Sunday, January 30, 2011

Disney's The Sword In The Stone Is A Lot Of Set-up, Little Pay-off.

The Good: Timeless hero tale, Generally decent animation, Message
The Bad: Plot is setup and then the movie ends, Not the best animation in a Disney film, Utterly unmemorable musical numbers.
The Basics: While my wife might have a love for The Sword In The Stone, there are far better cinematic representations of the Arthurian Legend.

As my Disney exploration comes to an end - I am sure I will eventually be subjected to those films I have missed in this first pass of new and new-to-me Disney films and film reviews moved from my prior reviewing site in time, given that my wife is a huge fan of Disney animated films - for now, I am left thinking about two things. The first is that what we are exposed as children truly does influence who and what we become. That conclusion comes from my wife sitting next to me while watching The Sword In The Stone. The musical numbers in The Sword In The Stone number among the least sensible and least memorable songs in any Disney production, yet there my wife was singing along with Merlin as he sang out gibberish on our screen. She used to watch The Sword In The Stone a lot as a child and it was her favorite movie for some time (presumably until she encountered Labyrinth and fell in love with David Bowie!), so the repetition of the song brought it meaning to her that was not inherent in the lyrics or out of context.

The second thing that I am left contemplating is how the Arthurian Legend has been done a lot in cinematic endeavors and everyone seems to have a favorite. My mother, for example, is partial to The Mists Of Avalon (reviewed here!). I'm not sure what cinematic representation of King Arthur's story I like best, but I am sure it is not The Sword In The Stone, if for no other reason than it seems like a lot of filler before the story pretty abruptly ends. And while the focus of the King Arthur legend is usually supposed to be Arthur, Disney seemed to realize that Merlin was a much more interesting character and focused a lot more on him than on Arthur throughout the film.

In the Dark Ages, Uther Pendragon has died and his successor has not been named, leaving a power vacuum in England. To establish the new King of England, a sword is set into a stone and only the rightful heir of Uther will be able to remove it. Unfortunately, no one is able to and soon even the sword is forgotten. Years later, a twelve year-old boy - Arthur, nicknamed Wart by his foster brother - is hiking through the woods playing squire to his older brother when he encounters Merlin. Merlin knows that he is in the right time and place to meet the heir to the throne and he eagerly tries to impress upon Arthur that there is more to life than warfare. Merlin, a sorcerer, insists on tutoring Arthur and the two leave the forest.

Returning home to his foster father, Arthur gets Merlin set up with a room in a rickety tower the family owns. While Arthur continues to train with Kay to be his squire - while Kay works on jousting and training to be a knight and compete in a New Year's Day competition at which the next King will be declared - Merlin works to get Arthur to think about academic and perspective issues. To that end, Merlin transforms Arthur into a fish and a squirrel and Arthur learns to avoid other fish, wolves and amorous female squirrels. But when Arthur is transformed into a bird, he crashes into the home of Madam Mim. Mim is a witch whose magic is based on sleight of hand, as opposed to true sorcery and she threatens to undo Arthur before he has the opportunity to reach his full potential!

The Sword In The Stone is one of Disney's shorter animated films and right about the time it gets started, the film ends. The title event, the intrigue of the sword in the stone and its relationship with Wart - or Arthur - only comes in as an afterthought after a particularly forced debacle with Mim, which Arthur is not responsible for his fate in. This is emblematic of the problems with The Sword In The Stone. The protagonist is not much of a protagonist at all and while that can work in a story of a hero in the process of becoming, Arthur is constantly outshined by Merlin and because he never truly reaches heroic proportions in anything he does, the movie seems like one long set up for an anticlimax. And it is disappointing.

Furthermore, as one of its earlier cinematic endeavors, The Sword In The Stone is hardly an impressive work visually. The animation style is very sloppy and there are frequently moments where the movie looks like exactly what it is; a collection of line drawings and sketches that are repeated to make movement. Unlike other Disney animated works which were cleaned up for digital and high definition presentations, The Sword In The Stone suffers because it looks like primitive animation, especially on newer HDTVs.

That said, what The Sword In The Stone has going for it on the animation front is an interesting sense of character design and decent coloring. The characters look like what they are supposed to. Wart is a gangly kid and his foster brother Kay is a beefy lad with Ector (his father) looking like a fat-off-the-land minor noble and it works. Merlin embodies the stereotype of a wizard and the whole sense of proportion and realism of movement in the film is done with a quality that some of the recent Disney films have noticeably lacked. And the color palate is good and has more shading and depth than some of the film's contemporaries.

On DVD, The Sword In The Stone comes with short animated works which were featured with the film in theaters as well as a plethora of previews for priced-to-own Disney DVD works. None of the bonus features adequately explore what the point of the film truly was. After all, in Arthurian literature, this is the first of four essential Arthur stories; Disney produced only this of the four. Even without the other three stories, it is hard to feel like this is a worthwhile adventure on its own and ultimately, that is why I do not recommend it.

For other Disney animated films, please visit my reviews of:
Toy Story 3
A Christmas Carol
The Incredibles
Monsters, Inc.
The Little Mermaid
Lady And The Tramp
Sleeping Beauty


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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