“The Sword in the Stone” (1963) Film Review
Written by Jambareeqi
Posted 22nd June, 2017
“The Sword in the stone” is set during a dark age of England, a time where there is no monarch to rule the country. It is said that whoever removes a legendary sword from a stone, will become the next great English ruler. With no one succeeding in pulling the sword from the stone, a jousting tournament is held instead to decide a knight worthy of the crown. A young boy called Arthur is assigned to serve as a squire for a knight, who happens to be his older foster brother Sir Kay. However, all that changes when the wizard Merlin steps in to educate Arthur using his magic.
Despite the film’s title being “The Sword in the stone”, the sword itself is only mentioned in the opening prologue and then pushed to the side until the movie’s end. Instead, the film is less about finding England’s new king and more about Arthur’s whimsical schooling from the eccentric Merlin. While the idle disregard towards the sword does make the film’s overall narrative feel disjointed, I can’t complain too much because Merlin’s lessons are pretty fun!
Each lesson has Merlin and Arthur being transformed into various animals; giving Merlin the chance to educate the boy on wildlife, science and philosophy. Not only is it fascinating to learn facts about animals, but Merlin’s quirky personality adds a heap of charm to the film’s magic inspired edutainment. His kooky bumbling and passion for academic teaching makes these lessons both hilarious and insightful.
Although, I’ll admit that the storytelling structure for the lesson trilogy is rather repetitive. Each lesson is always interrupted by a prey or an annoying animal, making the formula for all three classes feel a tad predictable. Sure, Merlin helps to keep these lessons lively and informative, but I can’t say that the tension added to each animal experience is a surprise each time.
Merlin is also joined by his pet owl Archimedes, a very educated bird with a grumpy attitude. However, even though he’s always salty towards other characters, there are little hints that he has a caring side, as he does sometimes step in to look after or teach Arthur himself. The dynamic between Archimedes and Merlin is priceless as well, they’re always bickering like an old married couple; it’s wonderfully funny and silly.
Arthur himself isn’t your typical annoying little kid character. His scrawny body frame and clumsy nature make him sympathetically vulnerable; there’s something sad and relatable about the fact that he accepts his limitations as blocks for his potential. Luckily though, he’s also got plenty of spirit and will always put in 100% into whatever he’s asked to do. He’s curious, inquisitive and raring to try new things. There’s lots of dimension to him that makes him stand out alongside other young Disney characters I’ve seen before.
Let’s not forget the film’s main antagonist Madam Mim, who is a blast to watch! She’s Merlin’s ultimate rival, representing the evil side of magic; but it’s hard to boo at her when she’s so entertainingly wicked. She gets a naughty pleasure from all things despicable, and it’s this joy that makes her engagingly fun to watch.
She also gets to perform a wizard duel with Merlin, a fantastical sequence inspired by “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”. This duel involves Mim and Merlin going head to head via their animal transforming abilities; with Mim relying on cheating and Merlin depending on his knowledge of nature to win the day. It’s a standout fantasy based action scene, held together by the character’s imaginative energy and the animators’ top tier animal drawing skills.
Unfortunately, Mim doesn’t appear until the film’s climax, so her place as the villain feels both out of left field and last minute. It’s a shame, because she makes for a really fun baddie and she steals every minute she’s on screen.
That’s my major problem with the film, it underuses certain cool elements like the sword and Mim; in favour of dedicating the narrative to Merlin’s lessons. If you’re going to make an edutainment movie then just do that, don’t include extra storytelling ideas if you’re only going to use them sparingly; because it’s somewhat frustrating seeing unique or effective concepts serving as benchwarmers until the film’s finale or conclusion.
To conclude, “The Sword in the stone” struggles to tell a straight forward story and juggle it’s smorgasbord of ideas; but it’s charming characters, brilliant sense of humor, relaxing tone and informative lessons make up for the lack of overall direction. This was one of the Disney films I used to watch repeatedly on VHS as a kid, and you know what? While I’ll admit that it hasn’t held up entirely, I can totally see why little Jambareeqi would like it so much.