"The Sword in the Stone" is the Disney version of the Arthurian legend, adapted from the first of four books by T.H. White telling the life events of the young Arthur, before he became king. It is also the last feature-length animated film from the company of Uncle Walt to be released before he died. In addition, it is the first solo effort of Wolfgang Reitherman who would later direct other great animated movies, such as "The Jungle Book", "The Aristocats", "Robin Hood" and "The Rescuers".
The movie was released in theaters on Christmas day 1963, almost one month to the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This dark moment in American history established a striking and timely parallel with the dark atmosphere prevailing in England as depicted in the animated film.
"The Sword in the Stone" begins by the death of a heir-less king. One night in London, an astral light comes down from the sky and a sword lodged in an anvil itself embed into stone mysteriously appears. On that sword (which will be later known as Excalibur) are inscribed these words: "Whoso pulleth out the sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England". With nobody being able to accomplish the impossible feat, England remains king-less and the period now known as the Dark Ages begin.
The movie then shifts to the great hero Arthur himself who is only a not-so-smart puny runt nicknamed Wart (Rickie Sorenson). Venturing into the forest, Wart literally falls on the house of the powerful and wise, but absent-minded wizard Merlin (Karl Swenson) who lives there as a hermit with his educated pet owl Archimedes (Junius Matthews).
Merlin, convinced that the young Wart is destined to a great future despite what his physical appearance could reveal, begins to learn him about great life lessons in his fashion by changing him into a fish, a squirrel and a bird.
In general, I'd say that the film is not bad, far from it, but it is also far from being excellent. The plot is generally short and somehow empty, but it also contains some rather useless over-long passages.
But there's absolutely no doubt that this picture has a lot of ambitions and it has things to show to its audience. In fact, "The Sword in the Stone" is one of the most instructive Disney movies for the kids, not only because of the number of lessons that can be learned, but also because of their clarity and their direct character, which make them easy to catch and understand.
But I would have liked to see these lessons more treated on-screen when Wart becomes king. Merlin predicts celebrity and a bright future to the young monarch, but the young boy has no idea how to govern a state. It's at that moment that the learned lessons should have emerged and Merlin should have mentioned them.
After all, Wart's adventures with his mentor brought out the three most important characteristics of a good king: wisdom, love and intelligence. So "The Sword in the Stone" is for kids what Machiavelli's book "The Prince" is for adults.
Unfortunately, even if it's instructive, "The Sword in the Stone" loses points when it comes to the capacity to wonder, astonish and entertain. The animation is often spoiled and the sets are visibly nothing more than static colored paper sheets on which animators make mobile characters streaming in and out. It's a colorful movie, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it is alive.
And yet, the dark atmosphere of the movie is also reflected in the presentation. Some people will say that it's OK since the pictures adequately re-create the era and the society at the time, but let's not forget that we're talking here about a children's movie. In such a case, the dark (and not much cared over) images become depressing, boring and not much enjoyable to watch.
There's also a cruel lack of lively songs, which looks pretty bad for an institution like Disney. The songs go so much unnoticed that it becomes almost impossible to remember their titles.
There are some great moments however. The teaching sessions were Wart becomes an animal, accompanied by either Merlin or Archimedes, are entertaining and they lead to exciting and dangerous moments, where there's no lack of thrills for nobody. The best moment remains the magical duel between Merlin and the witch Madame Mim (Martha Wentworth), where the two opponents ceaselessly change themselves into different animals and give a high-level spectacle of which we are the lucky spectators.
The three main characters are also unforgettable. Wart's psychological evolution is well tangible. We can see at the beginning that he is puny, clumsy and naive, but also full of potential. And as he learns, he finds the courage to confront his adoptive tutor Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot) and even his powerful teacher Merlin.
The magician himself is presented as somebody who is wise, but also absent-minded, which renders him quite funny. Unfortunately, he often loses himself into his futuristic anticipations, which leads to pathetic anachronisms and uninteresting discussions.
Archimedes is also intelligent and resourceful, but he is also touchy, cynical and often very grumpy. It means that we have as many reasons to like him as we have to hate him. And unlike Merlin, Archimedes prefers to keep both feet on the present ground, rather than thinking about the future.
"The Sword in the Stone" is not one of the greatest movies of Disney's career, but it nevertheless remains an instructive and funny picture, the kind of work that only Walt and his partners can make.
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