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Part 18: The Sword in the Stone

Buena Vista Distribution released Walt Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” on Christmas Day, 1963.  Like “101 Dalmatians” before it, the story was adapted and written by Bill Peet.  Having a single screenwriter was uncommon for animated films at the time. 

The Disney studios were always experimenting with new methods of animation and film production and because of this several of their films, animated and otherwise, have the distinction of being the “first” to do something or other.  “The Sword in the Stone” is no exception.  It was the first Disney animated film to be helmed by a solo director, Wolfgang Reitherman, a Disney animator and frequent co-director of past-animated films.  It was also the first time that Disney’s official songwriting duo, the Sherman Brothers (Robert and Richard), wrote songs for an animated feature.  If you don’t know who the Sherman Brothers are, they are responsible for MOST of the Disney songs you know.  Do yourself a favor and rent or buy, but definitely watch, the 2010 documentary “The Boys” chronicling their life and careers.  I’m serious, stop reading this and go watch it.

In addition to the “firsts” “The Sword in the Stone” also had one tragic “last”.  It was the last Disney animated film that Walt was able to see from production to its release.  Sadly Walt Disney succumbed to cancer three years later on December 15th.  At least there were a few things for him to be proud of, the film was a financial success and received an Academy Award nomination for best score, other than that “The Sword in the Stone” doesn’t have much else to offer.

The sketchy lines caused by the Xerox process, established in “101 Dalmatians”, are present and obnoxious as ever.   It looks as if not as much care or detail was put into the layouts (backgrounds) as was in previous Disney films.  It’s clear that live action reference was used for most of the human characters, but it was definitely not used sparingly which caused the appearance of rotoscoping through much of the film.

The opening credits of “The Sword in the Stone” return to a more traditional look and feel than the experimental ones that opened “101 Dalmatians”.  In fact they look a lot like the opening credits of “Sleeping Beauty”, although they sound nothing like “Sleeping Beauty”.  Like many popular film composers Disney’s George Bruns really hit his stride and found his “sound” in the 1960’s.  This either means he’s on a roll composing hit score after hit score or it means that he’s found a sound he likes, so every score sounds like the last.  I vote the latter.

I hope and assume that most of these cost-cutting choices were made in the spirit of “Dumbo”; make a movie for pennies and if it earns even half of what the expensive movies make, you’ll be ahead of the game!  In the filmmaker’s camp, I understand, but in the filmgoer’s camp, I feel let down.  They made the typical Hollywood “studio” decision and chose revenue over art and I guess I can’t fault them, with the amount of financial “bombs” released up until then, money-saving decisions like the ones above could be the reason we still have Disney movies today.

Cost-cutting aside, what bothers me most about “The Sword in the Stone” is the voice of Wart (Arthur), the main character of the film.  At random times throughout “The Sword in the Stone” and with no apparent rhyme or reason THREE NOTICABLY DIFFERENT ACTORS provide the voice for the young boy.  This might be fine if we saw young Wart, teen Wart and adult Wart, all with different voices but this isn’t the case.  The films spans a few days, a month at the most, and Wart’s voice is changing from scene to scene and back again!  Unacceptable and very annoying.

The three boys who play Wart throughout the film are Rickie Sorenson, Richard Reitherman, and Robert Reitherman.  Earlier I told you that the Director of this picture was Wolfgang Reitherman, can you say “nepotism”?

Reitherman does not make a good impression with his solo directorial debut using too many animation shortcuts, resulting in messy lines, boring layouts and awkward movements all in addition to inconsistent voice work for the character of Wart.  But enough about ol’ Woolie Reitherman let’s discuss the story, or lack thereof, written by Disney story man Bill Peet. 

On the surface, there’s not a lot of emotion in this film, I felt very distant from the characters.  Only minimally did I ever feel involved or drawn in to the story. We spend a lot of time on lessons with morals.  Each of these, taught to Wart by Merlin, involves the transformation into an animal.  First fish, then squirrels and finally a bird. These three sequences fell like separate cartoons of their own, almost as if I was back watching the “package films” of the 1940’s.

The lesson in the fish cartoon is, brains over brawn.  It’s an important lesson to teach, but a good story would have it pay off in the end.  Maybe Wart (the young King Arthur) could use these lessons to overcome some evil or opposing force in a final battle?  Maybe the film will flash forward to see King Arthur teach these valuable life lessons to the Knights of the Round Table?  Maybe somehow, somewhere they will justify why we sat through a cartoon about fish and learned “brains over brawn”?  No, we won’t.  Merlin turns both of them into animals, teaches them a lesson and that’s it, onto the next lesson.

The lesson in the squirrel cartoon is that girl squirrels CANNOT get enough of boy squirrels.  I could make several comments here, but I’m trying to keep this PG.  This is the best of the three “lesson” sequences in both humor and animation.  Squirrel Merlin (or “Squirrelin”) has wonderfully funny interactions with his female counterpart. 

For the final lesson Merlin turns Wart into a bird.  He doesn’t turn himself into a bird this time; I assume it’s due to his fear of catching Bird Flu.  The best thing that comes from the bird segment is the introduction (finally) of the villain, Madame Mim.

So to recap, the lessons that Merlin decided would be important to teach the future King of England were; brains over brawn, love is powerful, how to fly.  I think Wart’s all set to take the throne now.

Yes they’re all good life lessons, but there’s no short-term payoff in the film.  We never see the end result of all this wizardly education.  And by the way Wart doesn’t even have a final showdown with any opposing force!  He doesn’t even struggle with taking the sword out of the stone.  He does it twice!  Merlin’s the only character to face off against the villain, and thankfully that’s the best scene in the film. 

The Wizard’s duel has the best animation in “The Sword in the Stone”, the best layouts, the best jokes and the best characters, Merlin (voice by Karl Swenson) and Mim (voice by Martha Wentworth) are on top of their game.  There’s even a bonus lesson for Wart to learn; knowledge is power.  I think I've heard that somewhere before . . . 

Mim is a great villain; a lot lighter and more comical than the past few but still delightfully wicked in her own way.  I really enjoyed Mad Madame Mim’s self titled musical number.  Come to think of it, all of the songs in “The Sword I the Stone” are good, but I’m not surprised, the Sherman Brothers are masters.  I will say that all but one of the songs are sung by Merlin or Mim, neither of which are known for their professional singing careers so don’t get your hopes up.

Talented film and television actor Sebastian Cabot lends his voice to the character of Sir Hector (Wart’s Foster Father) and as Narrator of the film.  His wonderful voice is the kind that I want reading books on tape.  Even children’s books, he would be great for the Winnie the Pooh series.

Disney regular (and Frosted Flakes announcer) Thurl Ravenscroft returns and gives a “GRRRRRRREAT!” performance as witness to Wart pulling the sword from the stone, an iconic moment in Disney animation.  Well, Wart actually gets to pull it out twice; the second time he pulls it out is the real money shot.

In the final moments of the film, Merlin returns from his visit to 21st century Bermuda, dressed in the typical tourist garb and sporting some red Chuck Taylor tennis shoes (gotta love that!).  He goes on to give Wart some spoilers about the future (kind of like what I’m doing here explaining the end of the film), leading to a brief description of Motion Pictures, “Television without the commercials” and BAM the film ends!  Wart’s got a puzzled look on his face and the camera moves to a wide shot of the Throne Room and “THE END” appears on screen.  That’s it?  What was the point?  Why did we learn all those lessons? 

Wart didn’t have to do anything or overcome anything.  In fact, up until Merlin’s arrival Wart tries to escape his new station as Ruler of England.  Perhaps Merlin could put that time traveling spoiler ability to work and explain to Wart (I should call him Arthur now since he’s King) some of the great adventures and stories in his future.  Even how the lesson’s he’s learned come into play down the road.  The narrator could even return and take us through the final pages of the book (the film began with the “storybook” opening) until we reach the end and the book closes.  But no, instead we get a few jokes about movies and TV and a big ol’ THE END.  It reminded me of the similar abrupt endings to many of Disney’s “package films” in the 1940’s.  Shame.

I may have not given films like “Fantasia” or “The Sword in the Stone” very good reviews, but they still hold a special place in my heart.  Good or bad, these older Disney films have the wonderfully familiar feeling of an old book.  We may not remember every little detail, and we may not like what we see when we revisit it but we always surprise ourselves with how much we do recall and the nostalgic feeling that arises every time we push ‘play’. 

Strong Points: Villain, Sherman Bothers songs, Merlin, opening credits, narration.

Weak Points: Sketchy line work, bad effects, inconsistent voice work, weak story, uninteresting score, abrupt ending.

My rating: 2 out of 5 actors playing Wart.

Next week: Singing simians serenade stray son in “The Jungle Book”!

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