KIDS' STUFF: The Sword in the Stone (1963)

The Sword in the Stone (USA, 1963)
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Starring Rickie Sorenson, Karl Swenson, Martha Wentworth, Junius Matthews

In my reviews of Disney efforts from the 1960s and 1970s, I've spoken at some length about the creative decline that followed the death of Walt Disney. I've railed against the Company retreating into the safety of convention, and its increasing apathy towards the quality of animation. And I've come down hard on Wolfgang Reitherman for overseeing and encouraging this rapid descent into the pale and pedestrian.
On these grounds, you would expect me to hate The Sword in the Stone, both as a film in and of itself and because of what it represents. Reitherman's first solo effort as a director is plainly very flimsy, with a ton of visual shortcuts and a plot that amounts to total tosh. But however much time one takes to list all its shortcomings and explain the legacy it left behind, the film is just too gleeful to generate any feelings of hate.
Even if you were a die-hard Disney fan, you'd have a hard time arguing that The Sword in the Stone could visually hold its own against the Golden Age. The animation is incredibly pale and thin, with everything that had started creeping in with 101 Dalmatians being fully manifested here. The character models are scruffy and scraggy, and while the basic proportions of the characters are up to scratch, the articulation of their limbs is increasingly jagged and angular.
The background designs are also far less detailed than before, with most of them having very simple patterns and differences in colour. It's a complete contrast to Sleeping Beauty, which skimped on movement in certain places but compensated with beautiful backgrounds and smooth designs for all the main characters. Finally there is the reuse of footage, along with the same four or five sound effects turning up like clockwork. Every time Merlin marches along in middle distance, we eagerly await the next 'poof' sound as something or someone disappears.
All of these features belie an increasing sense of apathy within the Disney Company towards hand-drawn animated features. The box-office failure of Sleeping Beauty had been accompanied by the company diversifying into theme parks and investing more money into live-action films. It's not entirely Reitherman's fault that The Sword in the Stone looks second-rate, but the shortcuts he takes only serve to reinforce this apathy, which at its worst mutates into a seeming contempt for the audience's intelligence.
Whether for creative or financial reasons, The Sword in the Stone is a very small film. It's ironic that a film deriving from the epic legends of King Arthur should seem so relatively stake-free throughout its running time. The best adaptations of the Arthur legend have always captured the sense of a country or landscape undergoing seismic shifts, whether politically or in a more supernatural manner. This is even true of tangential adaptations like A Royal Affair, which use the Arthur framework to illustrate a more recent upheaval.
For most of its running time, The Sword in the Stone is terribly gentle in both its pacing and its dramatic content. It's far more concerned with comedic whimsy and misunderstanding than it is with fleshing out the backstory of history's most famous fictional king. The characters are all likeable, or at least are too bland to get angry about it, but there isn't as much danger or tension to their circumstances as there should be. Not every Arthur adaptation has to be as portentous as John Boorman's Excalibur, but neither should these relationships be entirely trivialised for the sake of humour.
I've spoken in many places about needing to view Disney adaptations on their own merits - in other words, to not judge them entirely by how faithful they are to the source material. The Disney versions of classic fairy tales are some of the company's strongest work, but there are so many variations in the stories of Snow White, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty that it is impossible for any adaptation to be called definitive. The only provisos are that 'the Disney version' should be entertaining in its own right, and reflect the spirit of the original even if it doesn't follow the narrative word for word.
On this basis, we can view The Sword in the Stone as a partial success, much like Peter Pan and Cinderella before it. Like these efforts, it isn't going to win any awards for being a faithful adaptation - though unlike these films, it has the excuse of being a prequel and therefore has more room for manoeuvre. It succeeds primarily as a piece of entertainment, providing enough laughs to fill the time but having its fair share of issues if you stop and think about it. We are fortunate that the film is slight and silly enough that its issues are mainly mechanical, rather than being rooted in possible racism (Peter Pan) or questionable gender politics (Cinderella).
For all its technical shortcomings, The Sword in the Stone does have a gleeful energy to it which is evident all throughout its running time. Alongside the magical set-pieces, which evoke 'The Sorceror's Apprentice' from Fantasia, there is a lot of really fun slapstick which brings the period to life. The Dark Ages were a period of great physical prowess and aggression, and so it makes sense for the characters to spend a lot of their time either bashing things or banging into other things. The film has great fun putting its fall guys through the mill, particularly the unfortunate wolf that ends up floating downstream trapped in a log.
The film benefits in this regard from two of the best supporting characters in Disney history. On the one hand we have Archimedes, arguably the greatest sidekick ever to grace a Disney film. His bad temper and snarky commentary on Merlin's attempts to educate the boy bring a spark to what could otherwise be a series of dull scenes. He reflects audience scepticism towards Wart and in doing so makes the future king into a more endearing character. He also gets some of the film's best lines, including the immortal putdown: "Man will fly alright... just like a rock!", followed by his famously infectious laughter.
On the other hand, we have the magnificent, marvellous, mad Madam Mim, voiced by Martha Wentworth. Wentworth had previously leant her voice to Nanny in 101 Dalmatians, and here she is allowed to fully let loose, creating a character that is both hilarious and completely unhinged. Mim is one of the great comedy villains, being so eccentric that you can't help but laugh, but also having the power and ruthless edge needed to threaten us. The Wizard's Duel between her and Merlin is the highlight of the film, with a quicker pace, sharper humour and much more thought being put into the animation.
The Sword in the Stone also deserves praise for the message it sends out. Unlike the weaker princess films, which prize beauty over intelligence or hard work, this film has a protagonist who is effectively emancipated by education. Wart cannot rely on physical strength to make it in a world that is shaped by such a value; with Merlin's guidance he finds a different way of expressing himself and eventually emerges with the prize. Making him pull out the sword is not just a plot contrivance: it reinforces the idea that true leadership comes from a pure heart and a sense of self-respect.
The Sword in the Stone is a film which offers a lot of silly pleasure in amongst its many, many flaws. It's a film to love with your heart, and childhood nostalgia, since any attempt to appreciate it intellectually will come up short. But if nothing else it makes for good, passing entertainment, with a lot more laughs and a better message than many Disney efforts of the period.