Before I get into this one, let’s talk about Walt Disney himself for a bit. Born in 1901 in Chicago, Disney showed an interest in drawing from a young age. He took art classes as a boy, and got a job as a commercial illustrator at 18. He would later set up the Disney Brothers Studio with his older brother Roy. For a while they focused on animated shorts, Mickey Mouse being their earliest successful character. His studio would eventually grow into a monster of a company we know as Disney, which owns Lucasfilm, Pixar, ESPN and Marvel, among others. Last year, a total of 4 movies made over $1 billion worldwide, and they were all released by Disney (Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Zootopia and Finding Dory). Walt also holds the record for most Academy Awards as an individual, with 22 wins out of 59 nominations.
Walt also founded an empire of theme parks. He first opened Disneyland in California in 1955, and began developing the monster that is Walt Disney World in Florida in the mid-60’s. He would also help organize the 1960 Winter Olympics that were hosted in California … for some reason, along with several other major events in the 60’s. As a long-time smoker, he eventually died of lung cancer in 1966, 5 years before Disney World opened. So why am I talking about Walt himself? Because The Sword in the Stone would be the last animated Disney movie released in Walt’s lifetime.
Production for The Sword in the Stone began in 1949, when the first storyboards were created. The Sword in the Stone released in 1963 to mixed reviews, but it was financially successful, earning $22 million on a $3 million budget. It portrays the Legend of Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone, demonstrating him as the king that England was waiting for.
As a kid I saw this movie a couple times at a friend’s house, and I thought it was hilarious. After re-watching it last night, I thought it was just ok from an entertainment standpoint. There are some deeper meanings behind what’s going on, but on its surface level it feels like a strange edutainment film. The basic story is that after the good king of England died, a magical sword appeared in a stone, and whoever can remove it is the rightful heir to the throne. Nobody could, so people eventually forgot about the sword and England fell into the dark ages. Despite Arthur’s importance in English legend, his existence is subject of debate with English historians. I don’t know nearly enough about history to get into the debate, so let’s focus on the movie.
The movie stars Arthur, a 12-year-old orphan who’s trying to become a squire for his adoptive older brother, who himself is trying to get knighted. Merlin, a powerful wizard, meets up with the boy and starts to educate him, along with his “highly educated owl”. What follows is a couple adventures where Merlin transforms Arthur into different kinds of animals to learn about them. Not what I would call a conventional education. There are also moments in-between these strange lessons where Merlin, and at one point Arthur, argue with his adoptive father.
Apart from learning about these animals, the movie presents itself as a pure comedy on the surface level. It’s mostly slapstick comedy that might entertain some, but let’s just say there’s a good reason this movie received mixed reception. The jokes are repetitive, whether it’s Merlin’s giant beard getting caught in everything, predators getting stuck in things while Arthur and Merlin are animals, or the over the top evil witch that shows up towards the end. This almost feels like a collection of skits and shorts instead of a proper movie. The ending does get a little more dramatic, with Arthur not wanting to be king at first after he shows everyone he can pull out the sword. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the comedy is painfully bad like some terrible comedies I’ve watched – it just exists.
The main characters are likeable enough. Arthur is kind and open minded, with a bit of an imagination. He’s trying to feel satisfied with his lot in life as a hopeful squire, and he’s grateful for his adoptive father for taking him in. Merlin is a generous man who prefers to use his magic in smart ways instead of just displaying power. He can be absent minded, and confuses himself by talking about things that haven’t been discovered yet, but he means well. The highly educated owl is grumpy, but does his best to help Arthur and Merlin keep focused. The adoptive father can be a little strict and quick to anger, but he does care about Arthur. The adoptive brother is short on patience, but he is training hard to become a knight so it’s understandable. This small, focused cast of characters helps make this movie watchable if you don’t like its sense of humour. At the very least you’ll want to see Arthur succeed, and during the Merlin/witch fight, it’s kind of fun to try and figure out how Merlin will beat the witch when he’s constantly choosing weaker, smaller animals to transform into. His eventual solution is kind of genius.
One amusing note with this movie’s production is that the original voice actor for Arthur entered puberty in the middle of production, forcing them to switch voice actors. You can clearly tell when the voice acting changes.
As much as the movie isn’t all that special, and I wouldn’t really recommend it to adults, it could be worth showing to kids. There’s nothing harmful about it and they may find the slapstick comedy funny. This is the kind of movie where the subtext might be more interesting than the movie itself. The animation is actually very good, even if it’s not well known for its animation. It’s also more philosophical than most Disney productions. Neil Sinyard, a well-known British film critic, suggested that Disney saw a bit of himself in Merlin. He also suggested that Mim (the evil witch that hated sunlight) might represent overly harsh and snobby critics. I’m not sure how true that is, but it’s an interesting concept, and Disney was burned by critics several times in the past. I think it’s just ok as a whole, and kids are far more likely to enjoy this one than adults.
Whatever you think of Walt Disney’s last movie released before his death, it will not take away from his incredible legacy. He was still involved with the next four animated features to varying degrees, but wound never see their final result or the complete monster of a company that Disney Studios would eventually become. Some people debate as to whether he was truly a nice guy, or if he was a racist and an anti-semite. I won’t get into that and I’d rather not hear about it in the comments. Whatever kind of person he was, Walt created an entire medium of entertainment and captured the minds of millions, if not billions of children across the world. He still remains one of the most influential people in the entertainment industry 50 years after his death. Nobody can ever take that away from him.
Next up is The Jungle Book, released about a year after Walt Disney’s death. After that, it’s The Aristocats, Robin Hood (which I’ve never seen before) and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (which would be the last movie released that Walt was involved with).