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The Sword in the Stone represents a couple of milestones in the Disney canon. Firstly, this is the last movie to be released during Walt’s lifetime. It’s also the first Disney movie to feature songs by the Sherman Brothers…
Sorry. Whenever I mention them a choir of angels is apt to descend from heaven singing glorious Hosannas and Hallelujahs. Nothing I can do about it, unfortunately. The Sherman Brothers…
One of the greatest songwriting duos of all time. Possibly the greatest. Certainly the most successful in terms of musicals. I mean just take a look at some of the movies they wrote songs for; Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Snoopy Come Home…fantastic, fantastic songs. Their contributions to Sword in the Stone are not their strongest work but the Shermans on a bad day…
Really good songs. Is what I’m saying. Ahem.
But for me Sword in the Stone represents the point where Disney movies, in terms of their animation at least, stopped trying. I don’t mean that the animation is bad. I mean, it’s not great when compared to the rest of the canon but it’s still Disney, dammit. It’s still better than ninety percent of all animation that has ever been created.
But Disney was never content to rest on his laurels. Looking back on the last 18 movies we’ve covered they all tried in some way to do something new, to push the envelope with what was possible with animation. Sometimes these were big, grandiose, damn-the-torpedoes efforts to redefine the medium (your Snow Whites, your Fantasias, your Pinocchios, your Sleeping Beauties.) But even the relatively unambitious movies had a streak of innovation like Make Mine Music’s experiments with style or 101 Dalmatians use of Xerography. Hell, Dumbo, a movie made in the middle of a crippling artists’ strike still managed a watershed, utterly groundbreaking sequence with Pink Elephants on Parade. But Sword in the Stone just…coasts. I can’t think of a single sequence that feels unique from an animation standpoint. “Workmanlike” is the word I’m looking for. And that just doesn’t sit well with me. Disney isn’t supposed to be workmanlike, it’s supposed to be magical.
And that’s really sad. But, as I mentioned last week, the Scratchy Movies tend to compensate for being less good looking with charm, wit and great songs. Like Andy Samberg.
The movie begins with a storybook opening and medieval style illustrations setting the scene, much like Sleeping Beauty and that is a bad idea, movie. Seriously. What were you thinking, reminding me of Sleeping Beauty? Shall we do a quick comparison?
Look, I’m sorry Walt, but you have to admit this is not your best work? I mean, it’s all just so derivative.
What’s that supposed to mean?
Um…well, I don’t really know. It just sort of came to me. It sounded kinda funny so I decided to go with it. Why?
Anyway, the narrator tells us that the king of England has died and hasn’t left an heir. But just before Game of Thrones can start a sword magically appears in a stone in the centre of London.
But no one can pull the sword from the stone and England collapses into a war-riven Dark Age anyway, making this the least impressive miracle since Moses tried to convince Pharoah to release the Israelites by doing the thumb trick.
We flash forward several years and England has completely gone to shit (a lesser Irishman would make a joke here but as has been previously established, Mouse got class). Law and order have broken down, the strong prey upon the weak, people serve meals with beans touching the rest of the food, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria, two men enter one man leaves!
In the middle of a dark forbidding forest we meet Merlin (voiced by Karl Swenson) as he tries to fetch water from a well, muttering and cursing the lack of mechanisation in the Middle Ages. In the original book Merlin knows all about the twentieth century because he’s ageing backwards like Benjamin Button. In the Disney movie Merlin is a time traveller, but that simply raises the question as to why he stays in the Middle Ages if he hates them so much. Interestingly, Merlin’s designer, Bill Peet, based the character on Walt Disney himself, even giving him Walt’s nose. We also see Merlin’s familiar, Archimedes the owl, who I will admit right now I absolutely friggin’ adore. This is one of the first Disney movies I remember seeing (probably the third after Jungle Book and Little Mermaid) and while I’ll be the first to admit that it’s no masterpiece there is something very likeable about it. Merlin and Archimedes in particular are a very fun pairing, constantly bickering like an old married couple. Merlin is preparing tea for “somebody” who is going to be arriving very shortly, promptly Archimedes to huffily ask “Hoo? I’d like to know hooo!” Oh yeah, get used to the puns. This movies loooooooves its puns.
Merlin has had a vision that a young boy is coming to visit and that it will be his duty to help this boy find his place in the world. We now see the boy, Wart, on the edge of the forest with his step-brother Kay. So let’s take a look at our main character.
Wart is voiced by Rickie Sorenson. And Richard Reitherman. And Robert Reitherman. Confused? Well, Sorenson was originally cast to play Wart but his voice broke like glass halfway through the movie and director Wolfgang Reitherman replaced him with his sons Richard and Robert. Who sounded nothing like Rickie. Or indeed, each other. The result of this is that Wart’s voice changes so drastically from moment to moment that it’s like he’s speaking in tongues.
Anyway, Wart is watching his older douchebag stepbrother hunt deer.
But just as Kay is about to shoot Bambi’s mother (seriously, it’s Bambi’s mother) Wart falls on Kay causing him to miss and sends his arrow flying into the woods. Wart runs into the woods to get the arrow back and almost gets eaten by a half-starved wolf.
Trying to get the arrow back, Wart falls from a tree and through Merlin’s roof. Merlin tells the boy that he’s been expecting him and that he is going to be his tutor. He also tells him that he is a wizard with the power to see centuries into the future which Wart takes pretty much in stride.
Wart realises that he has to get back to the castle before they miss him, so Merlin promptly packs up his entire house into one suitcase with the song “Higitus Figitus“. It’s a fun little ditty but I can’t really give too many points to…the songwriting duo who wrote it…because it’s sort of a cheat. Half the lyrics are just made up nonsense magic words which makes it so much easier to make it rhyme. Still, it is enjoyable, and the animation of all the various pieces of furniture and books moving about the house is one of the few scenes in the movie with any kind of visual pizzazz. Wart is very impressed by this but Merlin warns him not to think that magic can solve all his problems, because it can’t. Okay, very quickly I want you to guess which character in this movie uses magic to overcome every single obstacle he faces. Go on, guess. Go on. You’ll never guess.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, Wart’s foster-father Ector is berating Kay for letting Wart wander off into the forest alone. Ector is something of a rarity for a Disney movie. He’s an antagonist for most of the story, obstructing Merlin every step of the way and often bullying Wart. But he’s also portrayed very sympathetically and the movie makes clear that he’s not a bad man and that he does genuinely care for the boy. Wart returns and Ector tells him off so harshly that he changes voice actor. Merlin tells Ector that he’s a wizard and when he doesn’t believe him he uses magic to solve the problem even though using magic doesn’t solve your problems. Merlin conjures a blizzard to appear over Ector’s head leading Ector to cry out “Kay! Look at this! An indoor blizzard, and in the month of July!” but Kay only responds with “So what?” and…damn Kay is jaded. He’s like the medieval patron saint of Generation X.
Ector’s convinced that Merlin’s a wizard and asks him whether he dabbles in black magic but Merlin assures him he “never touches the stuff”.
Merlin takes up residence in the most dilapidated tower in the castle and begins tutoring Wart. Meanwhile, Ector’s friend Pellinor arrives from London to tell him that there’s going to be a jousting tournament on New Year’s day and that to the winner will go the crown because that is a fantastic way to pick a king.
Kay casually remarks that that’s a “pretty fair prize” because fuck Kay. Absolute power over an entire nation and a million subjects within his grasp and his reaction is essentially “I suppose that wouldn’t completely suck.” What an asshole.
Ector tells Wart that if he does his chores he can be Kay’s squire and Wart is so happy he changes voice actors.
The rest of the movie largely follows this pattern; Merlin turns Wart into an animal, Wart escapes a predator, Wart learns some lesson, rinse, lather and repeat. First of all Merlin transforms himself and Wart into fish and they go swimming in the castle moat. We get a great Sherman Brothers…
A great song called That’s What Makes the World Go Round, where Merlin explains to Wart that as someone who is small and largely powerless (a small fish in a big pond as it were) he will have to use his intellect to out-think a world that only respects physical power. The song gets cut short when they’re attacked by a massive pike. Merlin gets trapped in a helmet and as Wart is chased by the huge predator he yells at Merlin to use magic to save him. But of course, magic can’t solve Wart’s problems, only Merlin’s. So Merlin tells him that now is Wart’s chance to prove Merlin’s point about brain beating brawn. And…surely if it’s Merlin’s point Merlin should be the one to prove it? Also, this is probably the most reckless case of child endangerment by a wizard since…
Wart tries to shake the Pike off and thinks he’s finally lost him, only to turn around…
…and come face to face with its single, yellow predatory eye and wait just a damn minute here!
Fortunately, the pike’s vision is based on movement and Wart escapes with a little help from Archimedes. Merlin emerges from the lake swearing vengeance on the pike and saying he’ll turn him into a minnow because magic doesn’t solve your problems.
Later, Wart is scrubbing pots in the kitchen as punishment for being late and Merlin appears and asks him if he’s ever considered being a squirrel. Merlin tells him that the question of how the squirrel has survived throughout the ages is one of life’s greatest mysteries.
Squirrels are small, agile animals with a diversified diet allowing them to adapt easily to changes in their food supply and a natural habitat (the treetops) to which relatively few large predators can gain access. Where’s my Nobel prize?
Wart says he’d love to try being a squirrel but he can’t, because thanks to Merlin’s last stunt by the time Wart’s finished cleaning the dishes the dishwasher will have been invented and made his entire life’s work pointless. Merlin, realising that magic can’t solve your problems, casts a spell over all the dishes so they start washing themselves. He also makes the brooms come to life and start sweeping the floor because of course he does. I can see the story meeting now.
Next thing you know, Squirrel-Wart is leaping from branch to branch while a terrified Merlin yells at him to be careful. So. To recap:
1) Taking on a pike unarmed in the body of a goldfish, possibly the most defenceless of all God’s creatures: a necessary part of any young boy’s education.
2) Leaping from branch to branch as a squirrel: UNACCEPTABLE RISK.
Anyway, this sequence is one of the most famous in the movie and probably the only one with any kind of real emotional heft. This movie follows the Scratchy model of largely steering clear of the big traumatic moments of earlier Disney films, but it does have one genuinely heartbreaking moment. Wart encounters a girl squirrel who becomes instantly smitten with him. The girl squirrel is voiced by Ginny Taylor who does a terrific job with the wordless part, imbuing the character’s little chuckles and squeaks with real charm. She chases Wart around the tree and then rescues him from the wolf when Merlin accidentally pushes him off the tree. The girl squirrel’s heartbreak and confusion when Wart is transformed back into a human is very affecting and it leads to my favorite exchange of dialogue in the film:
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.
It’s Swenson’s sad, world-weary delivery of the line that really sells it for me. It’s a beautiful moment.
Anyway, back at the castle Ector and Kay are re-enacting the battle of Helm’s Deep with Merlin’s possessed crockery. Ector accuses Merlin of black magic and endangering the lives of everyone in the castle and Wart angrily leaps to Merlin’s defence because Stockholm Syndrome is a powerful mistress. Wart tells Ector that just because he doesn’t understand something like the love between a boy and the wizard who’s constantly almost getting him killed, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Ector explodes in and says that Wart just talked himself out of being Kay’s squires and that “Hobbes” gets the honour of being Kay’s death caddy.
Wart is devastated, but Merlin convinces him to continue with his studies.
Later, Merlin tries to teach Wart about the discovery of America and Archimedes quite sensibly points out that Wart can’t be expected to learn history that hasn’t happened yet. Merlin flies into a tantrum and pulls the old “if you’re so smart why don’t you do it?” routine and Archimedes counters with a “Fine! I will!”. Before you know it, Archimedes is teaching Wart how to read and write and he’s gone a good…oh half an hour without being nearly eaten. Well, clearly Merlin can’t be having that so he turns Wart into a sparrow. Archimedes, no doubt realising that if it’s left up to Merlin Sparrow-Wart will probably be fighting the Roc of Persia before the day is out, wisely decides to give Wart a flying lesson himself. Things start out fine but soon, because Merlin keeps turning Wart into animals that smell irresistibly delicious to every predator in a hundred mile radius, Wart gets chased into the forest by a hawk and ends up flying down the chimney of Madame Mim’s cottage.
Madame Mim is Merlin’s polar opposite, a powerful witch who loves inflicting misery on people as opposed to Merlin who just does it accidentally. She’s actually a hugely popular character in some parts of the world, appearing almost weekly in various Disney comics. Mim has a song where she shows off her powers to Wart, transforming from huge to tiny and then ugly to beautiful. But of course, it’s not true beauty.
Mim tells Wart that she’s going to kill him and turns into a cat and chases him around the cottage. She’s about to eat him (fifth time this has happened to him for anyone keeping score) when Merlin bursts in to save Wart because if there’s anyone who’s going to get Wart killed it’s going to be him, dammit. Mim then challenges Merlin to a Wizard’s Duel.
The wizard’s duel scene is my favorite in the whole movie, probably because I was one of those kids who was asking “Who would win?” questions before I was out of nappies or possibly even the womb. The wizard’s duel basically involves Mim and Merlin turning into different things to try to destroy each other within the following rules:
1) Only animals, no minerals or vegetables (thereby denying us the epic parsley versus amethyst smackdown we’ve all been waiting for).
2) No make-believe creatures “like pink dragons”.
3) No disappearing.
4) No cheating.
5) You do not talk about Wizard’s Duel.
6) You DO NOT TALK about Wizard’s Duel.
7) If it’s your first time. You have to Duel.
The duel begins and it’s an absolute hoot. The constant switching between animal forms is great fun to watch, particularly as they Mim and Merlin are still very recognizably themselves in their animal forms, with Merlin’s moustache plainly visible regardless of whether he’s a rabbit, a crab or a…mouse.
No it can’t be…
It’s not possible.
Like the slayer?
You mustachioed bastard.
Wow. Sorry. I must have dozed off on the keyboard. Apologies. Okay, where were we? Oh right, the wizards duel.
Mim favours big predators like tigers, alligators and snakes whereas Merlin prefers smaller creatures. Finally, Merlin turns into a goat and butts Mim into a lake whereupon she decides that shit just got real and turns into a dragon.
Mim claims she’s not cheating because there is no rule against purple dragons but I’m pretty sure purple dragons would be considered “like pink dragons” in a court of law. Regardless, it looks like Merlin’s beaten but then he turns into a germ called Malagolintomontorosis and infects her.
Leaving Mim a miserable, bedridden wreck, Merlin, Archimedes and Wart return to the castle and Merlin asks Wart what he learned from the experience.
Wart clearly takes this advice on board because the next thing you know Hobbes has “mysteriously” come down with the mumps and that means Warts gets to be Kay’s squire after all. Wart excitedly runs to tell Merlin but Merlin is furious because he was training him to be something better than a squire, something like…I honestly have no idea. What job could possibly require you to have the experience of being a squirrel, a fish and an a bird? Maybe he’s preparing him to be England’s first animorph.
Anyway, Wart finally cracks and launches into Merlin telling him that he doesn’t know anything about life in the Middle Ages and that he should just leave him alone.
Merlin finally has enough and screams “BLOW ME TO BERMUDA!” and accidentally turns himself into a rocket and blasts off. And really, that could have gone a whole lot worse. We should be grateful that’s how things shook out.
Anyway, in London Ector, Kay, Wart and Archimedes are watching the tournament when Wart realises that he’s forgotten Kay’ sword. Kay is furious and for once I’m actually on his side here. That is ridiculous Wart, you had one job. How could you forget Kay’s sword?
Anyway, Wart runs back to the inn but it’s all locked up. Wart then sees the Sword in the Stone and pulls it out like it ain’t no thang.
Wart hurries back and gives Kay the sword but Ector realises that this is not regular killin’ people cutlery, but fancy cutlery! The tournament is immediately called off.
They put the sword back and make Wart pull it out again and sure enough, the first time wasn’t a fluke. Ector gets down on his knees before Wart and asks his forgiveness. Wart is declared king and is installed on the throne in London. Not in Camelot, for as we all know, it is a silly place.
Wart doesn’t want to be king, as his training as a squirrel, fish and bird really hasn’t prepared him for it and he tries to escape. Merlin returns and realises that Wart’s destiny is to become King Arthur. Which…considering he’s a wizard named Merlin who’s been to the future, surely he should have pieced that together by now? Well anyway. Merlin and Wart are reunited and the movie ends with a chorus of Hail King Arthur.
I really like this movie, and I always have ever since I was a kid when I used to watch it and black out halfway through with no memory of what had happened and with a strange sensation in the back of my mind that I had been chosen to take part in a grand struggle between good and evil beyond my comprehension and in which I was simply a mere pawn. But I think everyone has a movie like that in their childhood.
The movie did very well at the box-office, finishing as the sixth most lucrative film of 1963 and it’s still very fondly remembered today. Not fantastic, but there’s a great deal to love with some excellent voice work, appealing characters and of course the great songs of the Sherman Brothers.
I fucking warned them.
See you next time.
So scratchy you want to give it a flea bath.
The Leads: 15/20
Karl Swenson does a great job as Merlin, and despite the VERY distracting lack of continuity between the different voices of Wart, he’s still a more layered and appealing character than most Disney leads.
The Villain: 14/20
Mim is hilarious but not really what you’d call menacing.
Supporting Characters: 15/20
Archimedes and Ector both have more sides to their personality than is usual for Disney. A strong showing from the second stringers.
The Music: 14/20
I’m marking this low because this is far from the best that the Sherman’s are capable of even if these songs are good in their own right. We’ll see just what they are capable of in the next few reviews.
FINAL SCORE: 70%
NEXT WEEK: We take a break from the Disney canon as the Unshaved Mouse takes a look at another one of Disney’s live action efforts. Will it be better than Song of the South? Be sure to find out next week!
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!