Let me start out by saying- I know this movie has lots of die hard fans. That is amazing but I am not in that group. I was sincerely hoping to come away with a different impression this time out as I hadn’t seen since I was little. Unfortunately, I still saw the same problems. But hopefully I can explain my problems with the film in a thoughtful way that even fans can acknowledge my reaction as plausible. Either way, I have to be honest on this blog both with things I like and dislike or there is no point to doing it at all. This is not a fact guide on Disney. It is reviews.
A Change in Demographics-
I couldn’t find as much good behind the scenes information on this movie (kind of like Peter Pan in that regard). They used the xerox process in 101 Dalmatians that give the film a sketchbook feel which worked in 101 but bothers me more in this type of fanciful story. 101 is almost all about animals (and black and white animals to boot) where Sword in the Stone is people so the sketchy style feels dirty and off-putting.
It was a pretty cheap film to make with the new advances and it made a lot of money at the box office. It is perhaps these results when compared with Sleeping Beauty’s disappointment that turned Disney off of girl-centric films to marketing to boys.
This is just my observations. I could be wrong but when we look at the Disney films from the 60-80s they are almost all led by boys, not girls. There are a few ensemble types like The Aristocats and The Rescuers but the male characters in those movies get most of the juicy dialogue and songs. Like I said there are a few exceptions like Clucky in Robin Hood but not many.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter but at the very least it explains why most of these pictures didn’t do much for me as a child. They didn’t have any characters I could relate to or fantasize about their stories.
Sword in the Stone was released in 1963 and it is based on the novel of the same name by TH White and is the last feature to be released in Walt Disney’s lifetime.
Like I said above, they used the xerox method which helped everything get finished quickly but is not my favorite technique artistically. The thick black lines of the xerox make everything look dark and a little sloppy. See how thick the outlines of the characters are in this shot of Archimedes? That is from the xerox.
As a point of contrast, here is the owl in Bambi. You can hardly see the outlines and it looks so much more natural, layered, and smooth. Both owls even have the same coloring but I like the Bambi version much better.
They also had an unexpected challenge with the boy who played Arthur’s voice changing mid-process, so there are actually 3 voices to play the boy- sometimes with a single scene there are different voices and it is very distracting! (I wish I could find a good clip for you of it. Not a ton of clips of this movie for some reason on youtube).
It is also interesting that none of the characters really have a British accent given it is about King Arthur and set in England…
Arthur is also kind of a bland hero. He is a little like Aladdin in that way but at least Aladdin shows some spunk in the beginning, sings us a song. He’s not totally influenced by other people. Plus, the supporting character in Aladdin is way more interesting and funnier than Merlin.
By the end I haven’t sensed anything so unique and special about Arthur to allow him to pull the sword out of the stone. It kind of seems like he got lucky
Most of the movie is Arthur being taught things by Merlin but at the end of one lesson he says ‘that was fun’. Not the sense of someone changing their life and preparing to be King. Nevertheless, the movie feels it has shown enough character growth and we are on to the next lesson. . Honestly Archimedes the owl shows more growth and personality than Arthur.
It’s strange that Merlin is treated like the old coot but he, not Arthur, is the one that defeats Madame Mim in the end. Arthur is more of a spectator for the duel.
The movie received mixed reviews from critics but it has a loyal fan base that like it’s style and direction.
Sword in the Stone also features our first Disney introduction to the Sherman Brothers who would later write songs for Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. They are great writers but aside from a nice opening number I do not think this is their best work. Most of the songs aren’t really songs but someone giving directions with melody coming in and out with long pauses..
But part of my dislike for this movie I admit is purely subjective. To me it is unpleasant to look at. Nearly every scene looks like it has been mod-podged with a blue coating. It all looks very gray and blue and the sketchy style which worked in 101 looks dirty to me here.
Some of these were supposed to be at night or in the water which explains the blue/gray color palate but not all of them. To me it is just unpleasant to look at and for a girl who loves Disney for it’s art that’s a big problem.
Also a lot of the characters are drawn in a distasteful way. I know the wolf and Madame Mim are villains but Disney has done lots of villains that looked sleek and stylish, even the hyenas in Lion King were more pleasant to look at than these two. They should have done the wolf from Peter and the wolf. Now that was a menacing creature requiring great bravery to beat.
I don’t know I just didn’t like the designs and the characters weren’t captivating enough to make that feeling go away. I’m not crazy about some of the drawings in the Jungle Book but the personalities are so fun and songs so good I let it pass.
Let’s talk about the story. It’s pretty simple. The best part of the movie is the explanation of the legend of the sword. It is a good song, with some color (still lots of blue) but I like it.
Arthur is an orphan, called Wart, who is trying to help his foster brother Kay with his arrows when he falls into Merlin, the wizards, house. Merlin senses something in the boy and asks to be his tutor and they head back to the castle. Arthur’s foster father Sir Ector is not thrilled with the idea but agrees to let Merlin stay in the a barely standing tower of the castle.
Sir Pellinore, arrives and tells Sir Ector, Arthur and Kay there will be a tournament with the winner becoming King. Ector decides to prepare the strong Kay and for Arthur to learn to be his squire.
Arthur is actually ok with this arrangement and says to Merlin at one point ‘what is wrong with being a squire’. Merlin will have none of it and insists the boy get an education. He says things like ‘a boy has got to have an education’. Then we see them learning letters and numbers. Arthur tries to teach him about the future, where Archimedes teaches the past.
The problem with these scenes is they come off as very trite. Why not instead of simply telling us that education is good show us? Show us why the alphabet is important. Take Arthur on a journey where he needs to read, or use science or history. The three journeys or lessons he goes on are mostly about being brave and using your imagination. You don’t need to be able to read and write to do that.
Obviously I think education is good but too often this movie felt like those ‘CBS Cares’ blips after a show where some star will tell you how great an education is or how bad bullying is and that’s fine for a blip but for a movie, especially an animated movie it is unsatisfying. Don’t just tell me, show me. For example, Pongo and Perdy didn’t just talk about being brave and learn lessons, they faced situations requiring bravery. We didn’t need them to give us a lesson because their actions gave us a lesson. To me the transformation parts of the lessons were contrived and not filled with any real peril or tension, so the lessons felt hallow.
Even in the final scenes of the duel and getting the sword nothing he has learned in the lessons really helps Arthur become king. Why could he lift that sword out? Seems like it must have been destiny. Don’t need education to do that.
Anyway, I digress. Merlin decides to teach Arthur three lessons. The first lesson he gets turned into a fish.
But as someone new to the fish world Arthur begins to sink. Merlin tells him he must rely on his instincts and use his imagination. Again, doesn’t a lesson on relying on your instincts kind of negate the need for a traditional education? Anyone can respond to instincts.
So Arthur and Merlin face a pike but the owl Archimedes saves the day. (again how has Arthur proven he is the chosen one to be King? Archimedes is more courageous in this scene).
The second lesson is a long section of the movie but before that Arthur must finish washing the dishes in order to go out with Merlin . Naturally that difficulty gets fixed with magic. Arthur asks ‘won’t I get in trouble for leaving’ and Merlin says “who cares as long as the work gets done”. I’m not sure if that is the greatest lesson to be teaching a future King. How a task gets done, and managing how people feel about their work is often the most important part of a good leader.
Nevertheless, it is a cute song and probably my favorite part of the movie.
Another strange choice is they leave the spell running. Why not either speed the spell up or wait a few minutes and then go. There was not a doubt in my mind that kitchen with the spell would come back to haunt them (and they seem to be gone for hours and yet the spell has done exactly the same amount of work. I looked at it pretty carefully and the shots look exactly the same down to the dirty skillet.
So, on to the next lesson Arthur learns a little bit about gravity and then he and Arthur are turned into squirrels so they can learn about love. Again, not sure what this has to do with being a King but I suppose he will have a queen so it is fine.
Merlin can come across as kind of trite and preachy. At one point while a squirrel he says ‘just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it is wrong’. They kind of explore that with the squirrel but with a story about King Arthur there is so much more they could have done with it, such potential.
A girl squirrel actually falls in love with Arthur and saves his life from the wolf. Then he turns back into a human and honestly I felt bad for the squirrel. That’s a very confusing lesson for kids. They seem to be saying ‘love, it tears your heart out but ain’t it great anyway’. I get teaching kids that life isn’t fair and love can hurt but usually there is some resolution or happiness shown later. This is just tragic and it adds to the grim, gray feel of the picture.
Arthur tells her he is working with Merlin and that he is the greatest wizard. Very offended she turns herself into a strange version of a ‘beautiful woman’. I’m sorry but look at her chest. Her breasts are going in two different directions. and the waist is so tiny it looks bizarre.
The thing is if you really believed you were ugly and had the power to change yourself into something you think is beautiful, why wouldn’t you want to stay beautiful? Is she a villain just because she likes being ugly? It’s honestly hard to say because she introduced to the story so late we don’t really get to know why she is bad.
Arthur also tells Madame Mim, ‘Merlin’s magic is useful, for something good’. Really? What in this movie has shown us that? So far he has turned people into fish, squirrels and birds to what avail? To teach Arthur I guess but not very well. The most substantial help he has given others is cleaning the dishes.
So Merlin and Madame Mim duel in a fun scene with both turning into different creatures to fight. And aside from being ugly and thinking she’s a better wizard than Merlin have we really seen any proof that Madame Mim is a bad person? Again one of those things in this movie that is explained not shown.
This clip has different music but it is the best I could find of the duel. It is a fun scene with creative animation but I wish it gave more for Arthur to do since it is supposed to be his story. Still, I don’t mind it.
After the duel Arthur is asked to go be a squire for Kay at the tournament. Merlin says he is being a sell-out settling for such a lowly post but Arthur says there’s nothing wrong with it and I agree with him. Why could he not still take lessons as a squire? It is very strange.
So Arthur and Kay go to the tournament but he forgets Kay’s sword and tries to retrieve it but he can’t. Seeing the sword in the stone he pulls it out. Quickly people realize what he has done but they ask to see it done one more time. Kay and others try to pull the sword out to no avail. Only Arthur can, but again it feels more like he is lucky then he has earned it.
At least we finally get some light and color in this scene.
I kind of gave my review as I described the picture. This is not my favorite Disney film. It’s not terrible and young boys might like Arthur and Merlin but it does not work for me. The color palate is so blue and gray and unpleasant to look at. The lead characters are bland. The songs are so-so and the messages in the picture feel like an after school special instead of part of the story. The lessons seem muddled and not particularly helpful in becoming a King leaving me frustrated.
Madame Mim is all right but underused. It is played like a trifling rivalry instead of a true villain. Think about the confrontation between Ursula and Triton. That was a rivalry which glowed with animosity and passion. This seems like more of a lark.
Worst of all they didn’t give me any reason to understand why Arthur pulled out the sword. He didn’t save them from the pike. He broke the squirrel’s heart and he didn’t defeat Madame Mim. He’s fine with being squire so I guess that makes him humble but that’s about it. Also the 3 voices for Arthur is very distracting.
I’m sure fans will be frustrated by my response but I’ve got to be honest with how I feel in order for this blog to have any validity.
Overall Grade= C-
Now on to Jungle Book!