Entire family: Yes
1963, 79 min., Color
Aspect ratio: 1.75:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
In the words of bumbling TV spy Maxwell Smart, The Sword in the Stone missed it by THAT much—Disney’s Golden Age, that is. Most students of cinema date the high point of Disney animation from 1938 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) to 1959 (Sleeping Beauty), and this animated feature hit theaters in 1963. It was also a movie about Arthurian legend that had the misfortune of being released on December 25, just a month after America’s version of Camelot died with President John F. Kennedy.
I’m not about to argue that The Sword in the Stone belongs on the tail end of the Golden Age, but I do think it’s been underappreciated.
The writing is solid, for one thing. Bill Peet (Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians) gives us a script that’s based on a book by T.H. White, who adapted Sir Thomas Malory’s famous Morte d’Arthur into four novels, one of which, The Sword and the Stone, was published in 1939. Disney snapped up the movie rights to the novel that year, but it took decades to finally bring it to the screen. Peet’s screenplay juggles magic, whimsy, humor, and action, and gives us characters that are endearing—even lesser ones, like a mangy wolf. The Sherman brothers give us some solid music, too, with a number of songs really making scenes like Merlin’s “packing” and the squirrels-in-love montage more memorable.
What’s especially appealing for young viewers is that this chapter in King Arthur’s life is confined to his youth, when (at least in this animated version) he was a wide-eyed, curious young boy (voiced by Rickie Sorensen) who literally drops in on Merlin (Karl Swenson) and gets lessons in life that will prepare him to be a good king. There’s a memorable battle of wizards as Merlin takes on mad Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth) in a contest of magic and wits, and three transformation scenes where Arthur (known as “Wart”) learns a little of life from the point of view of a fish, a squirrel, and a bird. It’s pure genius, really, because what youngster hasn’t pictured him or herself as a bird perched high atop the family home, or wondered what it would be like to be able to swim underwater as long as a fish? For that matter, all children knew what it was like to be tutored by a teacher or parent, but none of them had a fun and unorthodox instructor like Merlin. It was another childhood fantasy expertly milked by the Disney folks.
There are episodes of knightly splendor (and humor) as well, and fans of the fairy-tale format will recognize a little Cinderella in this structure. Only instead of stepsisters, Wart is the orphan who’s pushed around by his stepbrother (Norman Alden) and stepfather (Sebastian Cabot) and forced to do chores. Instead of a glass-slipper moment, he pulls the sword from the stone and gets his own entry into the castle and its presumably happily-ever-after life.
After disappointing 1.33:1 pan-and-scan DVD releases, Sword finally appears on Blu-ray with a 1.75:1 aspect ratio that viewers first saw in theaters. The movie looks sharper and more colorful. Maybe you already own this title on VHS or DVD, but if so, you’ll need to upgrade—it’s that much better.