In the words of bumbling TV spy Maxwell Smart, “The Sword in the Stone” missed it by THAT much—Disney’s Golden Age, that is. Most students of cinema date the high point of Disney animation from 1938 (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) to 1959 (“Sleeping Beauty”), and this underrated film hit the theaters in 1963. It was also a movie about Camelot that had the misfortune of being released on December 25, just a month after America’s version of Camelot died with President John F. Kennedy.
But while this film may not be the visual and emotional blockbuster that “Sleeping Beauty” was, it’s still a respectable entry from Disney. “The Sword and the Stone” was the second film directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, who worked as an animator on “Snow White” and was directing animator for “Pinocchio” (1940), “Dumbo” (1941), “Cinderella” (1950), “Alice in Wonderland” (1951), and “Lady and the Tramp” (1955). In other words, the guy had been around, and after directing “101 Dalmatians” (1961) and this feature he would go on to direct “The Jungle Book” (1967), “The Aristocats” (1970), “Robin Hood” (1973), and “The Rescuers” (1977).
So it wasn’t a case of old animators dying or disappearing that brought about the end of a golden era. Partly, it was the studio’s decision to replace hand-inking with Xerography, a technology shortcut adapted by animator Ub Iwerks to print the animators’ drawings directly to cels. That process began with “101 Dalmatians,” and it gave the films a sketchier look. In the Sixties, Disney also incorporated a little more slapstick into their animated features, and that changed the complexion considerably. So there are a number of factors, really, to explain why a film like “The Sword in the Stone” wasn’t a Golden Oldie.
But there are just as many factors to justify why it’s still a darned good movie. The writing is solid, for one thing. Bill Peet (“Pinocchio,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “101 Dalmatians”) gives us a script that’s based on a book by T.H. White, who adapted Sir Thomas Malory’s famous Morte d’Arthur into four novels, one of which, The Sword and the Stone, was published in 1939. Disney snapped up the movie rights to the novel that year, but it took decades to finally bring it to the screen. Peet’s screenplay juggles magic, whimsy, humor, and action, and gives us characters that are endearing. The Sherman brothers give us some solid music, too, with a number of songs really making scenes like Merlin’s “packing” and the squirrels-in-love montage more memorable.
What’s especially appealing for young viewers is that this chapter in King Arthur’s life is confined to his youth, when (at least in this animated version) he was a wide-eyed, curious young boy (voiced by Rickie Sorensen) who literally drops in on Merlin (Karl Swenson) and gets lessons in life that will prepare him to be a good king. There’s a memorable battle of wizards as Merlin takes on mad Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth) in a contest of magic and wits, and three transformation scenes where Arthur (known as “Wart”) learns a little of life from the point of view of a fish, a squirrel, and a bird. It’s pure genius, really, because what youngster hasn’t pictured him or herself as a bird perched high atop the family home, or wondered what it would be like to be able to swim underwater as long as a fish? For that matter, all children knew what it was like to be tutored by a teacher or parent, but none of them had a fun and unorthodox instructor like Merlin. It was another childhood fantasy expertly milked by the Disney folks.
There are episodes of knightly splendor (and humor) as well, and fans of the fairy-tale format will recognize a little “Cinderella” in this structure. Only instead of step-sisters Wart is the orphan who’s pushed around by his stepbrother (Norman Alden) and stepfather (Sebastian Cabot) and forced to do chores. Instead of a glass-slipper moment, he pulls the sword from the stone and gets his own entry into the castle and its presumably happily-ever-after life.
Walt Disney reportedly wasn’t all that happy with the first application of Xerography, and “The Sword in the Stone” does look sharper and richer than “101 Dalmatians.” I’m not enough of a technophile to tell you what adjustments were made, but the process was certainly tweaked . . . and successfully.
“The Sword in the Stone” was tweaked again for this Blu-ray release, BIG TIME. Digitally restored, it’s presented, finally, in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.75:1, rather than the 1.33:1 that previous DVDs featured. And yes, it looks great. Colors have been brightened, the picture sharpened, yet there’s still enough grain to remind us that this is a 50-year-old film. This 50th Anniversary Blu-ray is a huge upgrade for fans, and the widescreen presentation makes it a no-brainer to replace the one that’s already on your shelves.
The audio also got a makeover, upgraded to an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 and channeling the dialogue, music and effects nicely across the sound field. The Sherman Brothers’ tunes and the film’s score during moments of peril really come to life with bright treble, substantial bass, and mid-tones that have a nice rich timbre.
Additional audio options are French DTS-HDHR and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
This Blu-ray combo pack contains a DVD and Digital Copy of the film and offers a never-before-seen alternate opening that’s storyboarded and partially animated. It’s interesting, but not nearly as good as the opening that was chosen. Then there are the same featurettes that were included in previous DVD releases. Carryovers include “All About Magic,” a black-and-white excerpt from the old “Walt Disney Presents” shows, with Disney taking people into the magic prop room. No secrets are revealed, though, and the chief interest is Disney himself. There’s also “Music Magic” The Sherman Brothers” which has them introducing us to a song that didn’t make the cut, and also documents the brothers’ early work for Disney. They would, of course, go on to do the music for “Mary Poppins.” Then there are two cartoon shorts, one (“Knight for a Day”) starring Goofy, and the other (“Brave Little Tailor”) featuring Mickey. There’s also a Sing Along with the Movie option.
None of the games from previous DVDs made the cut, obviously because newer platforms have rendered such games obsolete.
I’m not about to argue that “The Sword in the Stone” belongs on the tail end of the Golden Age, but I do think it’s been underappreciated. My kids watched it with me, and they laughed out loud a number of times. I, meanwhile, appreciated the visual warmth that this film had compared to “101 Dalmatians.” It wasn’t a return to gold, but “The Sword in the Stone” seems at least silver.