The Disney studios were no stranger to tales involving royalty, castles, and magic. Their bread and butter had come largely from films such as Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, stories that featured idealized glimpses of nobility and regal bearing. The happily-ever-afters of these films involved a debonair prince and a fortress of solid stone. And yet the studio had only shown the romantic side of these legends. What of the men of these pictures? What was their story, where did they come from? Was there more to be said than was initially perceived by these ciphers of indeterminate qualities? 1963's The Sword in the Stone provides one possible answer, although the story is far from dashing.
The film is based on T. H. White's Arthurian legends, collected in the series The Once and Future King. Animator, writer, and children's author Bill Peet adapted the story into a series of episodic events that mainly shows the wise yet clumsy wizard Merlin teaching his ward "Wart" (or Arthur) - a lackey longing to be a squire - lessons by turning him into various creatures. First he's a fish, then he's a squirrel, and finally he has become a sparrow. Some oblique lessons are gleaned from these experiences, all after fleeting brushes with death. Merlin's confidante and companion is a talking owl named Archimedes who also spends time teaching Arthur but prefers books to experience. (It is rather interesting that the human tutor chooses instruction through mimicking an animal, while the animal touts scholarly study.)
Due to a lack of narrative drive, the picture drags in places and ultimately feels tedious and repetitive. However there are some nice moments sprinkled throughout. When Arthur is slumming as a squirrel, he runs into a female member of the species who instantly becomes twitterpated. She fawns over Arthur, following him around to his general annoyance and ultimately saves him from the clutches of a Wile E. Coyote-esque wolf who has been hunting Arthur (no matter his genus) throughout the picture. After she rescues Arthur, the female squirrel clings close to her beloved, who unfortunately is all too quickly turned back into a human. He then leaves her to return to civilization. The squirrel is crushed and her emotions hit hard as she gazes longingly into the distance as dusk descends.
The animal transformations reach their zenith after the sparrow Arthur is captured by Merlin's rival the hideous witch, Madam Mim. Merlin arrives at the last moment to save Arthur and challenges Mim to a duel, where the two magicians try to destroy one another by becoming various creatures. The scene is decently conceived and it is nice to see the unexpected choices that Merlin makes (mouse, crab, goat, germ) but by this point in the picture the transformations have become all too routine and there is no source of real drama to the proceedings. Mim is quickly vanquished and Merlin and Arthur once again return to the castle. Shortly thereafter Arthur pulls the sword from the stone - a plot point not mentioned since the film's introduction - is crowned king, and the credits roll.
The Sword in the Stone is the first Disney animated feature to contain musical compositions by the heralded Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert. Heretofore the brothers had contributed songs to several of the live-action Disney features of the early sixties, including The Parent Trap and The Absent-Minded Professor. Unfortunately their work on The Sword in the Stone is for the most part bland and forgettable, a shocking summation when one looks at their subsequent body of work, which would include the award-winning soundtrack for Mary Poppins, as well as several iconic Disneyland attractions, including the Enchanted Tiki Room and it's a small world. Their compositions in Stone are limited to a clunky attempt at turning the opening fairy tale narration into song, and a blatant knock-off of Cinderella's "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" (the far less enchanting "Higitus Figitus".)
Like the soundtrack, mediocrity rules the day in The Sword in the Stone. It was the first film where the layoffs in the animation department, along with a meager budget, are overwhelmingly apparent. One Hundred and One Dalmatians managed to achieve some sort of notable artistic style, using its xerography method to an occasional advantage. Here the animation looks too rough, with pencil strokes bleeding out of character designs that are staged against flat, static, and often monochromatic backgrounds. A series of blank canvasses for uninspired animation. The look of the film is not quite ugly - but it is far from beautiful. In fact, embracing ugliness would have made for a more interesting visual experience, instead all we get is serviceable and dull.