The Great Disney Blogathon: The Sword in the Stone (1963)
|January 5, 2015||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
In some ways The Sword in the Stone is a bit of a return to form: magic, castles, knights, legends. It even opens with a close-up of an ornate book. But a few things mark it as undeniably a product of Late Classic/60s-70s Disney: the scratchy Xeroxed look we talked about last time, the often sloppy and reused animation, the near-complete dearth of women, and Merlin’s complete freedom from linear time and historical context, a shtick that would be used with comic relief characters frequently from here on out and reach its apotheosis with the Genie in Aladdin. But we’ll get there.
Now, I’ve only seen The Sword in the Stone twice – once in college, and just now for this series – so I don’t have the childhood attachment to it that I do to most other Disney movies. But you guys, it is not very good. I’m sorry to anyone who loves this movie, but it’s 80 minutes long and the first 70 are just Merlin doing silly things. There’s absolutely no plot to speak of, until they suddenly remember that, like, there should be a sword, and a stone, and stuff. I know it’s based on a book (which I have read, but not in, like, 20 years), but it’s not like Disney’s never taken liberties before – and they did in this case, just not liberties that made the plot more structured or…um…entertaining. I’m sorry, I just can’t get invested in something with no rising stakes and almost no emotional connections between the characters.
So, okay, with no real plot to discuss, let’s talk about the characters. Now, Wart is only ostensibly the protagonist – the film is much more interested in Merlin, who I would say steals every scene he’s in if it weren’t for the fact that they always belonged to him to begin with. Wart’s a nonentity, with no personality; he’s sort of vaguely nice and friendly and that’s about it. He’s certainly appealing, but in a really generic way. His voice is also all over the place, thanks to his being voiced by three different actors (Rickie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman, and Robert Reitherman) – and as a side note, it’s bizarre to hear King Arthur with an American accent, especially when everyone else in the film is Actual British or at least Hollywood British.1
That leaves Merlin. In the book, his anachronisms are explained by the fact that he lives backwards and has already experienced those events. In the movie, he seems to be essentially “unmoored in time” in a kind of cheerfully Vonnegutian way. He has seen much of the future, particularly its inventions, but often can’t pinpoint details like why Wart will be important, and he’s able to pop off to 20th century Bermuda in a fit of pique near the end.
It’s an interesting and fun concept, but honestly? I found Merlin kind of exhausting. His repertoire of gags is pretty limited – silly nonsense spells, getting tangled up in his beard, occasionally dropping his glasses – and yet they take up much of the movie. There’s no real emotional connection to balance it out. As I mentioned above, the Disney character he most reminded me of is the Genie, but Aladdin takes the time to build a poignant friendship between Aladdin and Genie, not to mention giving some pathos to the Genie’s actual existence, which provides a solid grounding for all the wacky shapeshifting and makes Aladdin’s betrayal of the Genie actually mean something. Here, Merlin’s sense of betrayal comes out of nowhere and so the characters’ reunion, shoehorned into the last minute of the movie, doesn’t resonate.
Everyone else is a stock character. I was most disappointed in Sir Ector and Kay; the movie couldn’t seem to decide if they were antagonists or Wart’s family or what. (As we saw with my posts on the Cinderella franchise, I’m really invested in the foster relationships of put-upon fantasy orphans.) Come on, movie, make me feel something!
And speaking of antagonists…woof. The female characters in this movie are barely present, and when they do appear, they consist of two lovestruck, voiceless squirrels, a maid, and Madam Mim. Now, Mim on her own is actually kind of fascinating. Like Lady and the Tramp’s Scamp, she’s a minor character who became a breakout star with the comics, where she inexplicably migrated to the Duck universe despite, uh, not being one, and has an ongoing villainous presence there. (She’s also in love with either Captain Hook or the Mickey Mouse villain the Phantom Blot, depending on the comic. That is hilarious and weird and wonderful to me.) She’s also a lot of fun on the screen, and the wizards’ duel is one of the highlights of the film, a place where the animation truly gets a chance to shine.
But as a villain, she’s…not? I mean, she’s not really a villain, since she only shows up an hour into the movie and then goes away immediately; she’s no more a true obstacle to Wart’s goals than the pike or the wolf. (“Wart’s goals.” That’s a generous way of putting it.) She’s just mean for no reason and then she’s done.
Plus, I’m not a fan of her portrayal as the crazy, chaotic, unscrupulous feminine as opposed to Merlin’s scientific, logical, fair-minded masculine. If there was a flock of nuanced female characters in the film – or heck, even one – it wouldn’t bother me so much, but literally every female character is antagonistic to some degree. Even the girl squirrel presents conflict for Wart; she’s tremendously appealing and provides the only real emotion in the movie, but she’s definitely an antagonist – and not even one who gets the chance to speak. Gross, movie.
Finally, the animation is, as mentioned, not splendid. I generally associate the 60s/70s Xerox look with bad animation on Disney’s part, and that’s not really fair – One Hundred and One Dalmatians is an artistic triumph. But The Sword in the Stone is not. Art is recycled, including dialogue, which means mouths aren’t synced; often gags go wildly off-model; the anatomy is sloppy and the figures aren’t well integrated into the backgrounds. The movie’s not helped by the fact that it was released just four years after the stunning Sleeping Beauty, which draws from the same vaguely medieval well; the opening tableau of The Sword in the Stone suffer particularly in comparison. There are some beautiful moments – there’s a gorgeous shot of Wart and Merlin walking by the moat, their figures and the yellow summer sky reflected in the water – but they’re few and far between. With a nonexistent plot and weak characters this movie might have been buoyed up by sensational art and at least found a cult following among animation buffs, but it was not to be.
I absolutely hate panning movies in this series.2 I love Disney. I want every Disney movie to be a masterpiece. And I know that even the little-loved Disney movies have their diehard fans – I’m no exception! Just wait until we get to Oliver and Company! – and I hate the feeling that I’m crapping all over someone’s beloved childhood comfort movie.
But The Sword in the Stone is just not very good, and possesses only the faintest glimmerings of that Disney magic. I’m sorry, guys. Better luck next time?