The Arthur saga is technically a legend, and would therefore not fit into this series, but this movie is not based on the legend. It is an adaptation of a specific book based on said legend with the title The Sword in Stone. So I guess I’ll have to take a look how the book relates to the legend, and how the movie relates to the book.
1. The Sword in the Stone
This is one of the books I read specifically for this article series. And I have to say, it surprised me, mostly because I read some reviews in the past which complained that the movie is nothing like the book at all and that the very modern tone ruins the story. When I actually read it, I discovered to my surprise that the movie actually hit the tone spot on. The book is pretty much a modern take on the Arthur Saga, with a focus on what kind of understanding a good king should have.
But naturally the Disney version did change some aspects. For one, the relationships between the characters. In the book Wart and Kay are friends, Sir Ector is pretty laid back, Sir Pellinor has somewhat of an arc on his own and a lot of side characters are cut. In the book I read, there was no Madam Mim, which confused me, until I discovered that the author did a lot of changes to the story later on. Now publishers use the new version when they publish it as part of the tetralogy The Once and Future King, but the old version is considered the better one by a lot of people.
The Disney movie is based on the original version. The tone of the book is very modern, especially since the narrator keeps explaining old words by with modern examples. And while the author obviously did have extensive knowledge of medieval culture, there are a lot of anachronism in the story, partly explained by the fact that Merlin supposedly lives backwards in time. The characters – well, let’s put it this way: no one in this book feels real. Take what is usually considered the ideal of knighthood and then emphasis them so extreme that they become ridiculous, and you have most of the characters of the book. Pellinor for example keeps hunting some sort of beast, for the honour of his family.
Judging not the whole tetralogy but the book on its own, I would say it is okay. It has a good idea and the unusual style of narration might help younger readers to develop an understanding for the concept of brain over brawl it tries to convey. The downside is that there doesn’t really happen that much, the book spends a lot of time on describing nature, but barely any time on character development. Which is odd, since it should be a coming of age story, but I don’t think that Wart at the beginning of the book is notable different from the one at the end, it’s more like the basics for his later development as kings are laid. It does fit somewhat into the legend and is a good reimaging, though.
2. The Setting
As far as settings go, this movie doesn’t really have a lot to work with. Movies or shows set in vaguely historical England are after all dime to dozens. But at least the moments when Ward is a fish, a squirrel and a bird allow some unusual perspectives. The animators managed to capture perfectly the feel of the first lesson in the book, where the description of the murky water creates an atmospheric mood, and when Ward is jumping through the trees, you really feel the height.
3. The Animation
Like all Disney movies from this period the style is very sketchy and overall, this one looks a little bit cheap, at least for a Disney movie. But it still has its moments. The backgrounds are beautiful for starters. But the real stand-out is the wizard duel. The change into different animals is flawless in its fluidity.
4. The Characters
I think if there is anything Disney did a good job with, it’s the characters, mainly because the movie added conflicting interests to them. In the book, more or less everyone goes along just fine, and in their readiness to accept the oddities of the others, they sometimes come off as quite silly. The movie adds a conflict between Wart and Kay by making Kay an example for the “brawn over brain thinking” and, maybe even more important, a fall-out between Wart and Merlin. In the book, Merlin just decides to go at one point and then randomly turns up when Wart pulls the sword out of the stone. The conflict in the movie, with Wart having enough of getting in trouble for Merlin’s teachings, is not really a good explanation for Merlin leaving in a sulk, but at least there is some reason provided. Idealism is a good thing, but it often clashes with reality.
The best character in the movie is in my eyes Sir Ector, though. While he often does play the rule of the antagonist, he is introduced as someone who does care about Wart’s welfare, even though his approach is not always the right one. In the Disney universe, in which most characters are clearly categorized as “good” or “bad”, he is one of the rare antagonists, whose point of view is understandable to a degree.
Madam Mim on the other hand falls firmly on the bad side, to a point at which it is deliberately ridiculous. She is one of those funny villains, who don’t really come off all that threatening in general, but has enough pull to not come off as pathetic. In the book she was (before she was removed) the mother of Morgause. In the movie she is a one-off character, only present for one (very memorable) sequence.
Merlin is more or less exactly like in the book (plus a funny, grumpy sidekick and a tendency to sing, naturally). And then there is Wart. Honestly, the most problematic character in the movie, not because he is badly written, but because of the dubbing. Three different voice actors for one character are two too many. It makes the movie in English nearly unwatchable.
5. The Plot
The basic story that Merlin comes to the castle to teach Wart by changing him into all kind of different animals is still the same as in the book, though the lessons itself are a little bit different. The first one, when Wart is turned into a fish comes the closest. The main difference is that the book is mostly about teaching something about those animals. The movie has those moments too, when it explains how fish move, how impressive the survival of squirrels is and how birds are flying. But it also has an element of danger to it the book mostly lacks because there Merlin tends to lurk in the background. Putting him out of commission so to speak, by making him forgetful or busy or absent, the movie adds an element of suspense to the lessons which is desperately needed for a screen adaptation.
I think the two things which are the most memorable in the movie are Wart’s romance with a squirrel (and I can’t believe that I just wrote this) and the wizard duel. The squirrel, because it’s so heart-breaking (and honestly, how often does love at first sight doesn’t end in a relationship in a Disney movie?). The wizard duel, because it is so creative and has such a clever solution. It is a better climax than the actual ending, which is a little bit rushed, to be honest.
6. The Songs
The soundtrack of The Sword in the Stone is criminally underrated imho. In terms of structure we are still in the pre-Broadway era of Disney, but the timing for the songs is nevertheless perfect. There is the intro song, which really gives the vibe of a bard telling the story of the magical sword. You can just imagine the story being told all through the country. “Mad Madam Mim” is an early example of a villain song, but naturally played for laughs, though still with a creepy vibe to it. All the other songs are sung by Merlin. Their purpose is always either him having to explain something or doing magic – and the Sherman brothers are the masters of putting memorable nonsense words into songs. “Higitus Figitus” isn’t quite as memorable as some of their other songs along this line, but I still admire the creativity in it.
7. The Conclusion
The Sword in the Stone is, despite only taking a margin of the actual source text, a good adaptation of the book which is in turn an interesting take on the legend. It is not one of the “big” Disney movies, though. It is fun to watch and has its moments, but overall, it is a fairly simple movie. And the fact that neither the animation (even though it has its moments), nor the dubbing is as good as it should be, doesn’t help. What does work are the characters, though, which are all fairly unusual for a Disney movie. This alone is a reason to give it a watch.