Sunday, February 10, 2013

More Blunt Than Sharp: Disney’s “The Sword In the Stone”


Disney’s Eighteenth Animated Feature – 1963
The sixties were a turbulent decade for, well … the entire planet. For reasons that had nothing to do with social upheaval, the sixties were a turbulent decade for the Disney animation studio as well. The sixties saw lay-offs, reorganization, and a scaling back of a company that seemed on an endless trajectory of success and growth.


In the 1930s, Walt Disney had to take out a bank loan to finish Snow White. If the film failed, he and his company would have failed, too. But Snow White was a phenomenal success that changed the world of animation and ensured Disney’s short-term security. By the late fifties, despite a sharp downturn in American movie-going in general, Disney gambled on another princess—Sleeping Beauty—pumping boatloads of cash into its production, taking a “pull out all the stops” attitude. Disney believed that the jump in quality and production values would return to him in prestige and box office. But this time, the gamble failed. Sleeping Beauty didn’t find its audience and Disney responded with layoffs.

Young Wart scrubs and cleans, just
like "Snow White" as Merlin watches.
Technological advancements steered Disney to the department where a lot of those cuts could be made: in-house modifications of Xerox technology allowed animators to transfer their sketches directly onto animation cells. Even though this technology resulted in a sketchier-looking frame (as opposed to the deep black lines achievable in hand-inked cells), Disney decided that deep cuts could be made to the inking department. This marked a major turning point in the look of Disney’s films. The creative team behind One Hundred and One Dalmatians embraced this new set of limitations, opting for a cleaner, “modern art” look inspired by contemporary painting and interior design; but The Sword In the Stone seems to suffer in its overall look. The sketchiness and simplicity of the figures combined with rather simple, not terribly interesting backgrounds make this film look pretty cheesy. You certainly won’t be drawn to this film for its visual wow factor (because it has none).

Both Wart and Merlin become fish.
What it does have is great source material in the original book, The Sword In the Stone by English author T. H. White. This is the witty, exciting, and magical story of young orphan “Wart” who would become King Arthur and create the Order of the Round Table. Wart is educated by none other than wizard Merlin who teaches Wart valuable life lessons by turning him into animals. T. H. White made the life of King Arthur his particular project and released a new volume every few years. The smaller books were eventually combined into one work, The Once and Future King, definitely a literary highlight of my young life. In fact, I’d recommend this book to ANY parent who’s looking for the perfect bedtime story. It’s in turns hilariously funny, thrillingly exciting, and ineffably heart-breaking. Now, Disney’s The Sword In the Stone follows Wart as a youngster, just up to the point where he’s recognized and crowned king as a boy, but it’s fun and lively and this film DID find its audience, a solid hit for Disney. This is not dissimilar to what happened with Dumbo. After the box-office disappointment that was Pinocchio and the flat-out flop that was Fantasia, the visually simpler, low-budget Dumbo made a huge hit, proving that a good story can make up for a lack of visual interest.

Wart is now King Arthur.
The big-name voice talent here is Sebastian Cabot as the boy’s stepfather, Sir Ector; Cabot also serves as the early narrator of the tale. The tale begins with the famous sword Excalibur and its inscription, “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England,” and we’re off to the races. We meet young Wart who’s perpetually bullied by his older stepbrother Kay. Wart chases Kay’s arrow into the forest where Merlin is waiting for the boy to show up. Since Merlin ages backwards, he already knows that Wart will be the great King Arthur and knows that Wart will fall through his roof that very day. Merlin and his talking owl Archimedes take it upon themselves to educate the boy, who lives as a veritable servant in the house of Sir Ector (shades of David Copperfield and Snow White).

Madam Mim emerged as a particular
fan favorite.
The music in this film could have (and should have) been better. After all, the Sherman Brothers wrote the music for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Slipper and the Rose, Charlotte's Web and the theme park song of It’s a Small World (After All), but the music here is as uninspired as the visual look. But again, it didn’t seem to matter. Even the fact that young Wart was voiced by three different young actors (all of whom had American accents) couldn’t hold this story down. I think it’s because the sequences where Wart is turned into different animals—a fish, a squirrel, and a bird—are great fun, firmly anchored in a child’s world; and the sequence that introduced the maniacal witch Madam Mim really connected with kids. In fact, Disney spun off the popular character into her own series of animated shorts.

The Sword In the Stone represents an unusual chapter in the Disney canon. It’s a good film but not a great one. It’s thankfully absent of any dubious stereotypes or racism. And the character Wart suffers enough so that the audience is genuinely happy for him at the climactic moment in the film: serving as a squire to his stepbrother Kay, Wart realizes he forgot to bring Kay’s sword to an important tournament. Wart spies a sword sticking out of an anvil and easily pulls it out. It’s the sword Excalibur, of course, which makes Wart the “rightwise” king of England. Just as in the book, the skeptical crowd is only satisfied when the sword is returned to the stone and only Wart is able to pull it out again (after Kay and others fail). The film makes a quick exit after that moment, skipping the coronation and showing Wart—now King Arthur—rather lonely on his throne. When he tries to escape, he’s met at every door and window with shouts, “Hail, King Arthur!” and he’s left with Archimedes and Merlin to make the best of his “prison.” And he certainly will; but frankly, the story ends just when it’s getting good. Seems like this film was begging for a sequel that it never got. There’s a lot more material in The Once and Future King just waiting to be animated (just saying).



2 comments:

  1. That would be awesome if they came out with a sequel. I loved The Sword in the Stone. I love Disney period! Thanks for the post. I really enjoyed it =D

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