Brains over Brawn: The Sword in the Stone

            A lot of important messages have been shared in Disney animation over the years. Both here and in Meet the Robinson’s the lesson is that it’s not uncool to be terrifically smart. Intelligence is important; if there’s one thing you take from The Sword in the Stone, it’s that. The flip side is that you also have to find who you are and not just really on some eccentric old wizard to tell you.
            When I first put the movie in and hit play, James realized that this was the same Sword in the Stone he loved growing up; he recognized it instantly as his favorite Disney movie. I felt a lot of pressure instantly to like it, if only because he obviously does. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it’s not one I think I’d just watch randomly for fun. At the same time, it’s not one I wouldn’t watch if someone else wanted to. It’s a bit odd, I know; I might not choose it (Lion King is always first choice for me), but I’d still enjoy watching it again. There are a lot of funny moments, word play, and allusions to modern things that are witty. I laughed a lot while watching it, which is a good sign.

James’ favorite character is Merlin, but mine is Archimedes, the owl. He reminded me of Owl, from Winnie the Pooh, who ironically used to scare me when I was little. But as a grown-up (well, as much of a grown-up as one can be when really a child a heart), he didn’t scare me a bit. I loved that he was smart and stood up to Merlin; I loved how his feathers ruffled when he was upset (or, perhaps, ruffled? Clearly I should leave the word play to Bill Peet, the screenwriter for the film). Archimedes is the only character to stand up to Merlin and is thankfully by Arthur’s side when he pulls the sword (along with the funny line, saying “I told you to leave that sword alone!”). James loves how interesting Merlin is; how he’s been to the future (I keep calling it time travel; James says he lived life backwards, so he knows what’s going to happen but not the specifics of what’s happening while the story takes place). I can sort of see how the Genie, from Aladdin, is a comic spin-off of Merlin. They’re both magical and mystical, both are a little bit in their own little world. Merlin is a really interesting character, but he’s a bit of an “I’m always right and you just have to deal with it and if you die while learning, well, at least you learned something” kind of guy. When he doesn’t have precisely his way, he flies of to 20th century Bermuda. What’s so wrong with Wart/Arthur becoming a squire anyway? If he hadn’t gone to London, he wouldn’t have pulled the sword, after all. So take that, Merlin!
Archimedes the owl from Sword in the Stone
Owl from Winnie the Pooh

              Once again, expectations came into play. I was expecting the sword to be pulled in the beginning of the film, and for his journey from child to adult would go from there. But the sword doesn’t get pulled until the end of the film, with his journey from insecure, clumsy, kind-of-smart kid into an insecure, clumsy smart kind of kid. I was disappointed with the beginning of the movie because of this, but once James told me it was more about his journey to the sword instead of after it, I relaxed and began to enjoy the movie more.
            Once sequence I particularly loved was when they were squirrels. Merlin turns himself and Wart/Arthur into squirrels, and a female squirrel immediately falls in love with Wart/Arthur—as a squirrel! She chases him and takes all of his negative responses as acquiescence, and does his own pushing-away moves back to him. It’s all quite fun and games until someone gets their heart broken. She rushes down to save her love from the wolf, putting herself in danger. She saves him, and tricks the wolf into jumping off a cliff. While she’s hugging her squirrel-love, he turns back into a boy. She’s heartbroken and runs away. The last we see of her, she’s standing at the top of a tree, looking sad and heartbroken that her love has gone. I was so sad for her. James saw my face and said, “I know, it’s sad. And that’s the last we see of her. I remember thinking that when I was a kid, too.” So we never find out what happens to her; her fate is especially confusing, as Merlin said that squirrels mate for life. Does that mean she’ll go through life alone now?
            The Sword in the Stone is unique for Disney in a lot of ways. First, it had only one director; one of the nine old men, Woolie Reithermen, directed it. Secondly, Walt read the story, purchased the rights, and had Bill Peet write a screenplay for it before he’d decide to do it. Bill Peet wrote the screenplay, as opposed to the storyboarding technique that was typically used to write animated features.
            Bill Peet also did the character design for Merlin. He modeled Merlin on Walt himself; he even gave Merlin Walt’s nose! Walt was loved, but he was also argumentative and he didn’t like when people tried to change his mind after he’d made a decision. Bill Peet apparently saw a lot of Walt in Merlin, and so he used Walt as inspiration for Merlin without Walt’s knowledge.
            On to special features! I was a bit disappointed with the little Backstage Disney features. There was a scrapbook on the film, which you could digitally flip through. It was mostly concept art. Concept art is interesting because it shows you what the artists were thinking in the earliest stages of production. It’s always interesting to see how a character changes over time, along with the story changing. My favorite special features are the bonus shorts. Two short cartoons, one starring Goofy and one starring Mickey, are included on the disc. “Knight for a day” is Goofy’s, while Mickey’s has to do with capturing a giant.
            My favorite-favorite special feature is an excerpt from the DisneyLand TV show, starring Walt, as he gives a tour of the ‘magic basement’ at the studio. He does a few magic tricks and promotes the film. He even calls in the Mirror, from Snow White, to help him out. I love old footage of Walt; it’s so interesting to see him talk about his films. When you see someone who really loves what they’re doing, it shows. Walt really loved what he was doing, and it’s so easy to see.
            The xerography animation technique is again used in The Sword, having come out only two years after 101 Dalmatians. It’s not my favorite, as it looks a bit grainy (I don’t believe it’s been digitally re-mastered yet). Unfortunately it’s what they use until the 80’s, so I have a few more movies to go until another technique is used.
            I can’t talk about this movie without mentioning the transformation scenes during Merlin and Madame Mim’s Wizard Duel. It’s a true testament to brains over brawn, as Madame Mim is all brawn and Merlin is, quite frankly, all brains. Does Madame Mim’s voice sound familiar? Perhaps it’s because she also voiced Nanny in 101 Dalmatians. Two animated features in a row set in England, of course they had to re-use some voice talent. She does have a marvelous voice. It’s always interesting to hear a voice with such a different character. Nanny is so sweet and doting, while Madame Mim loves all things evil and terrible. They change into many different things, but you can always tell who is Madame Mim and who is Merlin. It’s such a fun scene. I especially love when Merlin turns into a walrus and lands on Madame Mim, pushing her into the ground.
            The Sword in the Stone was enjoyable. I tend to like stories with strong female leads, and there’s not a single female lead in the entire movie. I think James is more drawn to it because all the good characters are very smart, which sends a great message. It also has a scrawny kid, who becomes a smart, strong man. Although it’s a British story, it really exemplifies the American dream. Arthur/Wart wasn’t well thought of, he was mostly ignored, he was scrawny and small, yet he became this incredibly smart man, a legend, a great leader. He could become anything he wanted because of his intelligence. Smarts are important, as is standing up for yourself. Once he had the smarts, he stood up to Merlin (eek!) and became who he was destined to be.   


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