One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.
This is Disney By The Numbers.
Part of the success of Disney Animated films can be chalked up to timing. Don’t get me wrong- good stories, timeless music, and memorable characters are always a recipe for success. However, sometimes for those elements to coalesce into a classic, it has to be at the right time.
Snow White pulled this off by being a product of Walt Disney’s ambitions right as he was in a position to hire, inspire, and drive talented people toward a goal. If he’d attempted the same feat even five years later, he wouldn’t have had the talent pool or resources necessary.
The same can be said for Cinderella, or The Little Mermaid and Tangled decades later. Those movies could only have been made at that particular time in Disney Studios history.
But what about movies that weren’t able to take advantage of this timing? What about those movies where real world elements don’t quite line up for them? What kind of movie do you get? Well… you get The Sword In The Stone.
Pulled from one of the most legendary stories of all time, it has all the elements of a Disney classic. It’s a fairytale that involves magic, and a coming of age story. It has fun animal side kicks, an entertaining villain, and a stand out side character who ages backwards to the point that it affects this very review! With all that in its favor, The Sword In The Stone is a slam dunk right?
You know the drill… something clever… numbers.
Disney Magic and Legacy
- Theme Park Presence 1
- Timelessness 2
- Impact On Culture 0.5
- Scope of Audience 0.5
- Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?)1
While it may not be Disney’s best offering, The Sword In The Stone does manage to have an outsized legacy. Within the parks, one can find numerous attractions and tributes to the film. These include King Arthur’s Carousel in Disneyland along with a fun little sword in a stone for people to try their luck against
Walt Disney World also has its own nod to the film in the form of an interactive card game, The Sorcerer’s Of The Magic Kingdom. Guests who participate in the game receive a pack of cards and are recruited by Merlin to find various locations around the Magic Kingdom where the card will cause objects to activate and interact with them.
Beyond the parks, Disney’s The Sword Of The Stone also serves as a first introduction to Arthurian Legends for a lot of kids. Everyone knows Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, and a lot of us know that because of this film.
- Comedy 2
- Inventiveness 2.5
- Clear Help Or Hindrance 1.5
- Strength of Relationship with Main Character 1.5
Name the most famous wizard in the world? Was it Merlin? Because if it wasn’t Merlin, you’re wrong. Even Harry Potter would call Merlin the most famous wizard. That’s just a fact.
Now, name the most famous animator in the world. Was it Don Bluth? Because if it was Don Bluth then… seriously what are you doing here in this blog? Obviously it’s Walt Disney.
Now tell me what they have in common. There’s actually a bit more than you may think.
You see, by the time The Sword In The Stone came out, Walt Disney wasn’t widely involved in animated features anymore. Sure, he still had the final say in every production but he’d long ago hung up his Mickey Mouse voice and no longer sat in on the story meetings and reviewed each animation cel as he had during the Snow White days.
This isn’t to say he wasn’t involved in the company anymore. On the contrary, he was busier than ever- managing live action films, tv shows, Disneyland, and the beginnings of what would eventually turn into Walt Disney World. So from the animators perspective, Walt was this eccentric, brilliant man that would show up, get involved in a project, and then get distracted by other concerns.
Which is exactly how Merlin is portrayed in this film. While he’s easily the movie’s stand out character, he’s also sort of the most frustrating. He sets out to teach Arthur by turning him into a fish, and then when the future king gets attacked by a pike, Merlin can’t help. When he turns Arthur into a squirrel, he gets distracted when the boy is attacked by a wolf and has to be saved by a fellow squirrel.
All of this paints a fairly… unflattering picture of Merlin and Walt Disney…
But there’s a flip side. When Arthur is threatened by Madam Mim, Merlin shows up and not only saves the day but is amazing and creative and comes up with unforseen solutions. Which was very much the relationship the animators had with Walt Disney at the time. When he was involved, he completely innovated projects, but only if it held his attention.
And this isn’t a situation where I’m over-analyzing little bits far beyond what they were ever intended. The lead story man of the film and veteran Disney Animator, Bill Peet, admitted as much, even going so far to have modeled Merlin’s look on Walt himself. The nose and popped eyebrow in particular is supposed to be Walt’s.
Now stepping away from the historical meta commentary we have to take a look at the function Merlin serves as a supporting character because he’s quite fun; adding a splash of magic and throwing in references from the future to confuse the people around him and delight of the audience. Basically I’m saying he’s this guy:
And that’s not a bad thing at all.
- Evilness 1
- Comedy 0.5
- Sophistication 0
- Henchmen 0
- Poses A Threat 1.5
To be one hundred percent honest, we’re being a bit generous with our points here. The Sword In The Stone follows the pattern of older Disney movies where there isn’t really a true villain, like Pinocchio, Dumbo, or Bambi. The ‘problem’ that needs to be resolved is Arthur’s living situation.
That said, Mad Madame Mim serves as an entertaining antagonist, even if she only fills that role for a fraction of the runtime. She has that classic Disney over-the-topness and showmanship and allows for Merlin to not only be useful but also show off his own power.
If she was a larger presence, or if this movie was Merlin’s story, she would have scored a lot higher.
- Sidekick 2
- Charm 0.5
- Goodness 1
- Emotional Transformation 0
- Comedy 1.5
Okay, now we get to the purple dragon in the room.
Arthur… isn’t great.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, he’s not odious like Peter Pan was. He’s just…fine.
He’s also pretty useless. It’s partially the point- he’s the Boy That Will Be King, so we’re supposed to be seeing him when he’s not the powerful monarch that we all know him. That’s a given, but the problem is that they leaned a little too heavily on that concept. Not only does Arthur have to be bailed out of every single situation, he’s not very bright, and has three different voices.
That’s not a joke. Midway through production, the kid they cast to voice Arthur was visited by the Puberty Fairy and his voice dropped. So they cast his two younger brothers to fill in.
But don’t worry, you get to hear the original voice make the same “falling noise” multiple times. It’s this same “whoa… wait… woaaah!” over and over. We’ll get into the why of that later but just something I wanted to bring that up because it annoys me. It’s like they decided they liked the Willham Scream and decided to use it over and over again.
One more thing, I promise.
Merlin had a pet owl named Archimedes, and technically he belongs in the “Supporting Characters” section, but I kind of went overboard there so I’m putting it here because after Merlin blows himself to Bermuda…
… Archimedes sort of slots into the position of Arthur’s sidekick, supplying him with guidance and aiding him in his troubles. He starts the film as sort of stand offish but becomes a real solid supporting character and serving as a fantastic foil to both Arthur and Merlin.
In short, what I’m trying to say is that Archimedes is awesome and he pretty much is the second or third greatest owl in cinematic history. Obviously Hedwig is also one of those two…
- Character Interaction 0
- Importance To Overall Plot 0
- Complexity 0
- Pulls At Heartstrings 0
- Overcomes Obstacles 0
We’re not going to spend a lot of time here. There isn’t a love story in this film. There’s an entire song about love and attraction, but there isn’t a love story to talk about. Merlin likes Arthur just fine but he abandons him part way through the film. Arthur’s “family” Kay and Ector don’t care about him at all.
The closest thing there is to love is a poor girl squirrel that falls in love with Arthur when he’s in squirrel form and then has her heart broken when he turns back into a boy. And for what it’s worth… the scene where she’s crying over losing the object of her affection is genuinely emotional… which is weird cause she’s a squirrel and sort of a nuisance toward Arthur… and she’s a squirrel.
I mean… I suppose it’s not so far fetched, the entire basis of Disney is that we can emotionally connect with a Mouse. But Mickey never made any of us feel sad.
- Quality of Animation 1.5
- Use Of Color 1
- House Style 1
- Character Design 1
- Breaks New Ground 0
As discussed before, Walt had largely detached himself from the animated features, and it really, painfully shows in this category.
The character lines are rougher than in 101 Dalmatians, the colors are more muted and dull, and they reuse animation.
Now Disney has a history of doing stuff like that. They’ve done it throughout their filmography.
But they almost never do it in the same movie. At least they didn’t until The Sword In The Stone. On more than one occasion, we get Arthur and Kay falling or performing actions with the same animation, this is similar to reusing Arthur’s falling voice. It’s just sad because this is the company that invented the animated feature and set the bar for quality. Yet now it’s come to this. And unfortunately, there’s more of that to come.
And what’s sad, is that this is the story of King Arthur, one of the richest, most potent legends an animator could mine images from and what we get is just so much less than what it could have been. It’s like we were promised so much more than was actually delivered. What I’m driving at is…
- Lyrics 1
- Score 2
- Number of Songs 2
- Notoriety of Songs 0
Looking at this fun gif of Merlin dancing and singing might fool you into thinking that this film has great, memorable songs that stand up to Disney’s immense catalogue of classic songs.
Unfortunately, this is an image from the only good song in the film. This isn’t a situation like in 101 Dalmatians where there’s only one song to talk about. The Sword in the Stone has a few, but ‘Higgitus Figgitus’ is the only one that stands out; and really, on a scale of 1 to 10, with ‘One Little Slip’ being a 1 and “When You Wish Upon A Star’ being a 10, “Higgitus Figgitus” is maybe a solid 5.
The only thing beyond that worth note is how the score, which for most of the movie is just okay, amps up to 11 during Merlin and Mim’s Wizard’s duel. When Mim transforms into a dragon, the score sounds like something right out of Sleeping Beauty. So the movie can pull out greatness when it wants to, it just really… doesn’t most of the time.
- Theme 1
- Tightness of Script 1
- Dialogue 1
- Use of Comedy 1.5
- Use of Drama 0.5
And here we are at the film’s core failing. A Disney film can have songs and great characters, but if the script doesn’t come together, then those just wind up being positive elements that ultimately go to waste.
And to be fair, The Sword In The Stone isn’t a bad script, just thoroughly mediocre and under-realized. The plot is ostensibly about Merlin teaching Arthur about the value of using his mind and educating himself. That’s supposedly why we go through the protracted scenes of Arthur as a fish, squirrel, and a bird. But then Merlin abandons Arthur and the boy goes to London to be Kay’s squire. In a fully developed story, Arthur would then use his brain to get himself out of trouble and realize the worth of Merlin’s teachings.
What actually happens is that Arthur pulls the sword from the stone out of desperation and more or less lucks into the films resolution. That kind of storytelling convenience might have flown in the 30s and 40s when Disney was first getting its footing, but not in 1963 when a bit more sophistication was called for.
It’s just sad, because this movie just could have been so much more.
Grand Total: 35
But that’s the thing. There already was so much more going on in the Walt Disney Company. Disneyland was nearing its 10 year anniversary, Walt was busy preparing for the 1964 World’s Fair which would include such timeless classics like ‘Its A Small World’, ‘Great Moments With Mr Lincoln’, and ‘The Carousel Of Progress’. On top of that, he was planning EPCOT which was his bid to literally a build a perfect city (this eventually morphed into Walt Disney World). And finally, a lot of Walt’s attention was on another film and its animated features; much to the delight of the world and the unjustified horror of one P.L. Travers.
And these projects are timeless and beautiful and quintessential Disney, but the animated feature that came immediately before them suffered and it’s a shame. If only Walt had listened to another fellow mustachioed wise man.