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The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 8/6/2013
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/18/2013
I'm no Disney historian, so I don't know the reason, but I can tell you that the 1960s marked the decade with the least amount of Disney animated releases. One Hundred and One Dalmatians arrived in 1961, while The Jungle Book came out in 1967. In between these two classics came 1963's The Sword in the Stone. Now, if you know anything about Disney, then you know that nobody loves Disney like Disney and the company has long since been the best at promoting their product, and since childhood, I've felt that the animated films where shoved in my face. However, The Sword in the Stone has remained a somewhat obscure title. I don't have a clear recollection of a big re-release or home video rollout for it. So, this viewing was my first chance to see Disney's take on a famous legend.
The Sword in the Stone offers an animated version of the King Arthur legend. The film opens in classic Disney fashion, as we get a storybook introduction to the story. King Uther has died and in a stone rests a sword whose inscription states that whoever removes the sword will be king of England. We then meet Merlin (voiced by Karl Swenson), a scatter-brained wizard who lives with a talking owl named Archimedes (voiced by Junius Matthews). Merlin welcomes into his home a boy who goes by the name Wart (voiced by Rickie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman, and Robert Reitherman), but who we also know as Arthur. Wart wants to be a squire, but Merlin has other plans for him. As the two journey across the countryside, Merlin attempts to teach the young boy several life lessons. For, you see, Merlin can see the future and he knows that Arthur has an important road before him.
As noted above, I had not seen The Sword in the Stone prior to this outing, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Obviously, the title implies that the film is related to the Arthurian legend, so I had assumed that it would have something to do with that. However, I had not expected a film with so little story, or for the title object to only appear in the movie's opening and closing. Truth be told, The Sword in the Stone is a somewhat weird and meandering movie.
The Sword in the Stone is based on a book by author T.H. White and is part of White's The Once and Future King trilogy which focuses on King Arthur and Merlin. It's not surprising to learn that the film is based on a book, as it feels as if it could easily be broken down into chapters. Once Merlin and Wart meet, each of these "chapters" deals with Merlin teaching Wart a life lesson by doing something magical. Merlin turns Wart into a fish, then into a squirrel, they then use magic to do dishes, and then Wart is turned into a bird. Each of these things is done in order for Wart to learn a particular thing which will help to build his character so that he will be a good king. The problem her is two-fold. First of all, this allegorical way of teaching probably worked well in the book, but it feels a bit deep and philosophical for a family film. (More on this in moment.) Secondly, it robs the film of having any true narrative flow. This could have easily been a series of shorts which follow the adventures of Merlin and Wart. When the inevitable conclusion occurs (come on, we all know how the movie ends), it's with only a few minutes left in the movie and the lack of any real emotional connection makes it feel as it could have been lifted from another movie. (It must be said that Merlin's appearance at the end had to have been an inspiration for Genie in Aladdin.)
So, the question remains -- will anyone enjoy this film? As noted above, the point of the lessons will go over the heads of small children, but they are the ones who will enjoy these scenes the most. There's no doubt that seeing Wart and Merlin as animals is cute, and the mischief that they cause is somewhat charming, but it's no replacement for a real story. The animation is good, but the handful of songs in the film are forgettable. It's a shame that this film didn't do a better job teaching the legend of King Arthur. Somewhere between the explicit fare of Excalibur and this movie, there should be a kid-friendly, yet faithful Arthur tale.
The Sword in the Stone would faint if it knew what Harry Potter did with similar material on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 28 Mbps. For a film which is 50 years old, this looks pretty good. The image is sharp and clear, showing only a hint of grain and no notable defects from the source material. The colors look fantastic -- often the colors can dull in these older movie, but they really jump out here. The level of detail is good, but it doesn't exaggerate any issues with the animation. The depth is impressive as well. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Despite being a surround sound track, this feels like a stereo track at best. The audio is somewhat flat, and while the stereo effects are present, I never got the feeling that I was listening to a track which had any great range.
The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray Disc offers a handful of bonus features. The "Alternate Opening" (4 minutes) is presented in animated storyboard form and offers a version of the story where the way in which Merlin and Wart meet is somewhat different and that there are conspirators after Wart. "Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers" (8 minutes) offers an interviews with songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, whose work appears in The Sword in the Stone. The piece offers stills of the duo at work in the 60s. "All About Magic" (7 minutes) is a black-and-white piece, which looks like it's from The Wonderful World of Disney, which has Walt Disney visiting a room of magic and discussing various elements of it. "A Knight for a Day" (7 minutes) and "Brave Little Tailor" (9 minutes) are both classic shorts, the first featuring Goofy, while the second has Mickey Mouse.
Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.