First Theatrical Release: December 25, 1963
First Home Viewing Release: March 1986 (1983 in the UK)
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Where I Found It: The library’s DVD collection (unfortunately, the disc was so scratched that I had to watch the midsection in a low-quality YouTube vid.)
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. There is really only one female character (Madam Mim), unless you count a couple incidental characters like a servant and a female squirrel. Even if you do count them, none of them talk to each other — so the first prong is barely satisfied, the other two not at all.
I spent most of my childhood and adolescence resenting The Sword in the Stone because it wasn’t the Arthurian movie I wanted Disney to make. I felt like Disney had “wasted” its shot at Arthurian legend with it; I would have preferred something more akin to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with richly animated lead characters, imposing scenery, and sexual themes kept mostly intact. I love Arthurian legend and I love Disney, but I was ultimately disappointed in their marriage.
While as an adult I appreciate that Disney gave kids a sweet, vulnerable, relateable protagonist their own age in Arthur/Wart, I am still a little annoyed that Disney chose the point of Arthurian legend most devoid of female characters for its endeavor, part of what sometimes feels like an ongoing effort to erase mothers, sisters and other girls and women of influence in favor of the “lone hero/heroine” trope.
I came to this movie with an open mind this time around. I hardly remembered anything about it. I hoped to be pleasantly surprised. I was, and I wasn’t.
As an adult, I found Wart to be endearing in a way that he wasn’t when I was closer to his age. He is a bit of a male Cinderella, neglected by his adopted father, mocked by his adopted brother, and forced to serve them both in the castle and on the jousting field. Because he’s an “orphan” (Disney’s sanitization of his actual status as “bastard”), he believes the best he can hope for himself is to become his cousin Kay’s squire, and he is understandably hurt when his mentor Merlin is not supportive of this endeavor. Twice we see him cry, proving its not just Disney princesses who are prone to turning on the waterworks.
Although he loves what he is learning from Merlin, there is also the tension of his belief that it’s all irrelevant, that he’s not meant for higher things and so the education is “wasted” — a doubt many people probably have when pursuing higher education, especially if they are the first in their families to do so.
The movie is presented in an episodic fashion centered around Merlin’s various lessons for Arthur, and the segments can almost stand alone. Usually I don’t favor this kind of storytelling, but here it works because of the overall lesson that emerges when you put all the pieces together. Merlin turns Arthur into different animals to teach him truths about life. As a fish, he learns the danger of being at the bottom of the food chain, that it is “natural” for the strong to prey upon the weak, and that the only hope the weak have of survival is their wits.
As a squirrel, he learns that sometimes the only truth that matters is that “you‘re a him and she’s a her.” (Yeah, Merlin uses squirrels to give Arthur “the talk.”) It is through the seemingly insignificant affections of a female squirrel that Arthur learns that love is a force “greater than gravity,” and gets a glimpse of what it means to hurt someone who loves you. Although his reaction to the brokenhearted squirrel is tender and apologetic, both he and the viewers see that there really is no way to make this right, and the scene leaves us all feeling a bit unsettled. There is no fairy godmother to dry the poor girl squirrel’s tears.
In his final transformation as a bird, he encounters Madam Mim, who changes into a cat and tries to eat him. When Merlin arrives to assist, they have a wizard’s duel — as I watched this I felt as though it were all a waste of time and celluloid with no real relation to the overarching plot (who brings a villain in near the end movie and for only one scene? That’s just bad storytelling). But I was wrong. Throughout the battle, Merlin favors smaller animals to Mim’s large ones — a tortoise to her crocodile, a caterpillar to her chicken, a mouse to her snake. He finally defeats her by becoming a germ that makes her ill.
As they walk away, Arthur remarks that Merlin “could have been killed!” and Merlin responds, “It was worth it, lad, if you learned something from it.”
That is a really dedicated teacher. That was also when I rescinded my assertion that the scene was “pointless.”
Because in this battle Merlin clinches the argument he has been making throughout the whole movie: sometimes the smallest, most insignificant things are those that have the most power.
The whole education is a metaphor for Arthur’s own rise to power — he is small, he is insignificant, he cries easily, and he can’t read. But he is destined to be King, and his untraditional education may make him especially equipped for the role.
That’s a theme I can get behind, and not just because I’m barely 5 feet tall.
From what I remember, the book makes a bigger deal about how Merlin’s transformations of Arthur specifically equip him to be king — that is, there are stronger parallels drawn between the animal world and the rule of a wise monarch. I feel disappointed that the movie doesn’t include Arthur’s stint as an ant, which is the most vivid scene for me from the book, and which taught him the power of working in a community (also, I wouldn’t be surprised if Orson Scott Card lifted from it directly in his personification of the Buggers in Ender’s Game).
In the movie, we don’t really get a sense of how Arthur’s lessons with Merlin have affected him, or, more importantly, how they will affect his rule. He wants to run away from his destiny as king — understandable — but then decides to stick it out when Merlin returns at the last minute to help him. So it feels like he’s willing to assume the mantle of kingship not because all he’s learned has prepared him for it, but because he can continue to lean on Merlin.
As an adult, I know that he’ll grow in to a wise and fair and good king, but I feel cheated by not getting the barest glimpse of that in the movie. We can’t assume kids know enough Arthurian lore to understand how it’s all going to turn out — for many, this is probably their first exposure. And the journey getting there becomes almost meaningless if you have no appreciation of the destination.
Instead, the movie closes abruptly on a scene with Arthur and Merlin alone in the throne room, Arthur’s crown and cape much too large for him, his confidence still faltering. We don’t even get an image of a closing story book with a sentence about how he went on to be such a wise and good king, etc. It almost feels as if a storyboarder looked at his watch, gasped, “Yikes, we said we’d keep this film under 80 minutes, let’s wrap it up, folks.” The real story is just beginning, but this movie leaves little to entice kids further in to Arthurian legend. And that is a real shame.
For further reading:
- My Arthurian shelf on Goodreads (stuff I’ve read/reviewed since joining Goodreads) and on LibraryThing (stuff I own)
- A list of more Arthurian adaptations for the screen.