Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Disney's The Sword in the Stone (1963 movie review)

      When it comes to Disney’s classic animated movies, there are a lot that I love, a hand full that I don’t care for and some that I have really mixed emotions about. Perhaps, the animated 1963 classic, “The Sword in the Stone”, is the one I have the most mixed feelings toured. This was the last fully animated Disney movie that Walt Disney himself was able to see fully completed, after words he started work on “The Jungle Book”, but he tragically passed away before that film saw the light of day. Many hard core Disney fans consider “The Sword in the Stone” to be one of the absolute best of the Disney collection and some even regard it as a favorite film in general, I personally don’t think it’s that great but I don’t hate it either, like I said, it’s just a very mixed bag. The film is based on the novel of the same name, at first published in 1938 as a single novel. It was then later republished in 1958 as the first book of author T. H. White’s tetralogy “The Once and Future King”. At its core the film is a decent take on the legend of King Arthur and gives a new approach to the story but that also becomes a weakness.

      In this rendition, we see King Arthur as a young boy who’s pushed around by a strict foster father and selfish, lazy step brother. A wizard named Merlin see’s the potential in him to be a better man, so he takes it upon himself to be Arthurs teacher and help make him fit to rule one day as king. Literally, that’s the plot in a nut shell, it’s just the young King Arthur being educated. It’s almost like watching an after school, education special, just with a wizard as your teacher. I suppose that's more fun then being educated by your typical boring teacher, however, we never learn anything that useful. King Arthur himself is innocent and pure but he never really leaves an impression, like you never really see anything kingly in him, he just get’s the sword at the end of the film and he just automatically becomes king, that’s it. The film plays like an underdog story, but Arthur never really proves anything to us, he’s just an average good kid and I always felt like there should be a lot more to him than that. The voice can get really annoying because throughout the film his voice changes so much and it’s very clear that there are different actors doing his voice.

    The best thing about this movie by far are its supporting characters who are all very memorable and appealing, most especially Merlin, who’s brilliantly brought to life by voice actor Karl Swenson.  This is a performance where the actor really infuses the character with lots of personality, energy, wit and it’s one of the few times I feel like a voice actor can be nominated for a best supporting role. Merlin is simply one of my favorite Disney characters ever, and I love how versatile he can be. At times he’s wise and patient but also mixing in the grouchy side effects of his age. I also love his surroundings, with lots of test tubs you’d see in a science lab, it makes a great contrast to the medieval setting. Then there’s Merlin’s little sidekick, an owl named Archimedes, he’s got a grumpy bedside manner but a good heart beneath it. He makes for another really fun character and when you have these two pitted together, you get some terrific comedy and fun character interactions. Here's a fun piece of trivia, the voice actor for Archimedes would later supply the voice for Rabbit in Disney's "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh", that movie also features the same narrator from the opening of this film, and would later provide the narration in Disney's "The Jungle Book", wow, I'm a nerd.     

        I also like how the foster family aren't conveyed as villains, their pushy and strict but there not evil like the step family in Disney’s “Cinderella”. There are some nice little moments where the foster father shows concern for Arthur, and considers treating him like a better son. The only thing missing from this movie is a good female character. Now I don't need a token female in every film, let alone every Disney film, it’s just that in the case of this movie alone, I really wanted there to be one. First of all, whenever Disney does a movie set in medieval times, I just feel very custom to seeing someone in Princess attire. Second, Lady Guinevere is a big part of the King Arthur legend and I would have loved to see this movie give her a Disney makeover. She doesn't have to get a lot of attention or anything, just have her there as a nice side character, like what they did with Maid Marian in Disney’s “Robin Hood” or Princess Eilonwy in Disney’s “The Black Cauldron”.

     Another thing lacking in this film is a main villain, however there is a nice little bones villain, a crazy old witch named Madam Mim, who’s an old rival of Merlin’s. This is a very entertaining character and I really wish she had a bigger part in the movie. She's one of the wildest Disney villains ever, with a hyper personality and a wide display of magic. It’s interesting to note that most Disney witches rarely use lots of magic and instead are just really sinister. Madam Mim on the other hand uses all kinds of magic, changing her size, appearance and morphing into animals. All this visual flare mixed with her hipper, and childish personality make’s her really fun to watch. 

    While she takes many animal forms, it's her dragon transformation that's hands down the most fun. She also get’s her own villain song, the “Mad Madam Mim” song,  which personally annoys me because so many great leading villains like Jafar and Hades don’t get villain songs, yet a bones villain like this get’s her own musical number. The song itself is nothing special but it does allow the character to show off more of her crazy personality and wild magic, which is still fun. 

     The Musical numbers in this movie are very hit and miss, the background music is quiet good, mostly comprised of jazzy instrumentation. Interestingly enough, one of my favorite songs is the opening title song, “The Sword in the Stone”. It doesn’t play over the opening credits the same way most title songs do, instead it’s part of the opening narration of the story, it just has this very beautiful, simple melody and the vocalist puts so much passion into this little song that it leaves me with chills every time I hear it. The best song by far is “Higitus Figitus”, in fact, I’d call it one of the best underrated Disney songs ever. Merlin starts packing up to live in Arthurs castle, instead of using your hands why not pack in style, have an enchanted song pack everything for you. I love how lively everything gets and the animated visuals mix with the musical notes perfectly. The only downside is that this song is very short, but still great all the same. Unfortunately for every song that I love in this film, there’s one that don’t care for. For example there’s this song titled “That’s what makes the World go Round”, and while it’s not horable, it just has a very dull melody and it doesn’t leave you humming much after words. Following that song is another one titled “A Most Befuddling Thing” and it has the same dull melody except it’s even less memorable than before.

    The animation in this film is very basic, even the backgrounds aren’t that great to look at. I’m not saying this because the film is old, on the contrary, many old Disney movies like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Fantasia” still look phenomenal. This film just looks very standard by comparison. Now with an animated Disney film set in medieval times, you’d expect it to be one of two things, either its rich and magical like “Sleeping Beauty” or dark and exciting like “The Black Cauldron”. This film doesn't have any magical air or swashbuckling action, instead it goes for this really laid back tone that’s okay but I’d prefer a brisk, adventure pace. I guess it’s nice to have a film attempt to dive into education as opposed to just a bunch of medieval sword fighting and adventures, but that’s exactly what kids would prefer to watch.  

    While there aren't any sword fights or grand adventures in this mid-evil setting, the film has other ways to keep kids entertained. The best scenes are when Merlin transforms Arthur into various animals like a squirrel, a fish and a bird. He gets to spend time in the lives of these creatures, learning how they live, survive and battle’s there predators including a barracuda, a hawk and a wolf. While that’s all decent fun, we never really learn that much and the film never seems to know if it wants to be an educational film, or a child’s slapstick comedy. The best scene of all is when Merlin gets into a wizards dual with Madam Mim. They change into various animals that battle one another in a colorful, slapstick, Loony Toon style action scene. As a kid, I loved watching this over and over, the timing is great, and they cover a fun gambit of different animals. 

    Occasionally the film will have a good message like “Knowledge and wisdom is the real power” and there’s a very sweet little speech about how love is the strongest force in the world but the film as a whole never really amounts into anything that important. Not to mention, the title of the movie isn’t the focus of the movie. The actual sword is only seen at the beginning and end of the film, and the sword itself is never used for anything. There isn't even a climax, Arthur just get’s the sword and the film sort of stops, like there was no point to it.

     Overall, it’s actually a cheerful and fun little film, on par with something like “101 Dalmatians”, where it’s nothing particularly great but kids will still have fun watching it. Looking back, it really doesn’t offer that much beyond the fun supporting characters and a some fun scenes. It’s not terrible, just at the low end of good, so take that for what it’s worth. 

                                           I give Disney's “The Sword in the Stone” 2 ½ stars out of 5. 
                                                                                            The End

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