Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone has the distinction of being the final animated film released during Walt Disney’s lifetime. It was also just the second feature completed using the Xerox process introduced with the previous film One-Hundred and One Dalmatians. Given that it was the final animated feature Walt laid eyes on, it’s a bit surprising that the film isn’t more well-known. It’s not considered one of the studio’s classics, being relegated to that second tier of features that isn’t considered worthy of a “Diamond” release on home video. Based on the novel by T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone tells the tale of a young King Arthur and his tutoring by the wizard Merlin to prepare him for when he sits on the throne. There are numerous elements of fantasy and it’s a tale familiar to Disney fans in design as it follows a young misfit’s rise to importance through self-discovery. In a way, it’s like the male-equivalent of a Cinderella.
The story opens with a montage focusing on the death of Uther Pendragon and the tale of his sword which was magically sealed in an anvil and only the true ruler of England can remove it. We’re then soon introduced to our unlikely hero, Arthur, who goes by the name of Wart. Wart is an orphan taken in by Sir Ector and his ambition is to one day squire for his foster brother, Kay. Similar to Cinderella, Wart is treated like a servant by his foster family often forced to clean the kitchen and do household chores while Kay is being steered towards knighthood by his father. Sir Ector dangles the potential of being Kay’s squire as a carrot for Wart, but it would seem the old knight has no real intention of letting the boy actually serve in that capacity, preferring someone of noble birth for his true born son.
Fortunately for young Wart, he has Merlin looking out for him. The old wizard has been to the future and back numerous times and has foreseen the coming of Arthur, right down to where Wart will fall through his roof for their first “chance” encounter. Merlin is not quite a bumbling old wizard, but he is a bit forgetful which at times gets the duo in trouble when he needs to recall the words to an important spell. He is accompanied by his owl, Archimedes, who in true Disney fashion is fully capable of speech. Archimedes is a grumpy sort but incredibly intelligent, often foreseeing the trouble Merlin is about to get himself into. Despite his prickly nature, he is a loyal pet and does look out for Merlin, and eventually, Wart as well.
Merlin is forced to endear himself to Sir Ector in order to serve as Wart’s tutor. He’s permitted to inhabit the old tower outside the keep, which is badly in need of repairs. The bulk of the film consists of Merlin trying to teach Wart lessons that will serve him well as king in the future, often by way of changing Wart into another creature to experience nature from another perspective. This is how the film sources its various gags as Wart becoming a small fish inevitably leads to him being viewed as food by a hungry predator. The best gags probably occur when Merlin changes the two into squirrels and an eager female takes a liking to Wart. These scenes are fairly light and innocuous and Disney tries to incorporate some danger into them, though the characters rarely feel like they’re in true peril. The film also doesn’t take many risks with its humor, often resorting to the simplest of jokes which contributes to the film’s safe tone. The climax of the film actually arrives rather quickly with little fanfare or much teasing of the outcome giving the film a rather abrupt ending. It’s not all together unsatisfying, but the film could have perhaps lingered a little longer with the fallout of Arthur pulling the sword. Once again, this invites a comparison to Cinderella in how that film is essentially over once she puts on the glass slipper and we don’t really see the fallout with her step family.
Narratively speaking, The Sword in the Stone is a simple tale that’s not likely to offend, but also not likely to delight in the ways some other Disney films do. When the narrative is a bit lacking, these films turn to two important components: their looks and their songs. The Sherman Brothers contributed to the film and it’s not one of their best efforts. Merlin’s song, “Higitus Figitus” sounds like a “Bibbidi, Bobbidi, Boo” knock-off that’s not nearly as charming. The best sequence is probably the villainous Mim’s number “Mad Madam Mim” but it’s not exactly memorable when compared with other Disney tracks. Being that the film was done with Xerox, it’s also not as attractive as Disney’s best, but it is a step-up from Dalmatians. The backgrounds have a bit more personality, though there are scenes of flat, monochrome, backdrops that feel lazy. These are mostly reserved for some of the interior shots as the exterior ones look quite good. They’re not on the same level as Bambi, and The Jungle Book would do better, but they’re perfectly fine to look at. The characters have a sketch quality to them, a hallmark of the Xerox process, but it seems to suit the subject matter of the film better here than others. The film had the opportunity to add some nice visual effects for all of the transforming scenes, but chose the easy way out and just had the characters vanish in a puff of smoke only to reappear as a fish, squirrel, etc.
If you head over to Amazon.com and check out reviews of the Blu Ray release, you will see a lot of negative ones regarding the film’s transfer. I view all of the my movies that I review on Blu Ray on a 55″ LED television and I use a Playstation 4 to watch them. I found my viewing experience to be fine so maybe I’m not as big of an animation snob as I thought. I also do not own the film’s older DVD release so I can’t compare the two. It’s possible people are just sensitive to the scratchy Xerox look now that it’s being presented in high-definition, and being one of the older films, The Sword in the Stone has minimal clean-up in that regard. This film also did not get a Diamond release, so I don’t expect it to look as good as something like The Jungle Book, so maybe expectations should be held in check. Simply put, if you decide to purchase this film and find it’s not up to your standards you can always return it.
The Sword in the Stone is a rather basic entry in the Disney catalogue. It can entertain kids and adults but only so much. It’s probably rare to find the fan that says this is their favorite Disney film, but it’s also probably just as hard to find someone who detests it.