A few weeks ago Disney released the 45th-anniversary edition of The Sword in the Stone, the animated adaptation of the first volume in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King Arthurian quadrilogy, on DVD. I’d been meaning to buy the movie for years because I have fond memories of it from my youth, but had never gotten around to purchasing it. The new release seemed as good a time as any, and so I finally did.
One of my first thoughts, even before I put the DVD in the other night to watch it, was this — Disney has spent the past decade making direct-to-DVD sequels to several of their animated films, inventing whole new stories from nothing, yet here’s a story that has four sequels already written, so why not exploit this as the start of a franchise. But then I remembered where White’s story goes — and by extension, where the Arthurian story goes — and I realized, glumly, that Arthur’s war against Lot or his struggles against his bastard son, Mordred, would not be the sort of material Disney would want to adapt to DVD.
It’s not safe, basically.
Though the idea of adding Guinevere to the Disney Princesses marketing line is perversely appealing.
I hadn’t seen The Sword in the Stone in a good fifteen years, at a minimum. Possibly twenty, maybe even twenty-five. The essentials of the story are these — a young boy, nicknamed Wart, meets a wizard in the forest one day named Merlin, and Merlin offers to teach the boy anything and everything, because Wart needs an education to get anywhere in the world. Wart, however, is more interested in becoming a squire to his older foster brother, Kay. Kay is a lumbering brute of an idiot, and Kay’s father Ector wants Kay to train to become a knight, so that he can compete in the tournament to be held in London at New Years to choose the next king of England. The previous king had died a number of years before without an heir, and a sword in a stone had magically appeared bearing the message “Whosoever pulleth this sword from this stone shall rightwise be king of all England.” But no one had ever pulled the sword from the stone, and so the nobility had decided upon the plan to choose the king by combat. And when the tournament comes, young squire Wart forgets Kay’s sword at the inn, leading him to find a sword wherever he can, which leads him to the church courtyard where he finds the sword in the stone, a sword which only he — Arthur — can pull.
Strange as this may sound, I was honestly bored with The Sword in the Stone. The story dragged, and there was no real conflict. The story was a bit aimless, with some sequences — like an extended chase by a wolf of which Wart is completely unaware — that simply wasted time. And the movie’s major battle — the wizard battle between Merlin and Madame Mim — was wholly superfluous to the plot. She appears, Merlin challenges her to a battle for Wart, and ten minutes are wasted.
The film had a fantastic look. For being forty-five years old, it looks quite good. Cel animation is really an art, and there’s a life to it that computer animation can’t touch. Ector’s castle has the look and feel of a real place. There’s a certain stylization to the way London looks that gives it an illuminated medieval manuscript feel. The artwork is very well done, and Disney clearly went to some effort at making the film look beautiful.
The Sword in the Stone, then. To borrow John Nathan-Turner’s famous phrase, “The memory cheats.” It wasn’t quite what I’d remembered at the span of decades, but I still enjoyed much of it. If only the story were more engaging. It’s still one of my favorite Arthurian films, though.