mermaid or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Knights of the Round table were also really popular in the states around this time. Camelot dominated the Broadway stage- in fact, Walt attended a performance featuring no one in particular, only Julie Andrews. I’m sure that won’t come into play later.
You can imagine the excitement when the studio officially picked up a project shelved during World War II, an adaptation of The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. The original book was published in 1938, but by the time work began on the film in earnest, White had written two more installments and combined them into The Once and Future King, one of the foremost collections of Arthurian stories in the world to this day. It should have been brilliant. It could have been brilliant. It’s just… not.
Part of the problem stemmed from Walt’s lack of attention. Around this same time, one of his passion projects was well into production. He hadn’t shown that much interest in a film in a very, very long time, at least since before Disneyland, which is great… for that other movie. He was also very involved with buying up land and putting together plans for his mysterious Florida Project, so that didn’t help either. The other reason was in-fighting between the studio execs. Due to budget constraints caused by the failure of Sleeping Beauty, there was an agreement only to release one animated film every few years rather than every year like we saw in the 40s. Most of the studio supported a Marc Davis passion project called Chanticleer, about a vain rooster who thought he made the sun rise. Head story artist Bill Peet fought for The Sword in the Stone, and in the end, Walt decided it would be too difficult to make a rooster cuddly. The Sword in the Stone won, and director Wolfgang Reitherman’s resentment shows through the finished product. Incidentally, an animator by the name of Don Bluth would revisit the idea many years later after leaving the studio in the form of Rock-a-Doodle.
Honestly, The Sword in the Stone isn’t a bad movie. It’s perfectly enjoyable, as evidenced by the moderately positive reviews and the profit it turned. Actually, it was the sixth highest grossing film of 1963. The critics made the problem known: the characters were delightful and the comedy uproarious, but the plot surrounding it was much to thin. And no matter how many times I see this film, I can’t wrap my head around that. How do take a lore as lush as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and strip almost everything away?
Before I answer that question, I would like to give a little credit to a few milestones marked by this movie. This was the first animated film to be directed by just one person and the first animated feature scored by the Sherman Brothers. Those are the good milestones. Unfortunately, this would also be the last animated feature worked on by special effects genius and Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks. Bill Peet never got the chance to redeem himself after this, as he had a falling-out with Walt shortly after its release and left the studio early in the production of the next feature. Most tragically of all, we’ve reached the last animated feature released during Walt’s lifetime. He passed away during production for the Jungle Book.
Well, that’s not the note to go into this movie on. How about this? Take a shot every time the filmmakers reuse the exact same voice clip of Wart going “woah-what-woah”. Actually, wait, that’s a really bad idea. You’ll probably die. Let’s just dive in and examine exactly what went wrong with a movie that had so much promise, shall we? There’s plenty here that I do like, so I’ll be sure to give credit where credit is due. There’s one character in particular… well, we’ll get there. Let’s go!
The movie opens, as animated features often do, with a storybook to set the scene for us. After the death of Uther Pendragon, Heaven sends down the Title of Movie to prevent the world from going insane. Well, it doesn’t work very well. No one proves worthy to pull the sword from the stone, so the world goes insane anyway. Our story proper starts in the Dark Ages, a brutal time when only the strong survived. A pitiless time when hungry hawks and scurrying squirrels foreshadow dreadful things to come. A sad time when passing ruffians could say Ni at will to old ladies. In the middle of this most forbidding landscape, we find Merlin, cursing out his well and frustrated with the medieval period’s lack of 20th century conveniences. This brings me to a big strength I found in this movie: the script might not be great, but they introduce the characters brilliantly. One sentence tells us everything we need to know about this sorcerer, his personality, and his time-traveling abilities.
Speaking of time, Merlin comes into his great big anachronism stew of a house and checks his pocket watch. Apparently he and his familiar, a grumpy talking owl named Archimedes are due to have a guest soon. Archimedes doesn’t quite believe Merlin’s talk of guiding his guest to destiny, but Merlin gets tea ready anyway. A cloud of smoke from Merlin’s pipe transitions us to the guest himself, a prepubescent boy named Arthur, nicknamed Wart on a hunting trip with his much-older adoptive brother Kay. Kay orders the kid to keep quiet while he shoots Bambi’s mom, but— woah-what-woah!— Wart falls off a log and makes the shot go wide. Kay threatens to thrash him, but Wart scurries deep into the dark and scary woods, vowing to get the lost arrow back. Without noticing the starving wolf stalking him, Wart climbs a tree to fetch the arrow but— woah-what-woah!— falls down, right through Merlin’s thatched roof!
Merlin welcomes Wart for tea and introduces himself in the most dramatic way possible, making sure to emphasize the whole time travel thing. For the first of only two times in the movie, Wart informs us that he goes by a nickname and his full name is Arthur. Hint hint. This whole conversation gets really clunky really fast, lending further fuel to my theory that this script could really have used another draft or two. However, there are some cute moments with the sentient sugar bowl that, combined with Merlin’s anachronistic jokes, led me to believe this movie strongly influenced Aladdin. Merlin led to the Genie, the sugar bowl influenced the Carpet, etc. Anyway, Merlin decides he’s going to tutor Wart because brains always triumph over brawn, even in the Dark Ages. Despite all societal convention stating otherwise, Merlin knows this scrawny orphan can amount to much more than a lowly squire.
One of this movie’s signature scenes comes when Merlin packs his whole house into one little suitcase by shrinking his belongings in a chaotic magical whirlwind. It’s always great fun to see him in action, especially for something that’s actually useful. I wish I could pack like that. He ushers a stunned Wart outside with a warning that magic can’t solve all of his problems. Spoiler alert: magic solves all of his problems. Like, all of them. After a minor navigational error and another monologue about how Wart will never be anything if he doesn’t use his brains, they make it to the Castle of Forest Sauvage. It’s getting dark and Wart’s still not home, so his guardian, Sir Ector, is starting to worry. This is really the only moment in the movie where we see that he’s not evil, just strict. The rest of the time, he comes off as a bully. Kay, for his part, could not care any less about anything ever.
The castle’s dogs go nuts and pounce on Wart as he enters the banquet hall. Remember this animation, we’ll be seeing it again later. Sir Ector doesn’t show his relief well, instead laying into him for scaring everyone like that and punishing him with four hours of kitchen duty. Honestly, making a kid do chores for being irresponsible and staying out late isn’t that unreasonable. Wart scurries off and Sir Ector finally notices Merlin and Archimedes standing behind the wall. He refuses to believe “Marvin” is really a wizard, so Merlin makes it snow inside the castle in July. Kay does not care. He just eats his chicken leg again. The feat and some cajoling convince Ector to allow the strange man to stay on as Wart’s tutor. He even has a guest room prepared for him.
Said guest room turns out to be a crumbling ruined tower, where a rainstorm pours through the many holes in the roof. Merlin grumbles and plugs them up with modern umbrellas. Archimedes wants to go home, but no. He’s on a mission, and the situation makes him more determined than ever to help Wart rise above this whole situation. Around this time, a visitor named Sir Pellinore and his glorious mustache arrives at the castle with big news. Every year, a tournament takes place in London, but this year brings a very special prize. It seems the people of England are tired of living in brutal anarchy, and they’ve decided that the winner of the tournament can be king! I continue to aspire to Kay’s level of apathy (who responds to the idea of being king with “Sure, why not?”) and Wart’s dreams of becoming a squire really kick off.
Before any of that can happen, Kay has to become a knight. That’s easier said than done. What kind of screw-up loses a joust to a training dummy? The display disgusts Merlin, who denounces the sorry excuse for a sport as “one dummy trying to knock off another dummy with a bit of a stick.” It’s a shame Wart got sucked in to the only bit of entertainment they had and the best job prospect an orphan could hope for in those days, because if he focused on filling his head with knowledge he could really be somebody. The world is pretty stacked against him, though, so Merlin will just have to use magic to push him along. And then the movie derails.
Right in the middle of a monologue from Wart about how cool knights are, Merlin offers to turn him into a fish completely out of left field. Disney’s thing about how a little imagination and a little magic can let you do anything all but gets explicitly stated here, so heavy-handed that it completely loses its impact. Once he remembers the magic words, Merlin turns the two of them into fish to teach Wart about the importance of using his head in hostile environments. Also there’s a whole song made up of random opposites, I don’t know. Wart learns to swim while being harassed by a frog for a frankly ridiculous chunk of screentime. A huge pike interrupts the frivolity, and things get real as it decides it wants to eat Arthur. Where’s Merlin while his student’s life is in danger? Hiding in a sunken helmet, of course. Actually, Wart does pretty well for himself at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s outmatched and Merlin still refuses to get off his tail. Archimedes ends up having to save his scales because one else will!
Only after Archimedes drops fish-Wart safely in the grass does Merlin grump out of the water in human form to turn him back. He doesn’t even ask Wart if he’s okay, he just threatens the pike! I’m pretty sure Wart learned quite conclusively that brawn beats out brains, at least from that encounter, because he’s only alive because of sheer dumb luck. Oh, and Archimedes, but the owl won’t just admit that. Safe at the castle, Wart tries to tell Ector about the amazing adventures he just had, but Ector and Kay dismiss it and sentence him to several more hours of kitchen duty. And guys. This kitchen. How does a family of three, one guest, and a couple servants fill an entire, substantially large room with filthy dishes? Do they only do dishes like, once a year? No wonder kitchen duty is the worst punishment Ector can think of!
Luckily (?), Merlin shows up to offer another lesson, this time about the terrible horrible life of a squirrel. Wart politely declines because A) he almost died last time and B) he has chores to do. Well, wizards don’t take no for an answer, so Merlin makes the dishes do themselves. I don’t know what fascination early Disney had with magically animated brooms cleaning up all by themselves, but just like with Sleeping Beauty, it makes really one of the standout scenes of the film. The score plays a brilliantly jazzy reprise of Higitus Figitus, and it somehow manages to make limited and repeated animation look inventive. I’m pretty sure this counts as solving your problems with magic, but it’s a neat little moment regardless.
It’s a shame the following sequence isn’t nearly as engaging. Okay, I know I’m going to get crucified for this, so I’m just gonna say it. I don’t like the squirrel scene. I know, I know, they’re cartoon squirrels in a family movie but it skeeves me out. I made my feelings on harassment and aggressive pursuit as comedy abundantly clear in Bon Voyage!, and it’s not any better here. No means no, even if the aggressor is female and the victim is male. Also, Wart is twelve. Twelve. I don’t know much about squirrel years but watching a child being pursued this aggressively and being expected to laugh at it bugs me kind of a lot. Judging by her popularity on the Internet I’m in the minority on this, but that’s my opinion and I’m gonna give it. That said, I’ve seen some fic of Merlin turning this squirrel human and naming her Hazel or even Guinevere, which would have been super interesting.
Okay, tangent over. While Arthur gets perved on by a squirrel and falls from the tree a bunch (woah-what-woah! X2), Merlin once again laughs in his face and refuses to do anything to help him because he is the worst mentor ever. He doesn’t even teach biology accurately– squirrels don’t mate for life. The laughing only stops when an abhorrent fat old lady squirrel starts chasing him, because if there’s one thing funnier than a girl violating a guy, it’s a fat ugly girl violating a guy! I’m so tired. Hazel/Guinevere manages to redeem herself slightly, at least, by thwarting the hungry wolf’s attempts to eat Wart. Merlin decides to defend himself and okay maybe Wart too sure whatever by turning them back into humans. Wart breaks Hazel/Guinevere’s heart and we mostly accidentally get a lesson on the power of love.
Someone left the mop running back at the castle! Unfortunately, it’s the very Muggle-minded scullery maid (voiced by Barbara Jo Allen aka Fauna from Sleeping Beauty) who discovers it, flying into screaming hysterics at the sight of a few dishes cleaning themselves. You’d think she’d be pleased at having less work to do. Sir Ector rushes in to investigate and declares the cleaning supplies “black magic of the worst kind.” Um. Okay. Merlin and Wart walk in on Ector and Kay trying to stop the mops and dishes with brute strength. In case you haven’t gotten the message that brute strength is useless, only Merlin’s magic puts a stop to the spell. Naturally, Ector doesn’t love being humiliated by a sponge so he tries to banish Merlin. The wizard has the last laugh but he does disappear.
Wart, too, faces the very real threat of not going to London to achieve his dream of being a squire. He doesn’t care. He jumps to the defense of his mentor, tearfully declaring that his magic is good and Ector needs to give other perspectives a chance instead of being all authoritarian. He has a point in spite of the horrendous voice acting, but Ector responds by punishing him. Again. Now Wart really won’t get to be Kay’s squire. Before he leaves, Kay smugly slices a broom in half. Legend has it that the animators threw that in as a “take that” at Walt for his inattention and the way he unceremoniously killed Chanticleer.
As Wart kneels forlorn amongst the broken dishes, Merlin reappears to try to make him feel better. He’s astonishingly bad at this— “it can’t get worse” does not good advice make. Still, Wart doesn’t have anything else to do with his time now, so he agrees to let Merlin teach him some more. Cut to the tower and a bunch of important king-type lessons like “the world is round” and “there are other planets” and just what exactly is the difference between an African swallow and a European swallow. Archimedes points out that he’s overwhelming the kid with his fancy futuristic knowledge, causing Merlin to fly into a snit and give up. So now Archimedes is the tutor.
Actually, Archimedes doesn’t do a bad job. He starts at the beginning by teaching Wart how to read and write. Meanwhile, Merlin putters around in search of a model flying machine, which surely will never be a real thing. He winds it up to show Wart what man can do if he puts his mind to it, but his beard gets caught in it and the plane plummets into the moat. The wizard’s failure tickles Archimedes pink, and he spends a solid twenty seconds of animation laughing his head off on the windowsill. Meanwhile, Wart gazes dreamily a passing flock of birds and muses about how lovely it would be to fly. No points for guessing what Merlin turns him into next. He starts a dry lecture on the mechanics of flying, but Archimedes interrupts. Lectures, after all, are no substitute for firsthand experience, even if Merlin starts sulking again. Wart almost falls out of the sky (woah-what-woah!) but other than that, things go pretty well. At first.
As you can see from the image, a hungry hawk chases them through the sky in the hopes of eating the little sparrow. Wart escapes down a nearby chimney (woah-what-woah!), that just so happens to belong to the best character in the movie! Like, I know I’ve been harsh on this one, but I love Madam Mim so much. It’s like they took the entire way I present myself to people and put it on film. She gets another brilliant character introduction, hoping that the coughing she hears is someone’s terrible illness and man, I could say something about a certain pandemic but I’m not going to. She’s disappointed that the cough turns out to be just a little sparrow, and not even that- one of Merlin’s pupils! She introduces herself with manic glee to prove how awesome she is compared to that loser Merlin and it’s a riot and I love her. I. Love. Her.
While Mim brags, Archimedes flies off to find Merlin so poor Wart has a chance of survival. He takes just a little too long, though, because Mim finishes up by declaring that all good things are bad to her so she just has to kill Wart. As you do. Obviously. She turns herself into a cat to chase the little sparrow Wart around the room, destroying her cottage before capturing him in one claw. Just before she devours him, Merlin whirls in to the rescue. I probably should knock the next line as a symptom of the subpar writing in this movie, but it makes me laugh so hard I can’t be mad about it. It’s completely ludicrous and only works because the villain in question is such a ball of manic energy. Only in this movie can they segue into the climax by having the villain go up to a supporting character and squawk, “Wanna fight?!”
That said, animation experts often cite this climax as one of the greatest examples of character animation ever put to film. You can always tell which is Merlin and which is Mim, because each transformation retains identifiable characteristics like Merlin’s beard and glasses and Mim’s wild purple hair. It’s easy to follow and great fun to watch. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, Archimedes explains to Wart, our hero who gets relegated to a spectator, exactly what a Wizard’s Duel is: two sorcerers turning into stuff to finish each other off. Then the two combatants lay down the rules: they can only turn into animals. They can only turn into real animals– “no pink dragons and stuff”. Remember that one. They can’t just disappear. Remember that one, too. And most of all, no cheating. Gooood luck with that.
And then the battle begins! Mim’s opening move turns her into a crocodile, a mountain of muscle and teeth made for destruction. Merlin’s transformation into a tortoise is a little less expected, making him slow and helpless, but he does have a shell to protect him from Mim’s bite. That’s about how most of the fight goes. Mim invariably chooses large, strong animals like a fox, a rhino, an elephant, a tiger, and a snake in an effort to brute force her way through this. In keeping with the movie’s running theme, Merlin chooses smaller animals like a caterpillar, a goat, a crab, or a rabbit with a vicious streak a mile wide. Each of these requires strategy to make up for its apparent helplessness and make a fool out of Mim. Knowledge is power, brains are better than brawn, okay, movie, we get it. This is the most effective application of the lesson, but we got it the first time.
Merlin knocks Mim into the bog and for just a second, it looks like it’s over. But no- now Mim’s angry. She rises out of the muck as a huge, fearsome dragon, which is a very clear violation of the rules. She justifies this with “did I say no purple dragons?! Did I?!” which… pretty sure that’s not how that works but you are fabulous so I’ll allow it. It’ll take a bold move indeed to succeed now that everything is on fire, but Merlin disappears right out from under Mim’s claws. It’s okay, though, he didn’t break the rules. Shrinking to microscopic size isn’t technically disappearing, after all.
Okay, technically a virus isn’t an animal but we’re not paying attention to the rules anymore anyway. So Merlin turns into a virus and infects Mim, winning the duel and I want to reference current events so bad right now but I’ll attempt to have some class. It’s just so easy. Mim actually died of the virus in the book, but here Merlin just puts her to bed and promises she’ll recover with plenty of rest and sunshine. And we leave the best character in the movie sick in bed, screaming that she “HATES HORRIBLE WHOLESOME SUNSHINE!!!” which is further proof that I am Mad Madam Mim you don’t even know.
But wait! You may ask. This movie is called The Sword in the Stone. We established at the beginning that the sword is super important. So why, praytell, have we spent a solid hour and a half talking about everything but the sword in the stone. Well, fear not, gentle reader (when in medieval England, amirite?), because it’s almost time to head to London for the tournament! The replacement squire mysteriously falls ill conveniently right after Merlin infects Madam Mim, which means Wart gets to be Kay’s squire after all! He’s so shocked he falls down the stairs again (woah-what woah! With bonus points for using the same animation as earlier!). Maybe it’s not Merlin’s fault after all, because Merlin gets so angry at this news that he flings himself forward through time to Bermuda. As you do.
Finally, we make it to London! Wart stands by Kay watching the two combating knights swordfighting…. sword… fighting… sword…. Oh, no! Wart forgot Kay’s sword! He’s the worst squire ever! Frantic, he runs back to the inn to go get it, but the inn is closed. The owners left to watch the tournament. Luckily, there just so happens to be a sword in the middle of the churchyard. Stuck into an anvil. Weird. Even weirder, holy light shines down from heaven and angels sing every time he touches it. That kind of freaks Archimedes out, but Wart has bigger problems. Kay needs a sword, so he pulls it right out of the stone and brings it to the knight. Kay only cares that he didn’t bring his sword but Ector notices the writing on the hilt proclaiming that this is the legendary Sword in the Stone. Thurl Ravenscroft randomly shows up to announce the news to the whole tournament, but no one believes that this scrawny kid could pull off such an incredible feat.
Wart swears up and down that he really did pull the sword from the stone, but he has no idea why that’s significant. The other knights haul him up in front of the stone to make him prove it, but Kay demands his share of the glory. Now that it’s been pulled out, surely he can manage it. Yeah, no. Wart puts the sword back in the stone and Kay yanks with all his might, but nothing happens. When Wart tries again, the choir of angels returns and the sword slides out like a hot knife from a butter dish. There’s no doubt about it now. Wart— Arthur— is King. Ector and Kay apologize and Thurl Ravenscroft leads the whole crowd in honoring their new King.
Poor Arthur quickly gets completely overwhelmed with all this praise and honor. If only his tutor taught him something useful! In the book, the animal transformations taught him about different forms of government and how to relate to people and other things that helped him become a good and fair king. Here, though? He learned nothing. Knowledge may be power, but not only did he not need to use it to pull out the sword, but he didn’t actually gain any knowledge at all. This thought makes him so distraught his voice changes mid-sentence and he begs for Merlin to help him. Luckily, Merlin hears his desperate cry and zooms back in time, dressed in a stereotypical tourist getup and swearing off Bermuda forever. You’d think a guy who can travel through time would have heard of King Arthur and his tutor Merlin through pop cultural osmosis or something, but no, only now does he put two and two together. The film actually ends with Merlin promising that Arthur will go on great adventures!
I want to like this movie a lot more than I do. There are plenty of fun sequences and one of the most relatable characters in the entire Disney animated canon (stop booing me, I’m right). It’s genuinely funny in places and the characters are pretty memorable. This part of Arthur’s life makes perfect sense to turn into an animated feature, certainly more so than all the incest and infidelity and violence and stuff. It even mostly follows the plot of the book on paper, where the titular sword isn’t even mentioned until the last chapter. However, not only does it miss the entire point of the book even more egregiously than Peter Pan, but the structure doesn’t work that well on film. A book is divided into chapters because each one has a different main idea and a plot within a plot. The choppiness works.
On the other hand, on film, you mostly expect a running theme. There was an alternate opening where Madam Mim tried to usurp Arthur to stop him finding the stone and becoming King, which would have fixed everything. If Merlin knew about Arthur’s destiny and quested to guide him towards it with Madam Mim trying to stop them along the way, we would have something compelling that really showed off what Disney can do with a story that lends itself so well to their style. As it stands, this is the one and only animated feature I’m actively hoping gets a live action remake, which is apparently a thing that’s happening. It deserves a second chance.
Wart/King Arthur doesn’t really do the movie any favors. You’d think King Arthur would be a bold, daring hero type even as a kid. You’d think Disney would show us the spark that Merlin sees. You’d think we’d have something, anything to show that this kid will be one of the greatest heroes in all of literature. Yeah, you’d be wrong. I’ve seen plain yogurt with more personality than Wart. He doesn’t do anything, things just happen to him. He displays no agency whatsoever, instead getting yanked around wherever Merlin, Archimedes, or Ector needs him to go to further the plot. It’s impossible to root for a character so utterly passive, especially when he should be the most exciting character in the film.
Speaking of frustrating, this kid has three voice actors. Three. All three are Very Nice Young Men Doing Their Best, all three are American, and all three sound completely different. The change became necessary when the original actor, Rickie Sorenson, hit puberty midway through recording, which made his voice crack and become unusable for the voice of a young boy. Director Wolfgang Reitherman replaced him with two of his three sons (we’ll hear the third one soon), Richard and Robert. This could actually have worked if they used a younger voice (one) in the beginning of the movie, then transitioned into Sorenson’s older teen voice towards the end to create a coming-of-age effect. However, they switch voice clips out seemingly at random, resulting in Wart sounding completely different from scene to scene. There’s even a moment towards the end where his voice changes mid-line!
Merlin reminds me a lot of Jiminy Cricket. Both of them are meant to be wise, if quirky, mentor figures, but both of them are absolutely atrocious at it. Unlike Jiminy, Merlin’s not supposed to be this bad at teaching, but I couldn’t help noticing that he’s not actually teaching Wart anything relevant to kingship at all. His lessons about valuing knowledge and imagination could have been something excellent, but they fall completely flat because they go nowhere. That said, he’s definitely likeable in a grumpy old man kind of way, and I can see a whole lot of a prototype Genie in his personality and modern-day references. That gives him enough staying power to appear in things like Kingdom Hearts and the theme parks whenever they need a mentor figure, making him recognizable even to people who don’t know Disney ever tackled Arthurian legend.
More than 70 actors auditioned for the role of Merlin, but the actor they landed on was originally cast as Archimedes. Karl Swenson, star of a whole bunch of TV Westerns, had just the mix of eccentricity and wisdom that a character like this required. As far as design goes, Bill Peet kept one person in mind when designing a curmudgeonly, eccentric, imaginative genius of a man. Walt never knew about inspiring Merlin, or if he did, he didn’t say anything, but Peet fully acknowledges it. He even gave him his nose!
Archimedes the educated owl gets the closest thing this movie has to a character arc. He starts out grumpy and crabby, refusing to even acknowledge that he cares about his master’s pupil. Once he warms up, though, he proves to be a much better (and more useful) teacher than Merlin himself. Surprisingly, this particular funny talking animal was not a Disney creation- he actually appears in T.H. White’s novel! It surprised me, too. When the original voice for Archimedes switched to voicing Merlin, they replaced him with Junius Matthews. Matthews previously voiced the little yappy Scottie dog in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but he’s best known for another Disney role: Rabbit in the Winnie the Pooh series.
Sir Ector is supposed to be the male version of Cinderella’s stepmother, but I don’t really think that came across very well. Mostly, he’s just kind of strict and unimaginative, which can come across negatively in a movie about the power of magic and imagination. Wart is very clearly not his favorite child, but it’s hard to think of wanting the kid to do chores as antagonistic. Sebastian Cabot actually agreed to return to Disney after enduring Westward Ho! the Wagons, which is all the better because it leads to his next Disney role. He also marks the first appearance of the infamous Milt Kahl “head swaggle“, a move we’ll be seeing a lot of through the ’60s and ’70s when people get cocky.
Sir Kay represents the stepsisters, if his father represents the stepmother, and he fails for similar reasons. Sure, he’s a boorish bully, but he never actually does anything. In fact, Wart idolizes him, and we never really see a reason for that, either. His defining character trait, besides a whole bunch of obvious recycled animation, is complete and total apathy towards anything and everything. It shouldn’t be funny but it kind of is because it’s just so over the top. His voice actor, Norman Alden, played various television roles and later went on to appear in the 1986 Transformers movie as Kranix.
Madam Mim more than makes up for all these other lackluster characters. Though she only appears for about fifteen minutes, she steals the whole movie and runs away with a deranged, infectious cackle. She enjoys being evil, and I can respect that. Also, she’s me. More than any other animated Disney character, this deranged witch perfectly embodies my entire personality. Morbid, fixated on the dark side of things, but super hyperactive and energetic and gleeful at the way she approaches life? Not to mention that sunshine line. Like, hi, guys, they put me on screen thirty years before I was born. I love her so, so much. If there’s one flaw with her, it’s that she’s grotesquely underutilized. I need more of her, please.
I’m not the only one who finds her absolutely delightful, either. She appears in comics set in the Duckberg universe with some frequency, especially in the Netherlands. Sometimes they even pair her up with Captain Hook or the Phantom Blot! So that’s… yeah. This was Martha Wentworth’s final film role, following Nanny and a few other minor roles in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. She went out with quite a bang! She clearly enjoyed playing the character, which makes Mim even more fun to watch.
For the second time, George Bruns brought hints of jazz into a score for a Disney animated film. It’s more pronounced here, mostly because it clashes so much with the medieval setting. That said, I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. The melodies are great, especially in the dishwashing scene, and he’s not afraid to cut off a jazz number with some more period-appropriate trumpets, as seen in the beginnings. By Sword in the Stone, an astute ear can pick out some patterns in Bruns’s animated scores— the soundtrack in Mim’s dragon transformation directly references the similar (but better) scene in Sleeping Beauty, for example.
I also find it interesting how often popular music keeps cropping up throughout the soundtracks of the 60’s, something that would have been unheard of in the intentionally timeless scores of the ‘60s. The unusual move proved popular, because no only would Bruns keep doing it through most of the rest of his career, but Sword in the Stone earned an Academy Award Nomination for Best Score. It lost, but it’s cool that it got nominated. Two people didn’t love this score, though. The Sherman Brothers got a little disgruntled that their songs didn’t appear within the score as often as those of previous films had done. This marks the first of several animated films with songs by the Sherman Brothers, though I don’t think this was their best work. Past live action films like Summer Magic or In Search of the Castaways overshadow this one, not to mention their magnum opus coming up very soon.
The Sword in the Stone clearly sets the stage for a medieval adventure with its troubador-like sound. Fred Darian puts passion and heart into the lyrics, which tell the audience straight up what they’re going to see. It’s a great opening, and if the movie kept up with this level of momentum, it would have been so much better. I want to watch the movie this song sets up, not an hour and a half faffing around with squirrels. Also, I find this song a huge earworm and I have no idea why.
Higitus Figitus starts off nicely as well, with several dramatic chords. It’s those chords that I feel make this song the best known one in the movie, but that might just be my opinion. The rest of the song, though? I don’t… like… it… that much. SORRY. It devolves into kind of a chaotic mess that gets discordant and hard to listen to which suit the manic nature of Merlin’s magic but isn’t exactly easy on the ears. I feel like the Sherman Brothers tried to recreate what made Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo so magical, with the nonsense lyrics and clever visuals, but it doesn’t work for me.
That’s What Makes the World Go Round would make a spectacular little short for Disney Junior. The lyrics teach the importance of learning and imagination while listing off various opposites which could really help little ones. It’s catchy, too, though that might because it’s the first song I heard from this movie thanks to my Sing-a-long tapes as a kid. Like the rest of the fish segment, though, I don’t feel like it works in its context. It’s a very long song, and has absolutely nothing to do with the film as a whole. Only the very last verse, which isn’t even on the soundtrack, has anything to do with the lesson at hand in the fish scene! As far as composition, though, I have to hand it to the Sherman Brothers for adding in a little scat line midway to tie in with Bruns’s jazzy score. They tried to tie things together, it’s just that this movie is really disjointed.
A Most Befuddling Thing can only barely be called a song. Okay, all but one song on this soundtrack use a rececitive style, but at least they try to have a melody. Karl Swenson only sings the very last verse, and the rest is just kinda… said. Having this song appear over that cringeworthy squirrel segment doesn’t really do it any favors, either. This song consists of Merlin laughing at Wart when he’s in very real distress and I just can’t get past that. The lyrics consist of a lot of nonsense, too, which could be an attempt at showing Merlin’s eccentricity but comes off more like trying put Higitus Figitus into the movie twice.
The Magnificent Marvelous Mad Madam Mim is my favorite song on the soundtrack. Shocking, I know. Sure, Martha Wentworth screams more than she sings, which I just criticized the previous song for, but it actually works here. She’s supposed to be completely unhinged, so those random bursts of energy burst out of her. It’s also hard not to love an “I Am” song from someone who relishes in her own evil and owns how ugly she is. Her theme song really shows how delightfully insane she is and I love every minute of it.
Blue Oak Tree… what? I’m honestly not sure why this counts as a song, either, considering almost all of it got cut. The single leftover verse plays muffled as the camera zooms in on the castle before the tournament, while Ector and Pellinore drink heartily to Kay’s success. It’s supposed to show how stupid knights are but by this point the whole “knowledge is power” thing has fallen by the wayside and it’s nearly impossible to hear the words anyway.
Remember in Dalmatians when I said the sketchy style worked really well in that movie? Well, this is the one where it really does not work at all. When I think of King Arthur, I think of it as a lush tapestry of bold colors and bright patterns, not unlike the art style of Sleeping Beauty. Obviously, that style was so expensive to do the first time that there was no way they’d do it. Seeing what they did instead makes me long to see what the story could have looked like if it was made a decade earlier, before Xerography saddled animation with those scratchy lines.
Color appears in some interesting ways on occasion, notably in the prologue. For the most part, though, almost this entire movie takes place on a dreary backdrop of grayish-greenish-blue. This works in scenes like the Forest Sauvage and the Wizard’s Duel, where the characters’ brightness pops off the screen to create excitement, but for the most part it’s pretty dull. Suggesting detail with sketchy lines where the paint comes out of the line just makes me want the detail that is so lacking, unlike Dalmatians which achieved a jazzy, loose style that suited the story. The lazy-looking backgrounds, combined with the highly stylized, cartoony characters, really don’t make for a pleasant viewing experience.
Of course, there’s one simple reason for all of this: cost. Xerography gave the studio a future at all, even if it prohibited the kind of lush detail we saw before it. For Sword in the Stone, the studio pioneered another new process called “touch-up”, which replaced the old clean-up process. I’m not entirely sure how this works so I’m going to quote animator Floyd Norman, who worked on the film and knows a lot more than I do: “Instead of putting a clean sheet of paper over the animator’s rough sketches, we simply ‘touched-up’ the sketch itself.” The article where I found that quote is fascinating, by the way. Please read it. (It’s two parts. Each link leads to a different half.)
Another cost-cutting measure recycled the same pieces of animation for multiple scenes, like Kay’s chicken leg and Wart falling, which I already criticized over and over again because it looks terrible. Interestingly, Norman suggests that that may not have saved any money at all, but appeased Reitherman’s ego instead. Great. Glad we’ll be subject to that for twenty years. Finally, the studio forwent their usual process of creating live-action reference footage to make the characters move more realistically. The cartoonish style gave the artists more freedom to play around, which would have been stellar if they weren’t telling a story that should have been so epic.
THEME PARK INFLUENCE
All six “castle” parks around the world feature a replica of the Sword in the Stone in their respective Fantasylands, usually near the Carousel. Disneyland even calls their carousel King Arthur’s Carousel, though its iconography is all Sleeping Beauty themed. Both American parks used to feature a little ceremony where, throughout the day, Merlin himself would select a child to pull the sword halfway out and become Temporary Ruler of the Realm while King Arthur was on vacation. Florida’s version was temporarily replaced with a similar show featuring the Royal Majesty Makers, but both American versions have since been discontinued. Hong Kong and Paris still perform the show seasonally, and I cannot find any information on Tokyo or Shanghai’s versions. I know they at least have the Sword, though.
Besides that, Disneyland’s brand new daytime parade, Magic Happens, features a Sword in the Stone unit towards the end. This is the first time a Wart face character has ever been seen in the parks, though Merlin remains the only one to ever be meetable (and even then it’s mostly just in Hong Kong and Paris). Merlin hosts the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom experience in Florida’s Magic Kingdom, where guests can collect RFID(?)-enabled cards to help defend the kingdom from various Disney villains. The Sword also appears in Paris’s version of the Storybook Land Canal Boats, and Hong Kong and Paris feature small crystal-glass shops named after Merlin (Merlin’s Treasures and Merlin l’Enchanteur, respectively). Finally, Shanghai has a small quick service restaraunt called Merlin’s Magic Recipe where the titular recipe is an Omni Pork Open Sandwich with Rice Bun. Punctuation is Disney’s, not mine.
I really, really want to like this movie. It’s got so much potential and it gave me one of my favorite #relatable #literallyme characters of all time. The execution of everything else falls so flat, though, from the music to the animation to the backgrounds to the other main characters. The original story lends itself so well to a Disney film, and one with so many great morals not just for Arthur but for the viewer, that it’s absolutely tragic that this is what we get. I like it in much the same way as I like Alice in Wonderland: great in pieces, but lacking on the whole. It’s still highly enjoyable, but not particularly memorable, largely because elements that should feel epic feel kind of sloppy and lazy.
Speaking of which the repeat that same “woah-what-woah” clip no less than seven times. Seven.
Favorite scene: Every single second Madam Mim spends stealing the show. Every. Single. Second.
Final rating: 6/10. Strange anvils lying on stones distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.