The run was never going to last. After more than a dozen years of near-unparalleled creativity starting with Cinderella in 1950 the well had to run dry at some point. Regrettably The Sword in the Stone, the last movie to be released in Walt Disney’s lifetime, is the movie to break Disney’s hot-streak.
The movie’s problems begin from it’s very conception. It creates the cardinal sin of trying to tell a prequel (three decades before the word was invented) by chronicling the life of King Arthur before he became King Arthur. As I detailed in my review of Solo recently, the problem with prequels is that they cannot possibly contain the most interesting and important arc of the character. Obviously that part happens when Arthur already has the crown; after all, it is the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable – not the legend of Arthur the boy. By placing the story before his mythic adventures and battles, The Sword in the Stone cuts itself off from a rich treasure trove of myths and lore to draw from and, as we shall see, this clearly bears out in the movie itself.
Behind the scenes there was some turmoil afoot at the studio. The box office failure of Sleeping Beauty had financially crippled the studio, leading to lay-offs that greatly thinned the animation department’s numbers. While the Xerox process for animation had worked well in telling the particular stylized story of One Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961, it was apparent that this new form of animation was a pale shadow of the lush (and time-consuming) artwork that had gone on before and that the new technology’s economic benefit far outweighed its artistic ones. In addition the studio was faced with the agonizing decision of facing a choice of moving forward on only one of two troubled projects that had long been in development. The first was Chanticleer – a story from Cyrano de Bergerac author Edmond Rostand about a rooster that believes his crowing makes the sun rise. The second was The Sword in the Stone. Chanticleer was much more ambitious, and therefore more financially risky. The Sword in the Stone was the safe bet both artistically and financially. And so with the safe bet they went.
After a brief prologue detailing the state of a pre-Arthur England, the movie opens with Merlin and his owl friend Archimedes squabbling with one another as Merlin prepares his house for an unknown stranger (spoiler alert: it’s going to be a young Arthur). Already in this opening scene it becomes apparent that the level of ambition in this movie is going to be staggeringly low. The movie leans hard on Merlin (and to some extent Archimedes) for almost all of the movie’s humour, colour, and interest, turning him from a mysterious and possibly dangerous figure of the legends into a bumbling and anachronistic eccentric who seems barely competent of his wizardry. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem had Disney not already used their bumbling but lovable magic user card on the witches Flora, Fauna, and Merriwether in Sleeping Beauty. Merlin’s character epitomizes how much The Sword in the Stone leans on what has already worked in the past rather than pushing the bounds of creativity.
When we finally do get to Arthur, he is in a sorry state. He is an orphan who is taken in by a resentful foster father Sir Ector and isn’t even called by his real name, instead going by “Wart”. He is treated no better than a servant, scrawny in stature, and can safely be considered as far away from ascending to the throne as possible. He is also apparently bereft of a real personality as he is affable to a fault and willing to let the grown-ups to dictate the plot.
Soon after Merlin agrees to be Arthur’s tutor word comes in to Sir Ector that a jousting tournament is going to be held in London with the eventual winner becoming King of England. Sir Ector quickly seeks to groom his son Kay to be the family representative and appoints Arthur his squire. Under normal circumstances one would expect this plot development to kickstart the plot and send Arthur on a collision course with Excalibur and his kingly destiny. However the movie seems strangely uninterested in this potential plot, instead focusing on the ever-so-exciting prospect of Arthur’s education with Merlin.
Almost the entire remaining runtime of the movie is devoted to Arthur’s lessons in which it is drilled home into him that “knowledge and wisdom is greater than brute strength”. It becomes plainly obvious why the animators chose to focus on this instead of something more narratively ambitious. In each of Arthur’s three lessons he and Merlin are turned into woodland creatures (a fish, a squirrel, and a bird respectively), providing neat and self-contained episodes for the animators to work in as much slapstick humour and action to mask the already thin plot. The movie is further stretched by a magical dish-washing once again focuses on Merlin that harkens back to previous sequences in Disney’s work rather than anything remotely original.
Apart from the mild peril Arthur and Merlin face from various predators when they are in their transformed state, the movie doesn’t even have anything that resembles a true conflict or anyone that is a villain until Madam Mim shows up to confront Merlin with less than twenty minutes to go in the movie. This is truly a shame because her conflict with Merlin is the only time the pace of the movie moves faster than a pedestrian stroll. She is entertainingly insane and a perfect foil for the eccentric Merlin (once again, Arthur remains passive throughout this encounter) and the duel between the two is clever, visually witty, and the best part of this movie. However, this happens too late in the proceedings to change the trajectory of the movie in any meaningful way.
And then after spending almost all of the runtime on his education, the movie rushes Arthur away to London for the final 10 minutes of the movie (while Merlin disappears in a huff) for the jousting tournament where through happenstance he finds Excalibur in the stone, pulls it out and eventually is declared King. If it feels like a tacked-on ending that has little-to-no connection to the movie we’ve seen so far, it’s because that is precisely the case. Since Arthur has been such a passive figure thus far the absence of Merlin in the final scenes is truly noticeable while Arthur’s sudden agency rings false. And with that, the movie ends.
I will readily admit that a thin plot in a children’s movie does not necessarily mean that the movie is going to be bad. After all Bambi, one of Disney’s all-time best, has barely anything resembling a plot but the movie works because it is an astonishing work of animation that pushed the medium into new directions. The Sword in the Stone meanwhile is remarkable from an animation standpoint only in so much as it recycles previous Disney animation. Now to be sure for as long as the Walt Disney Company has been in the animation business, they have reworked old animation into new projects so there isn’t anything inherently wrong with recycling animation. But it is the sheer amount of animation recycled that is truly shocking here. There is an action sequence involving Kay and Sir Ector that is recycled from One Hundred and One Dalmatians – a movie that was released just two years earlier. Meanwhile a jousting scene is almost entirely copied and pasted from a Disney short The Truth About Mother Goose. There is even a moment when Arthur runs into the forest to get Kay’s arrow at the beginning of the movie that gets used again in the same movie when Arthur runs to get Kay a sword at the movie’s end. While the Xerox method was used in One Hundred and One Dalmatians for the artistic purpose of expediting the creation of the multitude of dogs, The Sword in the Stone seems to blatantly use it in order to cut costs. And it can’t help but feel cheap as a result.
Let me get one thing clear: The Sword in the Stone is not a bad movie. It is a pleasant enough a diversion, with a few sequences here and there that are truly filled with that “Disney magic” so to speak. But it is ultimately ordinary. Had the movie not been a Disney movie I am fairly sure we would not be talking about it today, or at the very best it would be a niche-animated movie for fans of animated movies. It is a movie compromised by being so clearly motivated by financial considerations (it did end up being a box office success) rather than artistic ones. It is a pity that this is the last movie Walt got to see released as it is a poor capstone of his marvellous career. Rather than being emblematic of his work, it anticipates the coming dark ages for Disney in the late 60s all the way to the 90s where the company struggled to define itself in the wake of his passing. While Disney’s Silver Age has not ended yet with The Jungle Book still to come in this series, The Sword in the Stone makes it so that it is not altogether surprising why it did come to an end.
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