Knowledge and Wisdom Make Great Power
Originally Released: 1963
The King Arthur legend is such good source material, it was only a matter of time before it would appear in a Disney animated film. This particular version of the story is based on a novel by author T.H. White, who first published his book in 1938. Walt Disney acquired the movie rights to the story in 1939, and as early as 1949 story drawings began to pop up.
The Sword in the Stone focuses on Arther’s childhood, before he knows that he is to become king, and explains how he met the wizard Merlin and became his student. Arthur,or Wart, as the foster family calls him, is simple-minded at first and only wishes to become a squire and a great fighter like everyone else of the time. Merlin knows that there is so much more he can become if he would only develop his mind and use it to his advantage. This idea that education, knowledge, and intelligence should be sought after and gives one an advantage is the central concept behind the whole movie.
In order to give Wart this training and advantage, Merlin transforms Wart into various animals which allows him to learn how to adapt and escape sticky situations by using his brain, learning to use unfamiliar tools on the fly. Later, Wart gets a master class in this idea when he is captured by Mad Madam Mim and later rescued by Merlin. Merlin’s superior knowledge of animals and their strengths leads him to victory, even when Mim cheats.
It was actually refreshing to watch this film again. I say this because I have to reach way back to Dumbo and Pinocchio to find a prior animated Disney film with such a relevant, true, and important moral to it. For example, as entertaining and beautiful as 101 Dalmations and Sleeping Beauty were, what are the morals we can glean from them? In the first, the best I can come up with is “don’t kill puppies to make fur coats”. Certainly a worthy ideal to aspire to, but not very useful in real life. In the case of Sleeping Beauty, perhaps we can say treat others, including hated enemies, as you would like to be treated. If the king and queen had invited Maleficent to the celebration, perhaps she would not have cursed Aurora. Okay probably not, but that’s as good as I can come up with. So it is good to see a Disney film that strives to reach beyond a simple telling of good vs. evil.
In addition to the moral, The Sword in the Stone also contains some great characters, such as Merlin, Archimedes, the sugar dish with an attitude, and Merlin’s beard (Merlin’s Beard!). Merlin is a bit underrated as a Disney character, I believe. He’s a pretty cool dude. And I love Archimedes. He is a sidekick/comic relief done right. If there were awards given for best Disney sidekick, he’d definitely be nominated in my book.
However, there is one thing that bothers me with this movie each time I see it: recycling. I notice that certain character movements get used repeatedly. I know that this is a common trick in animation to cut down on time and money, but there is a point where it becomes painfully obvious, which leads to distraction. Two prime examples of this is older Brother Kay eating the turkey leg, and Wart falling down the stairs with his huge stack of dirty dishes. To use this tactic in such an obvious way is one thing for Saturday morning cartoons, but in a full-blown Disney feature production is another thing entirely.
Which leads me to my other related gripe: “Wha? Wait. Whoa!” If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. I guess I can’t be too harsh, because it does make me laugh. But it is a sign of sloppiness and cutting corners, which diminishes the overall quality of the film.
Overall, I still really enjoy The Sword in the Stone. I have always loved the King Arthur legend and Disney managed to extract from it a nice family-friendly story with a good lesson and which is filled with fun situations, interesting characters, and a good sense of humor. So despite the shortcuts taken, The Sword in the Stone was another job well done by the Disney animation team.