The Sword in the Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition

The Sword in the Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition (1963)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson, Rickie Sorensen
Extras: Featurettes, Archive Materials, Game, Bonus Shorts, Stills, Trivia

Walt Disney's interpretation of the Arthurian legend has always been considered one of his lesser productions. Based on the novel by T.H. White, "The Sword in the Stone" follows a young Arthur in his early adventures with Merlin the wizard. The film has most of the ingredients of a classic Disney feature. Magic and sorcery: check. Cute animal sidekicks: check. A young protagonist who learns a valuable lesson and conquers his/her adversaries: check. What is missing, however, is the sense of familial warmth that is usually at the heart of most of Disney's classical films. For all of its inventiveness, the film's characters are never quite as endearing as they should be, and the central relationship between Arthur and Merlin is oddly detached. The movie is still entertaining, and children should certainly take to it, but it easily ranks below the best of the early Disney efforts.

Arthur, or Wart, as he is derogatively called by his foster father Sir Ector and brother Kay, is a scullery worker in a castle grown decrepit since the demise of England's king. While out hunting with Kay one morning, he quite literally drops in on Merlin in the woods. Seeing that the boy has no formal education but instead is being trained to be his brother's squire, Merlin takes it upon himself to teach Arthur the ways of the world. With his talking owl Archimedes, Merlin takes the boy on a series of adventures that all involve transforming him into various animals. As a fish, a squirrel, and a bird, Arthur is instructed in basic ideas of survival, love, and freedom, all the while defying the constricting plans of his foster family.

The titular sword in the stone is only mentioned briefly at the film's opening and is returned to, significantly, at the film's end. Those familiar with Arthurian legend will know the sword to be Excalibur and that only the man who is the rightful king of England is able to pull it from the stone anvil in which it was miraculously embedded. Arthur, of course, is that king, but he will only find out very late in the film when, by chance, he happens to be in desperate need of a sword. The majority of the film, however, concerns itself more with Arthur's life lessons, which provide the most entertaining moments, not the least of which is an encounter with the devilishly mad Madam Mim, a witch of sorts who lives in the forest and fancies her magic more powerful than Merlin's. She is the closest the film comes to a villain, as Arthur's family is mean but never as ferociously cruel as Cinderella's step-mother and -sisters. While in the form of a squirrel, Arthur fends off the romantic advances of a female squirrel, providing the movie's most delightful song ("A Most Befuddling Thing"). The fate of the female once the boy returns to human form is also the film's one truly emotional scene.

Quite frankly, it is easy to see why "The Sword in the Stone" has not always been held in high regard. It is much more simplistic than most of Disney's other films. With the exception of "Alice in Wonderland," it is probably Disney's most episodic narrative film, although the episodes are not tied together extremely well. In fact, watching the film today feels a bit like watching a series of after-school specials, each with its own educational message. Part of the problem is that the relationship between Arthur and Merlin is never really developed beyond their initial meeting. Although Merlin acts as a mentor, he lacks the parental love and concern for Arthur that, say, the seven dwarfs expressed for Snow White or the good fairies showed to Sleeping Beauty. He is a likably bumbling character, and his ability to travel to the future provides some humorous anachronisms (although they become a bit too in-jokey in the final scene), but his interest in Arthur remains strictly academic. At the end of the film, the two seem no closer than they did at the beginning, and so it never feels like the movie has taken us anywhere.

Technically, the movie is relatively unremarkable. While set in medieval times, the film never fully exploits the visual possibilities of such a setting, as most of the action takes place in rather contained locations (a moat, some tree tops). The animation style is similar to Disney's previous animated feature, 1961's "101 Dalmatians," but without that film's impressionistic backgrounds. The songs by Richard and Robert Sherman are pleasant enough, but they are not particularly memorable. Even the voice work is questionable, as no less than three boys provided the voice for Arthur. Rickie Sorensen receives higher billing, but Richard and Robert Reitherman (the sons of the film's director, Wolfgang Reitherman) also lend their voices. The discrepancy between Sorensen's voice and those of the Reitherman brothers is painfully obvious, and the noticeable shifts throughout the film are a major distraction.

Children will be less discriminating however (I certainly was when I saw this as a child), and the film moves quickly enough that they should be sufficiently entertained. Parents, on the other hand, may not find this to be as engaging as other Disney works. At best, "The Sword in the Stone" is innocuous entertainment with some good messages. It is nowhere near a masterpiece, but most children will enjoy its lightweight humor and simple story.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment has released a new 45th Anniversary Edition of "The Sword in the Stone," but it doesn't appear that they have given it the royal treatment. The film is presented in a fullframe aspect ratio. Like "101 Dalmatians," this was apparently filmed in an open matte format, which has led to much confusion about the correct aspect ratio of its subsequent home video releases. Judging from the somewhat dull colors and flickering throughout, it is clear that this film has not received any great restoration. Dirt is visible in places as well. While it is not a terrible image, it is definitely subpar for the studio.

Audio fares a little better, presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Sound effects and music are balanced well with the vocals, and although it bears its age, the soundtrack is effectively clear and reasonably separated. There are also 5.1 French and Spanish soundtracks, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The extra features on this disc are almost all ported over from Buena Vista's previous "Gold Collection" edition. First up is an eight-minute featurette called "Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers." Here, the Sherman Brothers discuss their songs from the film and perform a couple of deleted numbers.

The Disney Song Selection feature takes you directly to each song in the film and provides optional lyrics onscreen. This feature was on the previous DVD, but only for two songs.

The only entirely new feature on this disc is a game, "Merlin's Magical Academy." Combining trivia and hand-eye coordination, this is definitely for the kids.

"All About Magic" is a seven-minute excerpt from Disney's old TV show. This black-and-white segment has nothing expressly to do with "The Sword in the Stone," but rather features Disney himself showing off various tricks, including the magic mirror from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

A Scrapbook feature and Film Facts both provide some behind-the-scenes information and still photos.

Perhaps the two most enjoyable features are the bonus shorts that are included. First up is "A Knight for a Day," starring Goofy (or rather, a slew of Goofys). Next is the classic "The Brave Little Tailor," featuring Mickey Mouse. Children and parents alike should enjoy these classic cartoons.

Due to the lack of new substantial extras and, from what I have gathered, virtually the same transfer as the previous DVD release, owners of the original release may not wish to double dip on this 45th Anniversary edition. Even on its own, this release is a tad disappointing in its paltry background information. "The Sword in the Stone" may not be one of the best films to come from the House of Mouse, but it definitely deserves more supplemental material than what is provided here. If you have children or fond memories of this film yourself, it is worth owning but just doesn't quite reach the level of Disney's finest work, and the DVD leaves one yearning for a two-disc edition somewhere down the line.