After exploring all sorts of classic folklore and fairy tales, it was only a matter of time before Walt Disney and his team took on the Arthurian legend. Often considered a lesser entry in the Disney canon, The Sword in the Stone is worth a second look, and there’s no better opportunity than The Sword in the Stone (Blu-ray) 50th Anniversary Edition.
Dark days have fallen on England, as there is no king. Prophecy says that whoever pulls the sword from the stone is the one true king, but no one knows where this sword and stone is. Merlin the magician (Karl Swenson, The Birds) and his talking owl Archimedes (Junius Matthews, Winnie the Pooh) take on a new student, a young boy nicknamed Wart (voiced by three actors: Rickie Sorenson, Richard Reitherman, and Robert Reitherman). Wart longs to be a knight’s squire, and his only interest is tales of fighting and heroics. Under Merlin’s tutelage, however, Wart learns there’s a lot more to the world.
Released on Christmas Day in 1963, The Sword in the Stone hit theaters right as the tumultuous 1960s exploded into full-on tumultuousness. It’s also the last animated feature Walt Disney worked on before his death in 1966. With that history in mind, the movie suddenly becomes a lot more interesting.
On the surface, the film is mostly plotless. Merlin and Wart transform into various types of animals, so that Wart can learn valuable lessons. There’s little tension, and not a lot of drive pushing things forward. We get a little bit of grousing about an upcoming tournament to decide who will be king, but that’s about it as far as plot progression goes. The villain, Madame Mim, doesn’t show up until late in the proceedings, and she’s really only here for another one of Wart’s lessons, rather than to provide a genuine threat to our heroes.
These should be strikes against The Sword in the Stone, as it’s more of a collection of scenes than a singular story, but we must remember how and why the movie was made. This is one you watch for its philosophy, not for its plot. Merlin’s teaching method involves transforming Wart into a small animal and letting him run loose in the animal kingdom. Wart then runs into deadly predators. With no way to outfight them, he has to outthink them. By doing this, Merlin tells Wart that it’s a big, dark, scary world out there, but it’s one that anyone can survive, as long as you keep your wits about you. This is a nice parting message from Uncle Walt, whose public persona always stood up to the evils of the world with his old-timey small town values. Said parting words are especially relevant to the rapidly changing world of the 1960s, not to mention our own even-more-rapidly changing world.
Even though this is lighter Disney fare, they didn’t skip on the visuals. There’s no eye-popping centerpiece like the dragon attack from Sleeping Beauty or the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia, but that’s all right, because that’s not the type of movie this is. The animation impresses instead on a character level. The goal was to make the characters consistent even after their transformations. Merlin and Wart spend time as fish, squirrels, birds, and more. With each of these transformations, the animators worked to keep the characters consistent, so there’s no confusion as to who is who. This is done through colors and unchanged features like tufts of hair, but also through facial expressions and basic movement, expressing the characters through the way they move through the world and explore it.
That character animation hits its heights during the movie’s most famous scene, the wizard’s duel. You’ve probably seen this scene before, because it’s been trotted out on a lot of “best of” Disney clip shows over the years. This is where Merlin and Madame Mim face off, transforming into a variety of animals in an attempt to outwit each other. It’s a clever and witty scene, filled with amusing twists. Although she has minimal screen time, Madame Mim makes for a memorable and even somewhat unconventional villain. She’s playful in her evil, always laughing and cackling as she rages against Merlin.
The Sword in the Stone has undergone a full digital restoration for this Blu-ray, and it looks excellent. This is a bright and colorful movie, and all those colors really shine in high def. The audio is good as well, re-mastered into a new DTS 5.1 track. Bonus features are a series of shorts. First is an alternate opening, presented in storyboard form, showing an earlier version of Wart and Merlin’s first meeting. There’s an interview with the Sherman brothers, who composed the songs for the movie. This is the highlight of the extras, as these two guys have great, lively personalities. From there, we get vintage TV footage of Walt Disney performing some magic tricks, a sing-along for kids, and two animated shorts, “A Knight for a Day” and “Brave Little Tailor.” The set also includes a DVD and digital copies of the movie.
Minor Disney is still Disney. Although there’s a slow pace and not much of a story in The Sword in the Stone, its good moments still make it worth seeing.