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The Once and Future Rock

Disney is usually at its best when it does medieval fantasy, which is part of the reason 1963's The Sword in the Stone is such a big disappointment. Taking great liberties with the source novel by T.H. White, it nonetheless imports the novel's fundamental flaw--its weak world-building--while ejecting its chief virtue--the nuance of some of its characters. Disney's film does feature great animation and comedic timing but sadly it's diminished by the new, cost saving, xerox process introduced in 101 Dalmatians. The film's songs, written by the Sherman brothers, are good, particularly the opening song, "The Sword in the Stone", which has the mystery and majesty audiences look for in a King Arthur story and too infrequently see. Certainly it's otherwise lacking in The Sword in the Stone which ends up being more like a long comedy short than a feature length film.

Despite suffering from the new xerox process, the film's biggest problem is one that plagued Disney films before, most notably in Alice in Wonderland--the main character is deprived of many of their distinctive personality traits. It's what makes both films feel so much like disconnected series of short stories but it's perhaps a greater flaw in The Sword of the Stone. The source novel, unlike Alice in Wonderland, is at its core about a character arc, about Arthur changing from a simple, generous hearted boy into someone with the knowledge and wisdom to be a good king. To be fair, the novel is far from perfect in this, and many other aspects, too.

First published in 1938 as a stand alone novel, The Sword in the Stone was later released in a collection with its sequels in 1958 as The Once and Future King. This version featured substantial changes which Disney's film ignores, possibly because it had been at least partly in development since the '40s. The 1958 book includes episodes where Merlin turns Arthur into an ant and a goose, both functioning as overt political allegory--the former a satire of Communism and the latter of ethnocentric, societal complacency. They're only a little more clearly allegorical than some episodes already in the book, such as one where Arthur spends the night as a hawk among the castle's resident hunting hawks, another episode left out of the film. In fact, none of the book's political allegory remains, a sign perhaps that Walt Disney, despite his strong political views, preferred not to impose them on his fantasies for the public. Though, on the other hand, Arthur's exposure to different forms of government seems an obviously sensible component of a future king's education, which Merlin seems to be giving him.

In the book, he knows all along that Arthur will become King while it seems to come as a surprise to him in the film. Merlin in the book lives backwards in time, a concept White didn't handle very well (how would Merlin remember what he did yesterday if to-morrow is yesterday for him?), a problem Disney fixed by simply making Merlin a time traveller. White seems to have been heavily influenced by the Alice in Wonderland books, particularly Through the Looking Glass, as this living backwards concept resembles Lewis Carroll's much more effectively deployed idea for his White Queen. Arthur's encounter with King Pellinore early in the book likewise seems insensibly derived from Alice's encounter with the White Knight, feeling in White's book more like a pointless detour. Altogether, the book often feels like the work of an intelligent amateur with good taste, invoking classic influences without a strong plan or guiding instinct for his own story. This especially comes through in Merlin's anachronistic references which aren't terribly funny and seem like a crutch for someone nervous about their ability to be funny with a strict period setting. In the Disney film, it becomes a full-blown postmodern device with Merlin sporting modern tourist attire, complete with Converse sneakers, in the film's conclusion. Disney took it further but we may blame T.H. White for introducing the anachronistic, wisecracking, stock sidekick we would later seen in Aladdin and Mulan. White's book also seems to have begun the tradition of portraying Merlin as a slightly silly, eccentric, straight talker, which we can see shades of even in John Boorman's Excalibur.

There are one or two emotionally effective moments in the book, most of them, surprisingly, relating to Arthur's adopted brother, Kay. In only a few references and in one episode (involving an ill-advised use of Robin Hood) White evokes the tragedy of Kay's character, an ambitious and proud young man condemned by fate to be second fiddle. In the Disney film, he's just a two dimensional thug.

The only moment in the film that succeeds in conveying any interesting emotion, aside from laughter, is the episode where Merlin turns Arthur into a squirrel.

A brilliantly animated comedic sequence is unexpectedly capped off by a sorrowful moment were a female squirrel discovers the male she's pined for was in fact a human in disguise. The comedy goes to a cruel place when the female squirrel finds herself obliviously cuddling with a big human. The filmmakers have the sensitivity then to follow her as she flees, up a tree, but can't resist turning back repeatedly to confirm her hopes have been dashed in such a casually monstrous way.

Otherwise, the film's main value is in comedy. There are many funny, well animated moments relating to Merlin's magic, including his battle with Madam Mim. But the funniest moment has to do with Merlin's owl, Archimedes.

He watches Merlin (Karl Swenson) trying to get a toy plane to fly. When the thing crashes in the moat, the owl (Junius Matthews) breaks into hysterical laughter. This is a brilliant moment of comedy operating on several levels--the perfection of human expression the animators achieve in Merlin's sulkiness and in Archimedes' slightly vicious laughter, for one thing. We know Merlin is right that humans will eventually fly and, furthermore, we know his toy plane would have worked if his beard hadn't gotten in the way. But Archimedes rebuking Merlin for presuming to lecture a bird on the nature of flight is perfectly paid off by the plane's failure. It's funny because we've all had to deal with this particular kind of obnoxiousness once or twice, where someone with an opposing view revels in their purely superficial victory in such a spiteful way. This is why it's so hard for two people to have a constructive argument.

The end of the film, the famous moment where the sword is drawn, is deprived of its impact by the weak development of Arthur and the film doesn't even attempt to expand on the circumstances of his becoming King. Since Sir Ector and Kay were only two dimensional foils, their sudden acceptance of his sovereignty feels especially forced. The film has some nice medieval inspired designs reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty but the xerox keeps everything looking cheap. Despite some good ingredients, The Sword in the Stone is a deeply unsatisfying meal.
Tags: disney, fantasy, movies, the sword in the stone

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