Ranking Disney: #16 – The Sword in the Stone (1963)
I love The Sword in the Stone so much. And I can’t really explain why fully. Every time I try to explain why this film is amazing, I can’t put it into words, and I usually end with, “Just — look at it. Watch it. It just is.”
There’s something about this film that makes it not feel like a Disney movie and yet it definitely is a Disney movie. I think that’s why I love it so much. You watch this, and it feels so slowly paced, and not really about anything in particular. The climactic moment at the end is sort of a — oh, yeah, we stumbled upon this, but don’t worry, great things will happen from it. I love that it doesn’t deal with any of the actual, you know, “important” parts of this story. It’s so —
Honestly — just look at it. Watch it. You’ll see why it belongs here.
The film begins with a typical Disney storybook prologue. Interesting, that this is the only Disney prince with his own prologue like that. But, it tells of the dark ages, when:
“A legend is sung, of when England was young, and knights were brave and bold. The good king had died, and no one could decide who was rightful heir to the throne. It seemed that the land would be torn by war, or saved by a miracle alone. And that miracle appeared in London town: The Sword in the Stone.”
(A bard sings this to us.)
And then we find out that, “below the hilt, in letters of gold, were written these words”:
And we find out: “Though many tried for the sword with all their strength, none could move the sword nor stir it. So the miracle had not worked. And England was still without a king.”
“And in time, the marvelous sword was forgotten. This was a Dark Age… without law, and without order. Men lived in fear of one another. For the strong preyed upon the weak.”
We then go to Merlin, living deep in the forest in a little house, with his pet owl, Archimedes. He has foreseen that a young boy will come to his house and that he will help direct him to his rightful place in the world.
We then meet Arthur, who is a scrawny young boy around 12, out hunting with Kay. he wants to be a squire and is kay’s apprentice. Arthur looks up to Kay, and to Kay Arthur is mostly a nuisance (calling him “wart”).
He accidentally foils Kay’s attempts to catch a deer and vows to go into the forest to retrieve the arrow that had gone amiss. While there, he is stalked by a wolf (which he doesn’t know about, and also comically foils, unbeknownst to himself), and as he goes to retrieve the arrow, falls through Merlin’s roof, just as Merlin had foreseen (and prepared for, by setting up a chair for him to fall onto and making tea for him).
Merlin tells Arthur that he can see into the future (he has models of the steam engine and airplane, which will not be invented for hundreds of years), though h admittedly can’t see everything, as he didn’t quite know who to expect would be dropping into his house, but he did figure the exact place the person would fall through the roof.
Merlin then packs all his things (using the “Higitus Figitus” spell to shrink it all down to fit into his travel bag), and he and Arthur set off toward the castle (also continuing to comically evade the wolf in the process). Merlin wants to set Arthur on a rigorous eight-hour a day training schedule, but Arthur says he has page duties, and must continue training to be a squire.
When Arthur returns, he is chastised by Ector, his foster father (and Kay’s actual father), and given extra kitchen duty. Merlin then arrives and says he attempts to teach Arthur, but Ector is completely against it. He does allow Merlin to stay, though (but he does give him a room in an old, leaky tower).
Ector then receives news from London that a tournament will be held. Whoever wins will be crowned king of England. Ector tells Arthur that if he keeps to his duties he will be allowed to be Kay’s squire for the tournament. Merlin sees Arthur’s passion and dedication for what he does and decides to try to “turn it in the right direction.”
Merlin‘s first lesson for Arthur involves turning him into a fish. They swim around the moat until they encounter a bigger fish, which tries to eat Arthur. Merlin makes Arthur get out of the situation on his own, telling him to use “brains over brawn.” The lesson makes Arthur late for his squire duties and he is forced to wash a bunch of dishes. Merlin returns and takes Arthur out for another lesson, leaving the dishes to magically wash themselves.
Merlin’s next lesson involves turning himself and Arthur into squirrels. A girl squirrel (“a redhead at that”) becomes attracted to Arthur, and basically does all she can to take him back to her tree and fuck him. What I find weird is that, while they’re turned into these creatures, shouldn’t they feel the same biological urges the creatures have? Why doesn’t Arthur feel any stirring in his squirrel loins for this chick? Wouldn’t you do it just for the story? I would. Hell, I’d take pictures.
Anyway, the girl squirrel causes some mayhem, and eventually Arthur falls right into the clutches of that wolf that just won’t seem to disappear. But the girl squirrel comes to his rescue, actually biting the heels of the wolf and distracting it. And the wolf chases her off a cliff, and she returns to safety while the wolf falls down a hill. But by now, Merlin has some female squirrel trouble of his own and changes them back, much to the sadness of Arthur’s female squirrel. It’s quite sad, actually. The film does an amazing job of creating sympathy for that squirrel.
Back at the castle, Ector and Kay discover Merlin’s dishwashing spell, and destroy a bunch of dishes (because that’s what you do). But eventually the bewitched silverware gets the best of them, which pisses them off, and they tell Arthur he can’t be Kay’s squire.
Merlin then tells Arthur he’s going to educate him. He teaches him all this stuff people won’t know for centuries, like the fact that the earth is round and is just a small part of a bigger universe. Arthur confides in his wishes of flying one day, and Merlin turns him into a bird. He gets flying lessons from Archimedes, and then they get attacked by a hawk.
Arthur escapes but ends up in the house of Madame Mim, a witch. Arthur tells her Merlin changed him into a bird, and she gets riled up, saying she’s more powerful than Merlin. Archimedes runs back to tell Merlin, who arrives just as Madame Mim prepares to kill Arthur (since she sees something good in him, which she just cannot abide). The two decide to have a wizard’s duel.
Madame Mim sets the rules for the duel (which Archimedes says she’s doing just “so she can break ‘em”), which are: 1) no mineral and no vegetable, only animal, 2) no make-believe things like pink dragons, 3) no disappearing, 4) no cheating.
And within seconds, Madame Mim has disappeared and turned herself into a crocodile. Merlin responds by turning himself into a turtle and biting her finger. He then turns into a rabbit and runs away from her. She then turns into a fox and chases him into a log. He then turns into a caterpillar and escapes from her sight. She turns into a hen and tries to eat him. He turns into a walrus and squashes her. So she turns into an elephant. And he turns into a mouse, scaring the hell out of her. (Which goes back to my squirrel argument – shouldn’t Arthur have felt the urge to fuck that lady squirrel?)
She then turns into a tiger, and then a snake, and chases him through the ground. He turns into a crab to try to pinch her neck, but she turns into a rhinoceros and charges (with him stuck on her horn) into a tree. She gets stuck, so he turns into a ram and charges at her, knocking her off a cliff.
She then turns into a purple dragon, claiming she never said anything about “no purple dragons.” Merlin tries changing into a mouse again and getting underground, but she smokes him out. And finally, just as Mim think she’s won, Merlin turns into a germ, which causes Mim to get sick. A rare disease that causes her to break out into spots, then get hot and cold flashes, then violent sneezing, which leads to Merlin winning. They leave Madame Mim sick in bed and return to the castle.
A few months later, closer to the tournament, we find out that Hobbs, the squire who was going to replace Arthur, has come down with the mumps, and Arthur is given the position. He rushes to tell Merlin, who is unimpressed. He tries to tell Arthur that he needs to be educated in order to succeed, and not waste time shining shoes and lances for knights. He gets angry and says, “Blow me to Bermuda!” and his magic does just that. (I say that too sometimes, but not expressly for that result.) He disappears and leaves Arthur and Archimedes unsure of if he’ll ever return.
Meanwhile the tournament begins. Knights joust and fight and such, and Arthur realizes he forgot to bring Kay’s sword. He left it at the inn. Only the inn is locked, since everyone is at the tournament.
So he rushes off to find Kay a sword. He spots the Sword in the Stone, sitting abandoned in the churchyard. And, knowing nothing about it, he goes and pulls it out.
He brings it to Kay, and they realize it’s the sword in the stone. They ask Arthur where he got it, and he says he pulled it out of the stone. And everyone laughs, since he’s just a scrawny kid. They bring him back to the stone to prove it. Kay says that anyone can pull it out once it’s been pulled, but when he tries, cannot pull it out. Even with Ector trying to pull it out with him, it won’t budge. So they let Arthur try. And he pulls it out once again.
They declare it a miracle, and say that Arthur is destined to be their king. And so he is dubbed “King Arthur.”
Arthur worries that he doesn’t know anything about being a king and decides he’s going to run away. But just then, Merlin arrives, fresh from Bermuda (and the 20th century, which he says is “one big modern mess”). He then finds out Arthur is king, having pulled the sword from the stone, and realizes he is King Arthur, and will have his knights of the roundtable. He says they’ll be writing books about him for centuries to come, and they might even make a motion picture about him (wink wink). Arthur doesn’t know what a motion picture is. Arthur says it’s, “like television, without commercials,” as the film ends.
It’s an amazing movie. I love how not Disney it seems. It really bears little resemblance to anything else Disney has done, and yet, time has made this into one of the most classic Disney films. If The Black Cauldron weren’t what it is, this might be a contender for least Disney Disney film. Just in terms of pacing and how it feels when you watch it. Maybe it’s just me.
But — I love the film. I love how simple it is and how engaging it is. I’m a huge fan of middle ages films. Not so much King Arthur, but just the middle ages in general. I like how little actually happens here. Think about it — Arthur and Kay go out, Arthur loses and arrow. Then they find out about the tournament, train, and go. And then Arthur becomes king. That’s it. The rest is Arthur training with Merlin. I love that.
Plus — I don’t know, it’s just a great film. I get why some people wouldn’t want to put this so high, but, I just love the pacing. The entire feel of the film just makes me happy. And I love that bit with the lady squirrel. I’m amazed how three-dimensional they managed to make her.
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Official Disney Number: #18
Run Time: 79 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 1963
Budget: Well, Dalmatians cost $4 million, so let’s assume this cost slightly more than that.
Box Office: ~$12 million
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- “The Legend of the Sword in the Stone,” performed by Fred Darian
- “Higitus Figitus,” performed by Karl Swenson
- “That’s What Makes the World Go Round,” performed by Karl Swenson and Rickie Sorensen
- “A Most Befuddling Thing,” performed by Karl Swenson
- Mad Madame Mim,” performed by Martha Wentworth
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- The film was nominated for Best Score, Adaptation or Treatment, but lost to Irma la Douce.
- This was the last animated feature released before Walt’s death. (But not the last one he worked on.)
- Two songs were written, but scrapped. One involved Merlin lecturing Arthur about the value of education, but was instead replaced by “Higitus Figitus.” (A good choice, I feel. Plus you get the education bit later on in the film.)
- This was the first Disney film made under a single director. All the ones before it had several directors (some having three or four). Actually, Wolfgang Reitherman (a very big name if you know Disney), was the sole credited director on this, Jungle Book, Aristocats and Robin Hood. Starting with Rescuers and Pooh in ’77, Disney went to their current two-director format.
- Walt was the character design for Merlin.
- Arthur was voiced by three different boys — Rickie Sorensen, and Wolfgang Reiterman’s two sons, Richard and Robert. It’s actually kind of noticeable in the film, if you’re listening for it.
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1. Storybook opening. Classic Disney.
2. Object/Character framed by foliage. Also classic Disney.
3. Ah, the Disney side window shot. You’ve seen this one a bunch.
4. I don’t know why these shots always stand out to me, but there are a lot of shots of Disney characters walking up stone steps (and spiral staircases too, especially stone ones).
5. The coloring reminds me of a morning shot in Sleeping Beauty. And I think they did this coloring elsewhere, too. Like Hunchback.
6. Character reflected in the water.
7. I love symmetry. So this is a great shot for me. It’s just a great image.
8. Straight out of Sleeping Beauty.
8. Look at that sassy fucking Owl…
(Wow… no negative coloring? That’s something you don’t see very often on this list.)