Released in 1963 between the ultimate classics ‘101 Dalmatians’ and ‘The Jungle Book’, The Sword in the Stone is often forgotten because it cannot be compared to those masterful films, but that is a shame because it is quite good in its own right and a very endearing and fun film which has its strengths and which is one of the most interesting experiments for Disney Animation.
The story follows Arthur, the future king of England, who gets some classes from Merlin the wizard who teaches him some valuable lessons for his future ruling. The plot is very evidently and deftly split into three acts with the middle part being the strongest, whereas the beginning is very well executed with an introduction to the legend with the famous Disney book opening led by a very good and underrated song which sets the mood perfectly thanks to Middle Ages feel to it. Then, after Arthur’s meeting Merlin which is well done, the lessons start and although they slow the movie’s pace, they are the movie’s biggest strength in my opinion because those sequences create the perfect playful tone and contribute to the character development the most.
The ending is of course extremely memorable and pulling of the sword is beautifully executed and being followed by excellent and truly humorous conclusion with a great Merlin line about what movies are and how he tries to explain it to Arthur. However, the whole third act is definitely rushed and I have to say that it feels contrived and some would say pointless, even creating a prequel feel to it and that is because the movie follows his lessons, but refuses to show him use it later on. That is definitely a flaw, but it can be observed in a way that it is not necessary and it is not the point of the movie, but rather the point being the journey and as I said already, a prequel feel and creating of a legend is probably the purpose here which is why I don’t hold them against it so much for that choice.
The character development in this film is stupendous and one of the movie’s strongest points without a doubt. Merlin is absolutely fantastic as a competent, incredibly wise, but also funny and sometimes irritable and clumsy old man. His character is such a blast to watch that I definitely consider him as one of the most underrated creations in the entire Disney cannon. Arthur is weak and quite bland, being definitely the most boring character here which once again goes to show Hollywood’s endless tendency in portraying tedious protagonists.
But Madam Mim is absolutely enthralling as a villain here. Yes, she is somewhat of a joke, but the whole movie is meant more for children, so it was expected. But she is definitely strong both in terms of characterization and magical powers which is evident in the duel with Merlin which is easily the most recognizable and the most powerful sequence of the whole picture. Everything in that scene is perfectly executed from the animation to the imagination to the character choices and action. It is a perfect vehicle for their powers and a great way to teach kids zoology.
After Merlin, the finest character has to be Archimedes the owl. He is a textbook example of how great a Disney sidekick can truly be with a distinct and very realistic and rarely portrayed irritable and boring personality, good character design, superb relationship and interaction with Merlin and inherent charm and in the end endearing factor he has. He certainly brings both humor and heart to the film and is one of the most underrated Disney sidekicks for sure which is again a real shame.
The animation is problematic because it again showcases the more restrained approach both in style and quality which Disney was doing during the whole decade of the sixties due to budgetary issues and it definitely shows. However, even though it is somewhat weak and of course nowhere near the quality of earlier classics, I still find it enjoyable, it doesn’t detract from the experience and it has a nice color palette and feel to it. It is nothing to write home about, but it is also not bad to me, it’s quite solid and serves its purpose.
The soundtrack is the biggest problem The Sword in the Stone has. Yes, the title song is quite stupendous and sets the mood and is even underappreciated a bit, but pretty much most of the other songs are very forgettable which definitely hurts the movie. Higitus Figitus is too silly and childish, A Most Befuddling Thing is bland and just serves as a plot device and Mad Madam Mim is quite mediocre. That’s What Makes the World Go Around is the standout both thanks to the charming sequence and somewhat catchy lyrics, but it is once again a plot device and the strongest song in a pretty weak soundtrack which is really not saying a lot. Yes, this is probably the worst soundtrack during Walt’s era and a huge problem for the film. They either should have created better songs or removed the whole musical aspect to it entirely.
The direction is pretty solid and the dialogue is quite sophisticated. The movie also has a very reverent approach to its source material and the tone is excellent, witty, playful and childlike. The humor is absolutely superb and, along with the characters, it is the reason why this film works. And yes, the movie is one of the most childish Disney films that is definitely intended for smaller audiences, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, I find its childlike innocence, playful nature and warm characters and humor intriguing and a nice experiment for Disney and a very different film from their previous features.
With a plethora of likable characters thanks to superb characterization, truly charming humor and a plot that is endearing and very engaging with a childlike and playful nature, The Sword in the Stone does have not so memorable animation, the editing is not the strongest and the soundtrack is one of Disney’s worst, but it is still a very heartwarming and fun film with some very memorable sequences and excellent humor. It has its flaws, but it is also quite good and certainly one of Disney’s most underappreciated works.