Last year to coincide with a trip to Walt Disney World in March, I decided to have a month-long focus on Disney fare. Their vaults are vast and varied enough such that this is a theme that could recur annually. Below you will find links to the inaugural posts written for the theme.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
As I had mentioned when I wrote about The Jungle Book there are a few similarities between these two tales. There is the structural similarity of episodic plots weaved together by overarching ideas, but there is another similarity as well. While in The Jungle Book Mowgli wanders through different animal villages seeing where he wishes to live next, emulating their attributes; here Arthur, commonly referred to as Wart, is literally transfigured into animals by Merlin.
The Sword in the Stone continues Disney’s tradition of opening with a shot of a storybook. Here there is also a disembodied voice as narrator predating the mistrel tale model that would be used in Robin Hood later on.
This story is a different spin on a legend a more whimsical one, while The Jungle Book offers a more true-to-life rendition of fantastic narrative. This dichotomy is the appeal of both stories.
Now anyone who knows the story of The Sword in the Stone knows what this film will ultimately be about and what the endgame is. Thus, it’s interesting that here, after many years, you see a Disney film playing with its approach by playing up Merlin as a sort of absent-minded magician who travels the world and is a clairvoyant it plays loose with time, and even at certain points breaks the fourth wall.
If you were unaware that Wolfgang Reitherman directed this film, and The Jungle Book, among others, it wouldn’t surprise you much to learn as a certain aesthetic started to come to the fore as a Disney signature in this era. Aside from the visuals there are familiar voices, many most recognizable in their Winnie the Pooh personae.
So while Wart spends his time in this film as a bird, a fish, a squirrel and is pursued throughout by a lurking wolf (contrast him to Shere Khan) there is the ultimate plot of Merlin seeking to educate the young man and that that is the ultimate currency. Arthur resists being brought up in a strict class society, but clearly Merlin and fate have different ideas in mind for him fighting both ignorance and class.
Yet through all this there is also the element of bildungsroman as the education received is not only factual but sentimental as well. Merlin’s sage advice that “Knowledge and wisdom is the real power” is illustrated by his climactic battle with Madam Mim, where in a battle of spells Merlin prevails by outwitting his foe.
Arthur’s education in Merlin’s tutelage also proves to be anything but pure didacticism as truly when he pulls the sword he is ready to assume the responsibility. He is through all we have seen worthy to be the chosen one.
Similar to The Jungle Book as well there is searing beauty to Wart’s moment of realization. For we see him achieve his destiny without realizing what it means, and then have to sit biting our nails as he is forced to prove himself anew, and almost doesn’t even get that chance.
As Arthur is clearly the protagonist this is his moment. He and Merlin have their ups and downs and butt heads about the course of his education and the film wisely has them reconcile as the crown weighs heavily on his head. Naturally, Camelot and all that came with it serve as the happily ever after and the end it befitting the dual tonalities played through the film, and it stands, in my mind as one of the most vastly underrated Disney animated features to date.