The tally of Disney’s films so far looks something like this: Three fairy tales; seven portmanteau films (including Fantasia); five adaptations of books; and two original stories (Dumbo – as far as I can tell – and Lady and the Tramp). With The Sword in the Stone, the studio have their first attempt at telling a legend – a story based loosely in history that has national significance. The studio would turn to folkore again for Robin Hood and Mulan, but for their first they went for arguably the biggest: King Arthur. This rather vaguely defined royal is familiar to any schoolchild in Britain, as he has been the subject of countless poems, films, TV series, books and paintings, but very few people could tell you who he actually was (if, in fact, he was real) and what he did. Yet such is the allure of Arthurian legend: it feels like an intrinsic part of British History, even if most of it strays wildly from the realm of fact. It is no small task for Disney, then, to make a children’s film out of this age-old story.
The first problem presented to anyone wanting to condense the mythology of Britain’s most famous King into something film sized is to decide which Arthurian story they want to tell. There are so many familiar aspects to the Arthurian legend that it’s difficult to know where to begin. John Boorman attempted to tell as much of it as he could in Excalibur, magic and all, whereas the Clive Owen starring King Arthur tried to remove all traces of the supernatural and have a kind of Gladiator-in-Scotland featuring Romans and Ray Winstone. Arguably the best adaptation is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When adapting it, do you focus on the Knights of the Round Table? On Arthur as a warrior or as a King? Do you have a love story, or make it about comradeship? Disney decided to leave all of that behind and create an origins story for him, taking one aspect – the titular rock-bound weapon – and telling a far simpler story of a child who has no aspirations to royalty, who is just struggling to get his chores done. A kind of Arthur Begins. There is no Guinevere or Galahad here, no missions and no villains, and the result is something rather sweet and unassuming.
Merlin and swords aside, this isn’t really an Arthurian legend at all, but the story behind the story, meaning that Disney get the opportunity to focus on one of their favourite themes – the little guy succeeding in a world full of big guys. Arthur (called Wart by everyone) is a weedy little pre-adolescent boy who is training to be a squire for the burly dimwit Kay. He is pretty much in slave labour at the castle, but he does it with wide eyed glee because he loves the world of knights so much. In steps Merlin (in reality the main character of this film), a time travelling wizard who has seen so much of the world that he knows the dark ages to be just that: dark. Merlin’s role as a teacher is transformed by his century spanning knowledge so that he becomes an advocate of rational thinking and intelligence over power or strength, and gives the film a thematic resonance of standing up against bullies.
Take, for instance, the scene where Merlin and Wart become fish as a kind of messed up, magical field trip, and end up fleeing a vicious looking fish (a pike, I think). Before the toothy villain attacks, Merlin sings to his pupil these stark lyrics:
You see my boy, it’s nature’s way
Upon the weak, the strong ones prey
Human life is also cruel,
The strong will try to conquer you.
That is what you must expect,
Unless you use your intellect.
Wart then has to use his brain to outwit the violent creature, which he largely does. The lesson is an encouragement to think about things, to use your brain. Subsequent lessons as a squirrels and birds help reinforce the idea that the world is a strange and fascinating place, and worth exploring and engaging with. Each vignette comes with a new lesson, including the most important one of all: to choose to use your brain for good. In each of these lessons – fish, squirrel, bird – Wart is always scrawny, small and a little bit useless. Yet he becomes Britain’s greatest King because, as Disney would have it, he was a thinker not a fighter. Brains win the day.
Aside from this rather touching message – particularly appealing to a scrawny muscle-void like me – Sword in the Stone doesn’t impress in quite the same way as other films from this era such as 101 Dalmatians or The Jungle Book. It’s not as carefree or as snappily soundtracked and the animation is a little lacklustre compared to the brilliance of the aforementioned films. Merlin is a wonderful character, a predecessor to Aladdin’s genie with his fondness for Hawaiian shirts and anachronistic references, but Wart is an absolute drip. The finale feels rushed, too. Suddenly they are in London, pulling the sword out and then he’s a king without knowing it. As such, it doesn’t leave an impact in quite the same way as Disney’s best.
It’s not a bad film, by any stretch, and the scene when Merlin and Madam Mim have a wizard’s duel is a highlight of the Disney 52 so far, one of their most inventive and enjoyable moments. The aim of the duel is to transform yourself into an animal in order to destroy the other, but Mim is unwilling to play fair in this fight. It’s a brilliant expression of the theme of brains over brawn, as Merlin continually transforms himself into a series of rather pathetic creatures but ultimately wins out with his intellect. The constant transforming and changing between the animals allows for genuine visual wit and makes the action sequence a whole lot of unpredictable fun. My favourite moment involves a walrus…
There’s a lot to enjoy about The Sword in the Stone, even if it fails to make it into the top tier of Disney’s canon. If this counts as anyone’s favourite (and it does, according to some of my friends), then it is because of the way it expresses beautifully one of Disney’s greatest themes: standing up for yourself, even if you are an outsider.