Posted December 7, 2010 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: The Sword In the Stone

Before I get started on this review it’s probably best to point out that I am not the biggest Disney fan in the world. I’ve never really understood the fascination the world has with “The Mouse” and I must confess that I often find their animated features borrow so heavily from one another that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

That’s certainly true of The Sword in the Stone. For a start the main character Arthur (or Wart as he’s known) looks like an early prototype for Christopher Robin. His whole story arch is the familiar trope of the adopted child, meant for greatness but held down by an overbearing foster parent and forced to work in the kitchen (remind you of anything Cinderella?).

There’s a sequence stolen straight out of Fantasia featuring enchanted dishes washing themselves which ends in the inevitable disaster. There’s a scene where Merlin fits the entire contents of his house into a small carpet bag, much in the same way Mary Poppins would do only a year later. Finally there’s a magical sugar and tea pot set a la Beauty and the Beast. This type of repetition has for me always made watching Disney more of an exercise in enforced tedium than entertainment. That’s not of course to say that there aren’t things to enjoy in Disney and indeed in this film.

What I have always liked about Disney, is their ability to anthropomorphise. Think about the brilliance of Robin Hood. The cunning of Robin represented by a fox, the weakness of King John in the guise of a cowardly lion, the duplicitous Sir Hiss depicted as a snake. Now think about how much better The Sword in the Stone would be if Wart, rather than being a Christopher-Robin-like was in fact an exuberant puppy. Similarly, the Madam Mim wouldn’t be a fat purple haired warty witch, but a giant purple walrus, flapping about the place and generally being evil. Merlin could be a forgetful badger….you get the picture.

Although the people in The Sword in the Stone are, for the most part, just that, we do get treated to a series of whimsical sequences where Merlin transforms himself and Wart into a number of different creatures in an effort to teach Wart the important lessons of life, and it’s here that the film starts to come to life itself.

We see them turned into fish with Wart outsmarting a hungry pike proving that brains will always overcome brawn. We next get the transformation into squirrels, which at first looks like it’s going to be a treatise on the importance of looking before you leap, but turns into a lesson about love after Wart attracts the attention of a comely female squirrel. This whole sequence is charming as Merlin proves that for all his wisdom he’s just as in the dark regarding matters of the heart as Wart is, when he too attracts some unwanted female squirrel attention.

His ultimate lesson is that love is the greatest force on earth. So it’s actually quite moving when Wart’s squirrel paramour is left sobbing and alone once he is transformed back into a human boy. For all his protestations that he wants her to leave him alone, Wart is also clearly upset at having broken her heart. Especially as she’s just risked her own life to save him from the jaws of a hungry wolf.

Wart’s final animal transformation comes when he confesses a desire to fly only to be scoffed at by Archimedes (Merlin’s long suffering straight man – in owl form). This is the only time Merlin doesn’t transform himself, leaving teaching duties to his friend, encouraging Wart to trust himself, but keep a weather eye open for danger. It’s through this final transformation that we are introduced to arguably one of the greatest and most underused characters in Disney’s history.

The Marvellous, Magical Mad Madam Mim. From the moment she comes on the screen, the pace picks up. The movie is suddenly bursting with life and energy. Before her entrance, although funny in places, the movie is lacking that x-factor to kick it into classic Disney territory. Mim’s music numbers are brilliant, her voice is brilliant, her cackle is brilliant, her look is brilliant. She is, brilliant. Although she’s essentially only on screen for one scene with her introduction through to her climactic wizards duel with Merlin, it’s through this that we see some of the Disney magic which had been lacking for the last half an hour or so.

Her wizard’s duel with Merlin takes us on another anthropomorphic ride as they twist and turn their way through transformations into cat, crocodile, turtle, rabbit, fox, caterpillar, chicken, walrus, elephant, mouse, tiger, snake, crab, rhino, ram, then in a spectacular example of rule breaking a giant purple dragon. In perhaps the most famous and funny moment in the film, Merlin transforms into a germ infecting Mim, winning the duel and leaving her laid up in bed, covered in spots. The problems begin again once Mim is off screen. Once the focus is returned to Wart, the film becomes mediocre once more. The problem is that Wart is insipid. He’s not an interesting enough character for anyone to root for; in fact he doesn’t seem to have a personality at all. Even his Cinderella like suffering at the hands of Sir Hector doesn’t make him winning. I also find myself slightly put-out that the future King of England sounds like he’s come from a Dodgers game. I’ve been to Tintagel, the birth place of King Arthur and none of the locals sounded like New Yorkers.

Putting the accents and the fact that the movie takes more liberties with the Arthurian legend than the current BBC TV series Merlin to one side, the actual sequence where Wart pulls the sword from the stone is not the exciting climax you might hope it would be. It feels like an afterthought in many ways, with less time devoted to it than to Merlin’s lessons or the duel with Mim.

What surprised me about this film however was that it didn’t end with Wart/Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and being proclaimed the rightful King of England. Rather than leaving us with the traditional happy ending, we see him as King. There’s something sad and lonely about seeing the young boy sitting on a massive throne, wearing a crown too big for his head talking to his only friend about how scared he is of being King. The fact is that for all his lessons on life, Merlin hasn’t prepared Wart for what he now must face. It was a bit like that bit at the end of the Graduate at the back on the bus – right, I’m King …now what? On deciding to run away, Wart tries every door in the throne room only to find each entry way blocked by faceless cheers of “God Save the King!”. He’s trapped in his own gilded cage and it’s only Merlin’s eventual return and pep talk that encourages Wart to believe that he could one day be a legend so great they’ll make motion pictures about him.

Suzanne King