Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (22/50) -- The Sword in the Stone (1963)

I’m about three films shy of the halfway point here at Our Feature Presentation, and I have a bit of a writer’s confession to make: the most difficult films to write about have been the ones that are totally, resoundingly blah. They’re not good, they’re not bad, they simply slide in and out of my mind, leaving little impression at all that they were there. The Sword in the Stone is one of these movies. There are worse films made by Disney, and certainly there are better ones, but The Sword in the Stone strikes just the right balance of pleasant and aggravating to be almost entirely forgettable.

If you’ll believe it, The Sword in the Stone was one of my more heavily-watched Disney films growing up, somewhere between The Great Mouse Detective and Robin Hood. I’m convinced I was a victim of Sword’s Lambda-class mediocrity even at an early age, because unlike many of the other films in this series, I could scarcely remember anything about it. No songs, no memorable bits of dialogue, no nothin’. I was even rather excited going into this review, knowing that, as far as I knew, at least the movie wasn’t terrible. I was half-right.

He may be the once and future king, but how's his Disney debut hold up?

I’m getting ahead of myself. The Sword in the Stone tells the story of the wizard Merlin (Karl Swenson) as he attempts to instruct a young Arthur Pendragon (Rickie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman, Robert Reitherman, yes, really). You see, Arthur is merely an adopted lackey of blustery Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot), and isn’t much to speak of when we first meet him; in fact, he's known through most of the movie simply as the Wart. Merlin, on the other hand, is quite familiar with the boy’s destiny, and is all too happy to train him in the ways of the Forc—er, world. Together, the two have several misadventures, mostly involving turning Wart into some animal or another. Why, you ask? Good. Ass. Question.

The Sword in the Stone was the second Disney film to use the Xerography process, and it somehow, impeccably, looks less sketchy and messy than several immediate Disney follow-up films, such as The Aristocats. Perhaps it’s the art design (which looks partially carried over from Sleeping Beauty), but The Sword in the Stone looks slightly nicer than I thought an early-60’s Dark Age movie could look. There are even a few nicely-painted backgrounds and ambitious multi-plane shots, such as the opening “this is the Dark Ages” bit.

I'm starting to notice a trend: no matter how cheap or generally underwhelming the movie, Disney backgrounds always seem to look good. Ah, the simple joys of life.

Music continues the blah parade with an entirely appropriate but entirely forgettable score. It sounds like Disney did in the 60’s—string melodies and the odd harp. Like many D-Unit movies from this time period, The Sword in the Stone features songs written by the Sherman Brothers, who must be among the most inconsistent song writers in history—when the Shermans write a good song, they write “Chim Chim Cheree” and win an Oscar for it, but when they write a bad song, well, they write “The Aristocats.” The songs from Sword fall somewhere in between, ranging anywhere from the tenor-riffic “The Sword in the Stone” to a jazzy “Higgitus Figgitus,” a relative favorite of mine, which should come as no surprise to readers who remember my penchant for nonsense songs.

Considerably less-successful (though, as established before, “considerably less-successful” is still “eh, it’s not so great, I guess”) is the voice acting. Swenson isn’t too bad as Merlin, but the rest of the cast is more or less dreary to listen to. Cabot’s bumbling as Sir Ector gets the job done, Martha Wentworth’s Madame Mim is clichéd and crotchety, and Junius Matthews is PANTS ON HEAD AGGRIVATING as the insufferably queen-y Archimedes. My biggest pet peeve has to deal with Wart, though. As you may have noticed, Wart is played by three voice actors, each coincidentally occupying a different and equally-spaced stage of puberty. Wart often switches between voices with little or no warning, quickly transitioning from a young, ten-year-old-sounding chirp to something more akin to the greasy teenager from The Simpsons.

He's a charismatic little squeaker, let me tell you.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about The Sword in the Stone is how little it seems to even exist. Its good aspects aren’t nearly positive enough to be remembered for long, nor are its negative bits awful enough to remain annoying after they’re over. I’ve spent nearly a month in various states of writers block, all because I can hardly find a bloody thing to say about it. It’s the Katherine Heigl of Disney movies.

Still, it’s not like The Sword in the Stone is bad, and in the most stark, “I must watch something” frame of mind, forgiving viewers can enjoy it with very little backlash. For my money, though, The Sword in the Stone is almost entirely empty calories, akin to eating a box of Quaker Rice Cakes—halfway through, you’ll wonder why you’re still going, but you figure you may as well finish what you started.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “Higgitus Figgitus”
  2. “The Sword in the Stone”
  3. “A Most Befuddling Thing”

Favorite scene:

  • The female squirrel discovers Wart isn’t like her after all

Favorite character:

  • Merlin

The Jar Jar:

  • Archemedes

How I Watched It

Usually, when a DVD has a special “X-year Anniversary Edition,” it’s reasonable to expect the picture of the movie to look prettier than usual, or at least cleaned up. It’s a shame, then, that my low expectations were unmet by The Sword in the Stone’s 45th Anniversary Edition. Numerous times throughout the picture, I noticed white splotches or scratchy pictures, and the colors were rather more faded than I expected. Given that it’s a Disney Xerography flick that hasn't accumulated the legacy of, say, 101 Dalmations, it's more-or-less understandable why The Sword in the Stone gets a reasonable shaft (I certainly don’t expect it on Blu-ray any time soon), but I was disappointed all the same.

The 45th Anniversary Edition comes with a few extra goodies. The first is an excerpt from the Disney TV show, Walt Disney Presents…, which is a bit on the many magic props and such that are kept at Disneyland (“Behold: the decapitated princess. Instead of flower petals around her head, you could put hors d’oeuvres.”). Next is a small documentary on the Sherman Brothers and their songwriting process, which includes snippets from an unused song that I happened to enjoy. Rounding out the package are two Disney shorts: “A Knight for a Day,” a Goofy short about jousting, and “The Brave Little Taylor,” a Mickey Mouse short retelling the old Brothers Grimm story. It’s not much, but considering how Disney has treated other releases from the same time period, I’d say it’s just fine.


  1. hey, I really enjoy this blog and popped density. you should do the 30 day song challenge. keep up the good stuff!!

  2. I am always happy to bite ideas from my good friend Jordyn--doubly so for commenters. Look forward to it in the near future.