March to Disney: The Sword in the Stone

Introduction


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)

The Sword in the Stone (1963, Disney)

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.

The Sword in the Stone (1963, Disney)

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.

March to Disney: The Jungle Book – Beyond the Bare Necessities

Introduction

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 Jungle Book: Beyond the Bare Necessities

The Jungle Book (1967, Disney)

I won’t speak for others in this regard, but I know to me, even though I’ve seen this movie a number of times; I typically struggle to put my finger on other scenes in The Jungle Book beside “The Bare Necessities” without racking my brain. I found that this happened with some of the late-’60s and ’70s titles and this is not because I don’t find them up to snuff with other Disney animated fare. I think what it is, as I noted after having also re-watching The Sword in the Stone (which I will cover here shortly), is that there’s a more sketch-like approach to the storytelling.

Previously on film the Korda brothers with Sabu in the lead brought this tale to life. However, with Disney’s penchant for anthropomorphism it was clear this was a candidate for a new treatment for a new generation. This title is yet another, of many, that is cited as being Disney’s last. I’ve heard this so many times I don’t even know which one is true anymore.

The voice cast features many legends from the Disney stable who made their presence known in other Disney films, many in the Winnie the Pooh shorts/feature: Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Bruce Reitherman and Sterling Holloway.

In some ways the standout nature of the music in this film is an example of the double-edged sword that is the incredible talent of the Sherman Brothers. I always hum the songs and then have to remind myself of the voice talent that was assembled for this film.

The Jungle Book (1967, Disney)

The talent in general all around is there for at this point Disney animated features were a well-oiled machine with Wolfgang Reitherman at the helm directing.

What struck me upon this viewing of the film was that there is a certain subtlety to the approach of this story. There is an ongoing antagonist, Shere Khan, in this tale, he’s not omnipresent, but much like the Gmork in The Neverending Story many years later; he’s always lurking about. He’s less present here than in the live action. However, the thrust of this tale being can Mowgli continue to survive in the jungle as we slowly try to convince him to go to the man village, it is still important as Mowgli must learn man-like ways to adapt and survive. As sparse as Khan’s appearances are, he still nearly takes out a deer and immediately draws a dangerous parallel to Bambi heightening his fear factor.

Another subtle touch is the way in which the passage of time is indicated from when Mowgli is a baby to the present day: “10 times the rains had come and gone,” indicative of years seeing as how the rains refer to monsoon season. Lastly, there’s an underlying indicator (at least to a younger viewer) of the coming-of-age struggle in this tale when Baloo responds to Bagheera’s assertion that he to to the man village: “The man village. That’s awful, they’ll make a man out of him.”

The tale is narrated by Bagheera, a panther, the one who puts Mowgli with wolves in the first place. In terms of segments there’s Bagheera’s finding him, his being raised by wolves, and then his time with Baloo being the third segment.

The Jungle Book (1967, Disney)

There are also in these segmented tales difficulty in recalling that there is an ulterior motive in long song sequences. For example, King Louis is after something in “I Wan’na Be Like You’ it just takes a bulk of that song for it to come to the fore.

Brisker storytelling is found when the elephants are introduced by their marching song. Another Pooh alumni is found here as Clint Howard voices the young elephant and he was the first voice of Roo.

An interesting aspect of this film, and one that likely captures the imagination of the young to this very day, is here you have a boy who gets to roam the jungle and live with and be like animals; he tries to become them. It’s a whimsical tale that falls short of the horror of children becoming animals in Pinocchio.

One of the better elements of the film is that Baloo’s sense of responsibility in getting Mowgli to the safety of his own kind comes just as Mowgli learns he wants to be with Baloo. It’s a perfect midpoint. Mowgli has his own understanding of his belonging, Baloo’s eyes have opened and he has another entirely.

The Jungle Book (1967, Disney)

Another thing that really does work, and lends itself to a feeling of “looseness” about the structure of this film is that characters are often introduced as silly or caricatures, but end up serving a vital purpose. Mowgli is missing which brings the elephants back to search for him. The vultures who seem like nothing more than the Disney writers and animators riffing on The Beatles, and maybe a reactionary attempt to create non-controversial comic relief birds (see Dumbo) also factor into the finale.

Furthermore, I was reminded that a musical moment in this film provides one of its better jolts as Khan jumps in at the end of a song and gets the ball rolling on the climactic events of the story.

Perhaps this one of the things my subconscious decides to block out, but there is one of the more effective near deaths in the Disney canon. That and the dialogue-free execution of Mowgli’s decision is some of the finest animation and direction that they did. Everything is apparent, but nothing is painfully obvious. It’s sensitively and beautifully rendered and it’s something I recalled as soon as the film started. As many times as I’ve seen it it still gives me chills. It’s wonderful.

So, yes, the structure is a bit episodic and the songs are infectiously memorable. However, that ought not obscure some of the truly gorgeous and wonderful things that occur in this movie.