A whimsical wizard takes a young boy under his wing to groom him for his future.
SIDE NOTE: A few weeks back, I reviewed 2004’s “King Arthur” starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightly. Mock me all you want, I enjoyed that film- I enjoy the legend of King Arthur- but it got me thinking… King Arthur is a legend that will never die; it’s been around for over fifteen hundred years, and they’re still telling stories about him. So I came up with a little side project for myself- a quest, if you will, to find the best King Arthur movie (I suppose you could call it the Holy Grail of Arthurian films). This is only the second film in my quest, but I will continue to update as months go by… but for now: The Sword in the Stone.
This is a different kind of Arthur film, one that doesn’t focus on his great deeds as a king, but one that focuses on him as a child, when he was not yet king, but a poor boy, nicknamed Wart, with aspirations of being a squire. The situation we find our protagonist in at the beginning is much the same as the situation at the beginning of Cinderella’s story: an orphaned child, taken in by someone (in this case, Sir Ector mentions that he is the boy’s foster father) who doesn’t really appreciate him or her for what the orphan can hope to become. Wart is forced to do chores and clean up after his older foster brother, Sir Kay. Wart doesn’t complain or throw fits because of his chores; he does them diligently and he’s generally pretty well behaved. But when he meets Merlin, the wizard begins to fill Wart’s head with notions of what he might become. This is the story of Arthur learning the basics of what it would take to be king.
Of course, this is one of the Disney movies from their golden era, one that is generally beloved and counted among the best of classic animation. I would, for the most part, agree. This film is whimsical and funny; it will delight younger audiences while teaching them great lessons for their future. It’s a film that I would absolutely recommend for children (and adults alike). It’s a fine romp through medieval Britain, and, as it’s a kid’s film, it may well be the child’s first encounter with the Arthurian Legend.
The best part of The Sword in the Stone is its message. Merlin is adamant that education and hard work are the keys to getting ahead in life. He reinforces this multiple times throughout the film, but it’s perhaps best illustrated in the song when Merlin and Wart are fish. Merlin sings: “You must set your sights upon the heights/ don’t be a mediocrity/ don’t just wait and trust to fate/ and say, that’s how it’s meant to be/ it’s up to you how far you go/ if you don’t try you’ll never know/ and so my lad as I’ve explained/ nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I was blown away by these lyrics from fifty-five years ago. Nowadays, kids movies are focused around making them laugh more than being didactic. Not so with this film. This film, in a roundabout way, touches on many things that will help children be successful later on in their lives. Merlin continues to reinforce that education is the way to get ahead; that brains will always conquer brawn. He talks also of the balance of the world, how for every up there is a down; left, right; to, fro; strong and weak. The even illustrate this further at the end when Merlin runs into Madam Mim.
Merlin goes on to teach Wart that everyone, no matter how small, has some sort of problem that they must overcome, and he talks about the right way to overcome them. This film also innocently introduces kids to the ideas of the craziness of love and heartbreak. Merlin brings up the idea that though someone may be in charge, they might not always be right. Mim brings up that skin deep beauty is not real beauty. There are dozens of small lessons here that could be expanded upon; this film feels like a good foundational movie for children, and I honestly would wholeheartedly recommend this, however, the picture is not without flaw.
I, personally, find the hand-drawn animation incredibly charming, and the Blu-Ray transfer of this movie is great. However, in the age of CGI bombardment, I feel like younger children might find the animation a little dated and maybe even boring. Another issue is the way the story is told: episodically. This story is essentially three different lessons that Merlin teaches Wart. Each time, Merlin transforms Wart into an animal (fish, squirrel, bird) and each time, Wart gets into a situation and has to figure his way out of it using his brain. The story is very simplistic, and, if it weren’t for the great messages that this movie champions, I would’ve had enough of it before it came to an end. As it was, I found the story charming, and I kept in mind that I was no longer the target audience for this flick; kids are. There are lots of whacky, magical encounters along the way that should keep the kiddos entertained, but the humor feels a little bit dated. My biggest issue with the film actually comes at the end of the movie.
I checked to see how much runtime there was after Merlin confronts Mim, and found that there was only about ten minutes left, and still Wart had not found the titular sword in the stone. The sword-pulling scene happens about five minutes from the end of the movie, and right away, Wart (now called Arthur) feels he isn’t ready to be king. Merlin returns and tells him he’ll be a great king, and that’s how the movie ends. There isn’t any sort of denouement, and it feels rushed, almost incomplete, as if the animators were standing around and suddenly realized the movie came out next week so they had to finish it quickly. The film is only an hour and nineteen minutes long; I feel like they could’ve fleshed out the ending a bit and everybody would’ve been happier.
This film is a classic, and I’m not going to be one to tell you any differently. It still holds up today, fifty-five years after its release, and it’s certainly more entertaining than Reitherman’s “Robin Hood”. Kids today should see this film; it’s full of wondrous adventures, but it still teaches them important lessons that resonate even half a century later. It is, in that sense, truly timeless.
QUEST FOR THE HOLY GRAIL OF ARTHURIAN FILMS END NOTE: Well, as a film, I believe that this movie was a bit better than “King Arthur” (2004), however, as far as my personal enjoyment, I still feel I enjoyed the 2004 version a bit more. I am not a kid (shocker), but I do enjoy kids' movies and animation. However, when I'm looking for a King Arthur movie, the 2004 version has more of what I want to find: battles, excitement, romance, a Saxon warlord... Take that as you will. Next, I’ll probably tackle “Excalibur” (1981), “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), or “Camelot” (1967)… Check back in the coming months for updates.
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