Wednesday, March 9, 2011

DAF #36 - The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Merlin: "You know, lad, that love business is a powerful thing."
Wart: "Greater than gravity?"
Merlin: "Well yes, boy, in its way... yes, I'd say it's the greatest force on earth."

Title: The Sword in the Stone
Year: 1963
Rated: G
Run Time: 1 hour, 19 minutes

Richard Reitherman/Robert Reitherman/Rickie Sorenson as Wart/Arthur
Karl Swenson as Merlin
Junius Matthews as Archimedes
Sebastian Cabot as Sir Ector
Norman Alden as Sir Kay
Martha Wentworth as Madame Mim
Alan Napier as Sir Pellinore

Plot: The great wizard Merlin educates Arthur, a boy destined to be the king of England.
Based on: The  novel The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Setting: Britain, 6th century, pre-Camelot.

Tagline: Whiz-Bang Whizard of Whimsy!

First Viewing: Age seven at my dad's friend's house with some random kids I never saw again...

This was supposed to be an easy post. A quick little write up on a movie I happen to enjoy when the mood strikes me or, more often, when I'm working my way through the canon. I have never hated The Sword in the Stone nor have I loved it, which is why I thought this was going to be a simple review. But alas, I have found that I have a few beefs with Walt Disney's 18th animated masterpiece.

As the legend goes, the king of England, Uther Pendragon (apparently NOT Arthur's father in this version) died and left no heir. Miraculously, the titular sword appears in London, lodged in a stone, with an inscription proclaiming...

Although many brave men attempt to remove the sword, no one succeeds. The sword is forgotten and England falls into the Dark Ages.

About a decade or so later, a young orphan boy named Wart is training to be a squire for his adoptive, jerkass brother Kay. While on a hunting trip, Wart is sent to fetch Kay's arrow and ends up falling into the cottage of Merlin. The wizard, who has just returned from a long series of time travels, means to train Wart for his future as king. He insists on moving to the castle of Wart's guardian to ensure this tutelage.


From here, the film can be split into three episodic sections where Wart is transformed into an animal of some kind for some alleged educational purpose. First, he and Merlin become fish and swim about the castle moat. This is done to learn the importance of...well, I'm not exactly sure. To experience life under the sea? To live dangerously for a bit?

The next lesson, Wart and Merlin transform into squirrels where the boy learns to "look before he leaps". To complicate matters, a pair of female squirrels attach themselves to the menfolk. Wart acts like any preteen boy and rejects the affections, but like human women, this only encourages girl squirrel. Despite being irritatingly resilient, she saves Wart from this ever present Wile E. Coyote-esque wolf character and has her heart trampled when he turns back into a human. (This is perhaps the only unrequited love storyline in the history of the DAF's until the Quasimodo-Esmerelda-Phoebus triangle in The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

There's a possibility...
Lastly, Wart is turned into a sparrow and is taught how to fly by Merlin's pet owl, Archimedes. (Because Lord knows flying is an important skill for a future ruler). Wart crash lands in to the cottage of Mad MAD MAD Madame Mim, the de facto "villain" of TSITS. Merlin catches up and enters a useless wizard's duel with Mim where the two magicians transform into animals in an attempt to destroy one another. Merlin wins by turning into a germ and infecting her. It's a useless sequence but probably fun for the animators.


Underlying all these animal kingdom lessons, Wart must deal with his desire to be Kay's squire. After all, it is the best that an orphan like himself can hope for. He is punished several times for "popping off" at his elders and Merlin becomes angry that Wart still prefers the life of a squire to that of an educated man. In frustration, Merlin "blasts to Bermuda".

On New Year's Day, Wart travels to London for the annual jousting tournament. This year, however, the winner will be crowned King of England and Kay has a pretty good shot. But Wart finds he has forgotten Kay's sword. In a panic, he grabs the first sword he sees (you'll never guess which one) and presents it to Kay. Wart, having fulfilled the prophecy, is then crowned King of England.

In the last scene, preteen Arthur sits in the throne room with Archimedes, entirely unprepared to rule a country. He calls for Merlin who deus ex machinas back from Bermuda and informs Arthur that he will become a great leader one day and become one of the most famous kings. They might even make a motion picture about him! (Haha, get it? Get it!?!?!?)

Let me be the first to say I'm not up on Arthurian legend. I've only seen this movie and The Mists of Avalon, a TV minseries based on a feminist revision of the legend. But what my limited knowledge teaches me is that there is SO MUCH STORY and SO MANY WAYS the Arthurian legends can be adapted. But this, this is how Disney did it! Arthur's boyhood and education is a mere sliver of the rich and epic pie, and yes, of course it is the most relatable for America's animated feature going youth in 1963...but COME ON! Why does this thing have to be so damn underwhelming?

For every "funny ha ha" moment in TSITS, there's an equally off-putting something or other. Take for instance, Wart's voice. If you didn't notice, no less than three pubescent boys portrayed our protagonist. (I guess there was no accounting for ball-dropping in those days). And, if you also didn't notice, there doesn't happen to be a real villain...or conflict for that matter. Madame Mim shows up in the third act merely to give the film a third act. (Which, might I add, has nothing to do with Wart's eventual ascension to the throne.) Then there's the slow as molasses in January pace, more godawful xeroxography animation, and the music...oh, the music.

You know, everyone praises the Sherman Brothers as this great duo of musical genius, but I respectfully disagree. Sure Mary Poppins has steadily good music, but the Sherman Brothers are no Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. (There. I said it.) TSITS is the first DAF musically helmed by the duo and their reign of pleasantly banal ditties continued until 1977's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.* Many of the songs in this movie are sing-talked by Merlin ala Rex Harrison and therefore can hardly be considered songs!

The Brothers Sherman
I feel a little guilty as I sit on my 21st century high horse and pick this movie to death. It's not ALL bad. There are few true blue LOL moments. I like Wart's Everyboy-ness and Merlin's stereotypical bumbling. And the tone of the whole thing is charming, simplistic, cozy and likable.

By the swinging 60's, Old Walt had pretty much lost interest in his animation studio and was mostly concentrating on his television and theme park endeavors. Although Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a BIG! FUCKING! DEAL! after its 1937 release, I doubt the man could have known that Disney Animated Feature™®© would become the home video legacy that it is. Nor could he know how eagerly these films would be compared and contrasted to the delight and disdain of snarky Gen-Yer's, typing away on their blogs at three in the morning. Perhaps if he had known, The Sword in the Stone's production would have been a bit tighter.

Ah, well. It's too late now. I've often wondered if Disney has ever considered remaking their animated features. (Seriously, Cinderella is, like, so pedestrian compared to later adaptations). But I know that will never happen. These films are classic! They're FUCKING PERFECT, GODDAMNIT!!! And in the case of this post's film, it was one of the last to be made while Walt Disney was still alive, which means its blessed with the magic touch. You wouldn't remake a table designed by Jesus, now would you?

"The Sword in the Stone" - Fred Darian
"Higitus Figitus" - Karl Swenson (Merlin)
"That's What Makes the World Go Round"- Karl Swenson
"A Most Befuddling Thing" - Karl Swenson
"Mad Madame Mim" - Martha Wentworth (Madam Mim)

Favorite Song: “The Sword in the Stone” - Fred Darian
Favorite Moment: She-Squirrel antics.
Favorite Character: Tie: The She-Squirrel and this Asshole Sugarbowl


Next DAF: The Fox and the Hound (1981)

*In fact the only DAF without music written by the Sherman Brothers made between 1963-1977 is Robin Hood. This is because they were working on the music for the Hanna-Barbera production of Charlotte's Web. Honestly, I think both movies are the better for it!


Andrew said...

Madame Mim is my b@%#$ lovaaaa.

Taylor Kerekes said...

I feel so bad for the girl squirrel. :(