A Study in Disney: ‘The Sword in the Stone’ (1963)

| December 17, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Today in Disney History, 1963: The Sword in the Stone Comes to Theaters

The legend of King Arthur seems like catnip for Walt.  By this point he had already tackled Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Jules Verne, Davy Crocket and Zorro so another literary adventure seemed only fitting.  Yet, in point of fact, The Sword in the Stone was a little different because Walt was, for the first time in his animated features, stepping into history.  Granted much of the Arthurian legend is culled from folklore and literary invention, but for Walt this would only leave a much more open field in which to play.

Yet, we are left to wonder what might have become of the story of King Arthur through the prism of Walt Disney had it come earlier in his career – when he was still fit to expand his artistic vision, i.e. The Golden Age.  This was Disney’s Silver Age, a return-to-form of sorts for his animated features after World War II had forced him to scale back.  But even in the 1950s, the animation proved too costly and more ambitious projects like Sleeping Beauty failed at the box office and were a financial burden for the studio.  By the 1960s there was a massive streamlining of the animated process.  While Walt’s brother Roy was trying to talk him into shutting down the animation department to focus on television shows, live action features and the theme park, a new process had been introduced by animator Ub Iwerks in which the animated cells could be Xeroxed to make the work less painstaking.

The technology had a drawback in that it could only render the lines in black, meaning that the finished cells would lose much of the watercolor fluidity that had become a trademark of Disney’s earlier work.  The animated films introduced in the second half of Disney’s Silver Age (the 1960s) would introduce a functional and financially sound “sketchy” form of animation that worked, but no one could doubt that something had been lost.  The lushness and beauty of the earlier films was gone in favor of something that looked like it had been produced for television.

Walt himself only supervised three of these films himself: One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book before his death in 1966 and it was a process that would continue until the advent of computer animation in the 1980s.  Of these final three films supervised by Disney himself, hardest for a Disney aficionado to deal with is The Sword in the Stone.  The story of King Arthur should, in theory, offer up a storybook look, the kind of watercolor background layout that one sees in book illustrations.  That is, in fact, not the case here.  This is Disney with budget restraints.

The victim of this is the story itself.  While it is interesting that Disney and his screenwriters chose to focus on the young Arthur (another element that makes it feel like a TV pilot) the major focal point of Arthur is kind of lost – that being the actual moment when he pulls the sword from the stone and becomes the ruler of all England.  In fact, the titular sword bookends the movie and almost seems like an afterthought.  This wouldn’t be so frustrating if the movie didn’t build it up so much in the opening narration.

The bulk of the film deals with Arthur (nicknamed Wart) and his association with the fuddle-headed wizard Merlin who tries to school the boy on the belief that he can get much further with an education.  This leads to all manner of slapstick and cartoony shenanigans that are fun in the moment, but as a whole the story is kind of a huge mess.  The friendship between Merlin and Wart is fun but not especially emotional.  Their adventures have a kind of episodic feel (again, television) that feels like it should be compacted into a much tighter narrative and, again, more associated with Arthur’s future destiny.

Where the movie comes to life is in its third act, when Merlin finds himself in a Wizard’s duel with Mad Madame Mim.  She challenges him to a battle at which the two combatants transform themselves into various animals in order to outdo one another.  It is interesting to note that most of Mim’s transformations are predators and then Merlin’s transformations are always matching what she is doing.  The animation in this sequence is fast and wonderfully inspired, ending with Merlin using a biological weapon as his way out.  As Disney battles go, this is one of the cleverest.

This is a wonderful sequence stuck inside a movie that is uneven and unfocused.  The screenplay is always hedging its bets and never seems to want to focus on one thing or to build up the feel of Medieval England.  The texture of the film feels far too modern especially with Merlin constantly traveling in time and revealing things about the future.  The movie is, ultimately, just a fun diversion and for a powerhouse like Disney that’s disappointing.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.