The Sword in the Stone (1963, Wolfgang Reitherman)

By this point in the story of Walt Disney’s animation studio, the next few flaccid decades were a foregone conclusion; by most accounts the last feature Disney had much interest in himself was Sleeping Beauty, the failure of which wrought the scrappy methodology in play on the Xerox-driven 101 Dalmatians. It’s the hand of the unlikely director Wolfgang Reitherman that is most in evidence on the weak Disney films of the ’60s and ’70s. My own soft spot for The Jungle Book notwithstanding, this is all a deeply troubling far cry from the wisdom and beauty of the studio’s best films like Dumbo and Pinocchio. In those films there was always the sense of Disney himself as a hands-on producer and creative presence; in a messy, oddball, unfinished-feeling film like The Sword in the Stone, there’s little evidence of any grand design or, in all seriousness, much of a point. It’s a series of overlong scenes barely strung together with a thin, inconsequential story. It plays well to kids — I remember seeing it in school and enjoying it — but the instant one is old enough to notice or care about narrative cohesion, the seams start to show. Even in comparison to the Katzenberg-era “Disney renaissance” features, which I don’t like much (The Lion King has its moments), this film is lightweight to a falling-apart extent.

Like the prior effort, Sword is based on a then-contemporary popular novel, T.H. White’s imagining of the Arthurian legend — White was a highly skilled writer whose work exuded a certain seriousness but with considerable wit and charm. The Disney version dilutes White horribly, by both paring the story down to fairly generic fantasy and by cluttering up its respectful distance and awe with cheapness: a flood of weird and unnecessary “gags.” Not particularly well-designed gags, at that, but as in all of the Reitherman features, the individual scenes aren’t nearly so bad as their cumulative effect, a flood of assembly-line triteness that utterly fails at generating any emotion or empathy. Of course there are technical things to admire in the animation, and there’s even some persuasive work, like the character work on Arthur’s enjoyably cynical, hated foster brother Kay, and Ollie Johnston’s rather adorable bringing to life of a female squirrel. The problem is that these are mismatched ingredients thrown into a fanatically boring film.

The weirdly portrayed central story seems an afterthought, and Reitherman sets up so many distractions to it that it seems less like padding than a defiant act of not giving a shit. We do get the celebrated moment of young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, yet it’s presented nonchalantly, as no big screaming deal at all, just an excuse for more terribly weak comic relief — and when he is subsequently crowned, there are few visible reactions or consequences at all aside from a brief interlude about, yes, how dull it is to be king. I have to wonder what Theodore White thought of this film, if he saw it (he died in Greece a month after its release): the story points that are supposed to be the focus of the narrative are noticeably rushed, while the various cartoon tangents seem to press on unabated for ages.

And there are a lot of tangents. In this film about a celebrated legend of modern mythology, we get extended scenes about fish and squirrels when Merlin transforms Arthur to each of the above and more, all in the service of some distressingly stupid “philosophical” point or another, often accompanied by a song. The amount of off-the-subject rambling here does work in the film’s favor in one sense; you’re so bewildered by the lingerings on the difficulty of being a fish and escaping predators, and being a squirrel and getting rejected by a potential mate (!?), you barely notice the sharp decline in the general quality of the visual style and animation even since a film as recent as 101 Dalmatians. Trek back to Sleeping Beauty and it’s even more of a joke. This is Saturday morning cartoon-level stuff from a shit decade for animation (sadly, the worst was yet to come), and in the context of the things that this studio was once capable of, it’s hard not to leave its dialogue-heavy, weakly drawn blather feeling incredibly depressed.

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