The Sword In The Stone

The Sword In The Stone (1963)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Extras: ’All About Magic’ Featurette, ’Music Magic’ Featurette, ’Brave Little Tailor’ Cartoon, ’A Knight for a Day’ Cartoon, Production Photos, Film Facts, Sing-Alongs

"The Sword in the Stone" is the animated Disney interpretation of T. H. White’s masterpiece novel of the same name. While featuring the usual degree of daft musical numbers and comedy, the film is seriously lacking in the story department and is often considered to be one of the weakest animated features to come out of the Walt Disney studio. Fortunately for fans of the film, and animation collectors in general, the Mouse hasn’t allowed the movie’s somewhat tarnished reputation to cloud their otherwise excellent DVD release.

Focusing on young Arthur’s (Rickie Sorensen) formative years under the tutelage of Merlin (Karl Swenson) the wizard, the film is somewhat rambling in nature and omits most of the well-known King Arthur mythology. Without these familiar touchstones to guide the viewer, the task falls to the writers to provide an engaging story that makes the legend their own. Unfortunately, this is not the case and the film suffers greatly from this lack of direction. That’s not to say that "The Sword in the Stone" is without its charms. The adversarial relationship between Merlin and the haggard old witch, Mim (Martha Wentworth), is quite funny and the animation frequently inspired. But, much like "The Black Cauldron," the film has all the trappings of an enjoyable, medieval adventure but instead fails to connect with audiences.

The DVD presents the film in a <$PS,full frame> aspect ratio of 1.33:1. While the theatrical presentation was <$PS,widescreen>, the animation was created <$PS,full frame> and then matted for the theater so this is an open-matte transfer and not a pan-and-scan abomination. And what a transfer it is. Colors are fully-saturated and combine with accurate black levels to generate a very pleasing picture with a true sense of depth. The image is also free of the types of nicks and blemishes that often mar older movies. Sharpness is satisfactory without being overdone and I could find no compression artifacts whatsoever. All in all it’s a great video presentation and a very strong effort from Disney.

Audio is offered in a brand new <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 English mix as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mixes. Unfortunately, the audio hasn’t held up as well as the video. The 5.1 remix is really just a standard stereo soundtrack with some of the musical score added into the surround channels. Dynamic range is rather limited and the quality of the track is marred by hiss and the occasional sound drop-out. It isn’t bad audio by any means and is about what one would expect to hear for a film of this vintage but the advertised "remastered in 5.1" line leads one to assume that a little more in the way of restoration had been done. The foreign language tracks are mono mixes split between the two front speakers and are rather flat and lifeless.

As frequent purchasers of Disney’s Gold Collection titles are well aware, bonus features are a real hit-or-miss proposition. In some cases you’re lucky to get a trailer while in others you wind up with extra content bordering on special edition level. Fortunately for fans of "The Sword in the Stone," this DVD falls firmly into the latter camp.

First up are number of very entertaining featurettes. "All About Magic" originally aired on television in 1957 and is hosted by Uncle Walt himself. The black and white program lasts for forty minutes and offers a nice overview of the use of magic and illusion in Disney animated productions. Snippets from many Disney favorites are used as examples and the show is a lot of fun.

The next featurette is entitled "Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers" and showcases the brothers’ work on "The Sword in the Stone." The best parts of the program are the two musical numbers performed by the brothers that never made it into the completed film.

The DVD also features some brief film facts and production photos as well as kiddie sing-alongs for the musical numbers "Higitus Figitus" and "That’s What Makes the World Go Round."

And, last but not least, the DVD also offers two classic Disney animated short features. Given the amount of flack Disney often gets for editing their releases to omit any past references that might be deemed offensive to modern mores, I was more than a little surprised and pleased to see that both cartoons are wholly uncut. In each short, characters are shown to be enjoyably puffing away — which has become something of a no-no is Disney-land. Fortunately, the Mouse has seen fit to overlook this issue and the uncut cartoons are almost worth the price of admission alone.

Since more than a few of you are more interested in the included shorts than the main feature itself, here’s a brief overview of each. "Brave Little Tailor" is a presentation from 1938 and surely ranks up there as one of the best-loved classics of animation. The story of a boastful Mickey Mouse who must make the most of his fine tailoring skills to defeat a giant and win the hand of the princess is a real fan favorite. The quality of the short, however, is only so-so. Colors are pretty decent and the image detailed but the source materials look to be in rough shape with many blemishes and even a strange effect in which the backgrounds almost seem to be melting in an upward direction. Audio is pretty poor as well with lots of distortion and hiss. I suppose we should just be thankful that these old classics survive at all and not nit-pick too much over their relative quality. Just be glad to have it on DVD — and uncut to boot.

The second short stars Goofy in 1946’s "A Knight for a Day." While not in the same league as "Tailor," this cartoon is in noticeably better shape. Brave squire Cedric is suddenly thrust into his master Sir Loinsteak’s place in a joust against the feared Sir Cumference and, once again, the hand of a princess is at stake. Featuring the period humor and wordplay common to 1940’s entertainment, "Knight" offers up a bit of retro fun. The image here is in decent shape although there are still a fair number of blemishes. Audio is improved as well with a balanced, non-distorted, sound.

Fans of "The Sword in the Stone" and collectors of Disney animation should be more than pleased with this fine DVD. Although the film itself is oft-maligned — and fairly so, I might add — Disney has pulled out all the stops on this release. The quality of the video is top-notch while the audio is more than serviceable. But, for those sitting on the fence, the wealth of entertaining extras really makes this a worthwhile addition to any DVD collection. I can foresee the bonus cartoons and featurettes getting more replay than the main feature in many a DVD player. Kudos to Disney for offering up one of their lesser films in a superior DVD package.