Thursday, July 3, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 25th December 1963

Perhaps the most significant fact of "The Sword In The Stone" is that it was the last completed Disney animated movie that Walt himself saw before he died. It was also the first animated movie that the Sherman Brothers wrote songs for.

It takes its inspiration from the 1938 novel by T.H. White which told of the early days of King Arthur: how he was an orphan scullery boy who happened to pull a fabled sword out of an anvil and become King of England.

Utilising the same Xerox photocopying technique used in One Hundred and One Dalmations, The Sword In The Stone also sneakily reused animated sequences throughout to save on animation costs. It was a moderate success at the box office, but - perhaps ironically - British critics seemed to enjoy it more than the American ones.

One of the more notable strange elements of The Sword In The Stone is that Wart's voice seems to change the whole way through the movie. It gets deeper and sounds like a teenager, then suddenly it becomes high like a 9 year-old. Then it switches back again. This can all happen in the space of a single scene! Even as a child I found this very strange, but figured they must have recorded a boy as his voice was breaking, and since the recordings weren't done in sequence, this was the reason for the discrepancy. The truth is actually stranger... No less than THREE different boys provided voices for Wart, two of them being the director's sons! WHY did they do this? I have absolutely no idea, and I've been unable to discover any kind of reasoning on the internet. If you have any inside info, let me know! It also seems a strange disconnect that Wart is the only character with an American accent in a movie that states many many times that it is set in England.

With The Sword In The Stone, Walt Disney was taking further and further steps away from his animation studios. He basically left his chief story-man Bill Peet in charge of writing the whole thing, and Wolfgang "Woolie" Reitherman - one of Disney's "Nine Old Men" - was the movie's sole director. This was the first time a Disney animated movie would have a single director, although it wouldn't be the last.

To give that "Disney Classic" feel, we once again open on a book.

Through some sung narration we learn the legend of England's dark ages: how the king had died without an heir, and the only way a new king could be crowned is if someone pulled the fabled sword Excalibur out of the stone. Many tried, all failed. The sword fell into legend, and England went years without a king.

Sometime later, a wizard named Merlin is preparing his cottage in the woods for an important visitor who he has seen in a vision. He doesn't know who the boy will be or what his purpose is, but he is sure he will arrive.

Sure enough, a scrawny scullery boy called Arthur (nickname "Wart") is following his lord's son Kay on a hunting trip. When he messes up Kay's shot, he races into the woods to find the arrow.

And after being pursued by a hungry wolf and falling from a tree, Wart meets Merlin and a partnership for the ages is born. (Merlin's name was spelled "Merlyn" in T.H. White's book, though no explanation is given as to why it's been changed for the Disney version)

Merlin informs Wart that he is going to become his tutor. If the boy is going to make anything of his life, he needs an education! Wart reluctantly agrees, not really understanding what the wizard is talking about. Using a magic spell, Merlin packs his entire house up in his case and they set off on their way home.

Wart lives in a castle with his lord Sir Ector and his son Kay. When Wart arrives home late with a strange wizard, Ector is none too impressed. He reluctantly agrees to put Merlin up in an abandoned tower, but warns him not to interfere with Wart's duties.

That night a knight called Sir Pellinore arrives at the castle with news that a tournament will be held in London, with the winner being crowned King of England. Ector immediately suggests that Kay enter, and his training begins the very next day.

Meanwhile, Merlin begins his lessons with Wart. Day one sees them wandering outside the castle and observing the moat.

With a bit of magic, Merlin turns both Wart and himself into fish, to experience what life is like in a completely different world, and to teach Wart the lesson of "brain over brawn."

The following day sees Wart stuck with an entire room full of dishes to clean. Merlin (with the help of a bit of magic) sets the dishes to wash themselves.

The next lesson involves turning Wart into a squirrel and seeing life from a high-flying perspective.

While up in the trees, both Wart and Merlin are exposed to the female of the species. They both learn a valuable lesson about love and infatuation, with hilarious consequences.

After some arguments, Merlin's owl Archimedes takes responsibility for Wart's education, starting with reading and writing.

This is short-lived though, since Merlin changes Wart into a bird. Archimedes teaches Wart to fly, but he soon finds himself falling into the house of the "magnificent, marvellous" mad Madam Mim!

Crazy witch Mim decides that she's going to turn into a cat and eat Wart, but Merlin shows up just in time to save the day. The rivals decide to have a "Wizard Duel," where they must use magic to change themselves into creatures in an attempt to destroy each other.

After a fierce battle, Mim breaks the rules by turning into a gigantic purple dragon. Merlin in turn transforms into a germ; a very rare disease called Malignalitaloptereosis. This makes Mim incredibly sick and unable to fight. This supposedly teaches Wart that wisdom is the real power.

The following day, Wart is promoted to be Kay's squire for the great tournament in London. Merlin, furious that Wart would settle for such an unimportant role, sends himself to Bermuda in the future. When the day of the tournament arrives, Wart suddenly realises that he left Kay's sword at the inn.

Frantically searching for a substitute, he sees a sword resting in an anvil in a nearby churchyard. Not having any idea why the sword is there, he yanks it out of the stone and unknowingly crowns himself King of England.

After everybody has accepted his royalty, Wart finds himself seated on a throne with no idea what to do. Even Archimedes seems bewildered by the whole situation. All of a sudden Merlin returns from the future and rejoices that Wart has at last found his rightful place as king.

He reassures Wart that everything will be all right, and he will go down in history as a great legend. "They might even make a motion picture about you!" he says. "That's something like television, without commercials."

IRVYNE: The Sword In The Stone is a very strange little tale, and not really like anything Disney had done before. It's told quite episodically, and doesn't seem to have a traditional three-act format. In fact, it could be argued that it doesn't even have a single main character. Merlin and Wart kind of share that duty.
One thing that this movie DOES have is great characters. Bumbling grumbling Merlin is always a delight to watch, his grumpy owl assistant Archimedes is great, and Madam Mim steals the short screentime that she's in. Although this could have been told as a very serious story, nothing is taken too seriously in the Disney version. It's light, colourful and funny. That's probably why I loved it so much as a child.
The Sword In The Stone uses the same Xerox transfer method that had saved so much money in the production of One Hundred and One Dalmations. (Unfortunately...) I don't know whether it's just me, but the line roughness doesn't seem as noticeable in this film. I assume they were perfecting the use of the technology as they were going. Having said that, some shots seem a lot rougher than others. For example, look at these two shots of the wolf, which appear mere seconds apart in the finished film. The shots were likely drawn by two different artists, but due to the simple photocopying process, the lines in the bottom shot are scribbly, whereas in the top shot they are fairly fine. (Look at the tongue in particular)
It's nothing that a child would pick up on, but it's there nonetheless. Having said that, I believe it is a better-looking film than its predecessor. There's much nicer use of colour, some of the backgrounds are more detailed and the character animation is fantastic.
This was the first time the Sherman Brothers would work on a Disney animated feature. Masters of the "catchy melody," the Shermans made a number of songs that are instantly singable. It is notable however, that the songs don't really stand out as the strongest point of the movie. They're just kind of... there.
The opening song narrates the background story. It's a nice-sounding tune, beautifully sung by Fred Darian, but it's fairly brief.
The next song is Merlin's "clean-up-the-room" song, "Higitus Figitus." It's fun, especially with the accompanying visuals, but it's all made up of nonsense words.
"That's What Makes The World Go Round" is sung by both Merlin and Arthur as they examine life as a fish. This is probably the catchiest song in the film and the closest it comes to having a "classic Disney song."
The next song is the squirrels' love song, "A Most Befuddling Thing." Like the previous song, it's a merry romp, but not particularly memorable.
The final song is "Mad Madam Mim," which is self-explanatory. Mim's a great character, wonderfully voiced by Martha Wentworth (who had also voiced Nanny in One Hundred and One Dalmations) and you can tell she was having a great time going completely over-the-top while recording the song.
The underscore is wonderful. I particularly love the jazz music as the dishes wash themselves.
I hadn't seen The Sword In The Stone for quite a while, and I was wondering if I was still going to love it as much as I used to. While certainly one of the lesser classics in the Disney canon, this movie is just a whole lot of fun. It's not perfect by any means, but it's definitely one to watch if you're in for a good laugh.
MALEFICENT: This was always my brother's favourite Disney movie, and we would watch it a lot. It's a hilarious movie.
SHENZI: I like it too. It's a good one.
IRVYNE: It's a lot more fun and entertaining than One Hundred And One Dalmations, that's for sure.
SHENZI: Absolutely! I don't know why I didn't really remember The Sword In The Stone. I was sure I'd seen it before.
HAKU: I've read the book that it's based on, and I can safely say that the book is nowhere near as comedic. All of the modern references like Bermuda and television are Disney inventions.
MICHAEL DARLING: It was cool how even the strong men couldn't pull the sword out of the stone, but the boy could do it!
IRVYNE: The ending always seemed a bit abrupt to me.
MALEFICENT: He pulls the sword out, becomes king, the end.
MICHAEL DARLING: It'd be funny if they called him "King Wart!"
IRVYNE: It feels like the main part of the story is yet to come. But I suppose that's the point of being a "prequel" of sorts. There are many other movies that focus on the main King Arthur story.
MALEFICENT: That's what makes this story different. It's about the boy he was before he became the king. And that makes it appeal to kids as well, the fact that it's about a boy. He learns lots of good life lessons in the story.
HAKU: In the book, he was taught different morals in each chapter.
IRVYNE: I think perhaps the reason this seems so sudden is that Wart doesn't have any kind of "final challenge" that he has to overcome at the story's conclusion. He's not TRYING to become King of England, and pulling the sword from the stone isn't difficult for him. It's not something he's been working up to doing, it just happens. I wonder if they ever considered continuing the story in a second movie, with the same characters. I'd actually love to see that: an animated Disney take on the Knights of the Round Table. It'll likely never happen now though. Or if it does, it will be all CGI.
SHENZI: I love how random Merlin is!
MALEFICENT: Merlin's my favourite character in this, and he is exactly what I'm going to be like when I'm an old man. I love how absent-minded he is, and how he contradicts himself all the time. He says "magic won't solve all your problems," but he uses magic to solve his problems every day, even if it's just finding somewhere to sit down.
IRVYNE: I always laugh at how in the beginning he's grumbling about "one big medieval mess," and when he gets back from the future he's grumbling about "one big modern mess." There's just no pleasing some people! His beard always cracks me up. If it's such a nuisance, why not just chop it off?
MALEFICENT: He couldn't do that!
IRVYNE: Did you notice that "Allakazam" seems to be the CTRL-ALT-DEL of the magic world?
MALEFICENT: I love the animation. I love how sketchy the characters all look, how it definitely looks hand-drawn.
IRVYNE: For the most part, the backgrounds look much nicer than One Hundred and One Dalmations. There are still some scenes where it has that sketchbook quality that I'm really not that fond of, but there's much nicer use of colour, especially to show the time of day that the scenes are taking place in.
MALEFICENT: There are definitely elements of Sleeping Beauty's backgrounds too, being set in a similar kind of time period. And the book illustrations at the start are similar as well.
IRVYNE: One thing that's interesting, and I don't know if it's a cost-cutting thing, but there are a number of shots in this movie that are duplicated. We see the exact same shot of Wart falling down the stairs twice. The shot of Kay chewing the meat off a bone and throwing it away? We see it three times in the same scene! Even as a child, I remember thinking this was kind of cheap.
HAKU: There seemed to be quite a bit of inspiration from Looney Tunes in some scenes. The hungry wolf looked like he'd been watching too many Road Runner cartoons! And even in the Wizard's Duel scene, the way the characters were running back and forth trying to one-up each other, was very reminiscent of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny.
MALEFICENT: A lot of the sound effects are very cartoony and goofy as well.
MICHAEL DARLING: It's funny how they stay the same colour whenever they became animals: Merlin is always blue, Wart is always orange or brown, and Madam Mim is pink or purple.
IRVYNE: I wouldn't say that this is the strongest story of the Disney collection, or that it's got the best characters, but it's good fun. It's very light-hearted and there's lots of laughs.

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