Monday, July 23, 2012

1963 - The Sword in the Stone


Now it’s time for us to enter what I’m calling the Mourning Period. This was a time marked by the declining health and eventual death of Walt Disney. The movie we’re viewing today was produced and released while Walt was still alive, but shows many of the other signs of the era, including slashed budgets, cheaper animation, and overly cautious production. This is not to say that all the films of this era are bad. Two of them are quite good, and one is at least okay. Two of them, however, are not so great, and this is one of those. Depressed? So am I. So get yourself a leg of mutton and flagon of mead, and let’s talk about The Sword in the Stone.
Stop trying to make "fetch" happen!


Bleeeeeh. This is a scattered and largely lifeless adaptation of the King Arthur legend, based primarily on T.H. White’s book of the same title, part of his Once and Future King tetralogy. Like so many Disney films, this one starts with the future royal in a position of drudgery, as a pageboy in the care of Sir Ector, known as “The Wart“. There are a few differences, like the fact that he’s younger than the princesses, and that he’s a whiny, annoying jerk. The wizard Merlin, however, sees great things in the young lad’s future, and decides to educate him. Sort of.

Merlin, who is an annoying know-it-all, has a tendency to bang on about how important education is, citing math and science, but he’s a terrible teacher. The only proper lesson we see is him telling Wart that the earth is round, and being utterly unable to explain it. The other three “lessons” we are privy to consist of Merlin turning him into various animals. Every one of these animal things goes the same way:

1 - Merlin turns Wart into a [fish/squirrel/bird].

2 - He has some fun at first, but is chased by a [pike/wolf/hawk].

3 - The chase goes on for some time. Merlin does not help. At some point, the animal almost catches Wart, but something bites its tail,  pulling it away.

4 - The animal is defeated, and Merlin asks Wart what he has learned.

5 - Wart has learned that being a [fish/squirrel/bird] is difficult.

Discovered by the people who've been living there for 15,000 years or so. And even if you're Eurocentric, discovered by Vikings around the time this movie is taking place.

The best of these, and certainly the most remembered, is the squirrel one, which largely involves a female squirrel with the hots for Wart. When he turns back into a human, she is devastated, and I think the movie’s going for actual pathos, but it’s so poorly written I can’t tell.

There’s also an extended sequence involving Merlin fighting against Mad Madam Mim, a shape shifting witch who lives out in the woods. Mim is annoying, one of those very simplistic “Good is bad” type villains you find on Saturday morning cartoons. You know, where they’re all “BAD morning, everyone! I hope it rains today, because I hate sunshine for no reason!“ She’s annoying, but everyone in this movie is annoying, so by the time she showed up I was used to it. Her fight with Merlin, where they both turn into various different animals in a constant one-upping of each other, is actually quite amusing. If you remember the bit with Mim as being the film’s climax, or in any way relating to the plot, you are forgiven. In reality, she just turns up, fights, and leaves, and is of no plot relevance at all. They didn’t even include her in later editions of the book.

The actual climax involves the titular Sword in the Stone, which is actually the Sword in the Anvil on Top of the Stone. In a prologue, we learn that after the death of the king, this thing showed up at a church and written on the sword was the message that whoever pulls it out will be king. Everyone agrees, because what, you’re going to argue with a sword? This goes unmentioned for the entire movie. I think it might have been mentioned in passing when they revealed that after twelve kingless years, they were going to decide rulership through a jousting tournament (which is an even worse idea than listening to a sword), but the fact that I don’t remember kind of proves my point. Anyway, Wart gets the sword out later, when trying to find a sword for his brother Sir Kay during the tournament, and becomes king. No one questions the wisdom of this. And why does he get it? Is he the king’s long lost son? Did his dubious education at the hands of Merlin make him worthy? Did everyone else just loosen it up for him, like a pickle jar? I don’t know. Maybe it’s in the book.

And then, my favorite scene!

Production is also pretty rough. Everything’s more loose and ‘sketchy’ than it was in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which isn’t inherently bad, but this is aiming (sometimes) to tell a more serious story. They also have more fully developed backgrounds, which the animated characters interact badly with. Most bizarrely of all, on the production side, is the three different actors playing Wart, sometimes switching voices in the middle of a scene. Some have speculated that due to the movie not having a script ahead of time (not a criticism, that was standard practice in animation back then, movies would be storyboarded, then the animators would develop the script,) it was recorded piecemeal over the years and the actors got too old. This doesn’t really fit though, since the total production time was only two years, and the voices are all at various stages of pubescence anyway. It’s also been theorized that this was intentional, to show Wart growing up, but the changes come more or less at random. I should also note that two of the Warts are the director’s sons, so… yeah.

There are a few things I liked. Sir Ector and Sir Kay are very good characters. They’re mean to Wart, but in a sort of gruff and blustering way, and it’s shown throughout the film that they do actually care about him. There’s a good bit, for example, in the opening scene, where Kay is making Wart go and retrieve his lost arrows, but when one goes into the woods, Kay tries to keep him out for safety’s sake. When Wart is made king, Ector and Kay are the first to bow to him, honestly and sincerely. I applaud Disney for shaking up the abusive stepfamily stereotype, since keeping it going must have been easier. Plus Ector is voiced by Sebastian Cabot, who’s sort of a 1960s version of john Rhys Davies, and is always good. Speaking of voice actors I always like, there‘s also a random knight voiced by Thurl Ravens croft (yaaaaaay) , who may be my favorite character in any of these films. When Ector examines the sword and proclaims that it’s the Sword in the Stone, this random guy we’ve never seen before suddenly lurches into frame and bellows, in that Thurly way, “THE SWORD IN THE STONE?!!?!” And then I laugh for hours. But here, don’t take my word for it.

Dammit, Steve! We said we're blinking on three! And where's your jousting mustache!?

So yeah, not that great a movie. And it was the last one released while Walt was alive. It’s not the last one he worked on at all, there’s still three more being developed that he had input on, but it’s the last one he got to see. Bit of a shame, there. It’s not flat-out terrible, just sort of a bit worse than Peter Pan without anything shockingly offensive to make it at least memorable.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

* In this month’s issue of Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles is in class, and the teacher is asking what lessons Merlyn was trying to teach Wart in the book by transforming him into animals. I don’t know about the book, but in the movie, it’s “Being a fish is hard”, “sex”, and “how to fly (?)”

* Merlin, counting time travel among his other skills, is one of those characters who makes modern references no one else gets. So if the genie from Aladdin annoys you, now you know who to blame.

Well that's dignified.

* That clip I linked earlier contains one of the Wart voices. Here’s the other two. See what I mean?

* Speaking which, one of the Warts briefly sings a bit of a song that had been sung by another one earlier, and gets the tune wrong. Real professional there, Disney.

* Madam Mim is apparently ridiculously popular in the Netherlands, to the point where she‘s overshadowed the rest of the movie entirely. Dutch Disney comics will have a story featuring her at least once a month. Sometimes she’s even a good guy.

* Oh, I didn’t mention Archimedes. He’s Merlin’s sidekick, a sassy talking owl. Sassy talking animal sidekicks are a bit of a tough sell with me, but I have to admit, I like the guy. Even if he doesn’t really do anything.

I don't speak Dutch, but I speak juuuust enough German to render this almost, but not quite entirely incomprehensible.

* They were really trying to make “Higitus Figitus” into the new “Bibbiti-Bobbiti-Boo”. It does not work.

* In the beginning of the movie, Kay is making ready to shoot a deer, and it picks up its head and runs away. This is the first of many, many reuses of some animation from Bambi, specifically Bambi’s mom just before getting shot. We’ll see this at least five times in the future, and sometimes not even about to be shot!

1 comment:

  1. To the best of my knowledge, Madam Mim is in the "real" Sword in the Stone book, it's just not in the hacked up version published in the omnibus Once and Future King: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sword_in_the_Stone#Revisions

    In general, this movie removes most of the substance from the animal transformation lessons of the book...

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