JAN / FEB 2014: BY GINA DALFONZO
I’m a bit of a girly girl, and have always loved fairy tales, so you might expect that my favorite Disney animated classic would be a princess movie. And it’s true that for a long time I was all about the princesses. I saw Cinderella three times as a child (trust me, before DVD players, that was a big deal). Beauty and the Beast didn’t come out till I was in high school, but I fell hard for it anyway. But my all-time favorite animated Disney classic doesn’t have a princess in it; it’s about a poor but plucky young boy, and instead of a fairy godmother, it has a wonderfully wacky wizard.
The Sword in the Stone came out in 1963, years before I was born. It was based on T. H. White’s novel of the same name, the first part of his famous Arthurian trilogy The Once and Future King. (This trilogy was fertile ground for adapters; Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe later made it the basis for the Broadway musical Camelot.)
Like many other Disney films, The Sword in the Stone was later re-released in theaters. This is how I saw it for the first time. I was spellbound by the tale of young King Arthur before he was King Arthur—when he was, in fact, an orphaned servant boy known as “Wart.” A chance meeting (or is it?) between Wart and the wizard Merlin leads to Merlin becoming his tutor.
Merlin’s idea of teaching is to turn Wart into different animals—a bird, a squirrel, and a fish—so he can experience a variety of different perspectives, and learn some hands-on (paws-on?) lessons about life. These experiences can be amusing, as when a lady squirrel decides Wart looks like the perfect mate, or scary, as when a giant fish decides he looks like a good meal. But they’re always absorbing and fascinating. And they test and develop the character of the young Wart, preparing him for the big moment that’s coming.
This movie is widely considered one of the minor Disney animated features, but in my eyes, it has this advantage over the princess movies: it makes me laugh. Not that the princess movies don’t have their lighter and funnier moments as well—but not like The Sword in the Stone. Screenwriter Bill Peet did a beautiful job of incorporating White’s sly humor while at the same time punching up the antics for the screen.
The result is lively, funny, and completely delightful. I can remember nearly going into hysterics near the beginning of the movie, when Merlin’s beard got caught in the door, and again near the end, when he showed up in Bermuda shorts. (It makes sense when you see it, honest!) With all its goofy characters and its wild and crazy musical numbers, the movie still makes me guffaw, not just at the beginning and end but so
many times in between.
At the same time, though, it is a simple and touching coming-of-age story. We get not just comic types, but fully fleshed-out characters. Wart is an easy hero to like, constantly putting others’ needs ahead of his own, and fearlessly standing up for his friends even when the cost is steep. And though Merlin is a laugh a minute, he’s also a wise and affectionate tutor. The two of them, along with Merlin’s grumpy talking owl, Archimedes, make a great team.
The story is cleverly told in such a way that the climactic moment involves not just Wart grasping a sword and becoming King Arthur, but also a crisis in his friendship with Merlin. It’s the resolution of that crisis, the promise that Wart’s tutor will be there to help him with his new and overwhelming responsibilities, that makes the film’s ending truly satisfying.
I’ve been told I should read the rest of T. H. White’s Once and Future King trilogy, since I liked the first novel and its film adaptation so much. It’s said to be a brilliant work, and I can believe it. But I’ve purposely held off, because I understand the trilogy grows darker and sadder as it goes. It loses the sunny, optimistic feel that I treasure in The Sword in the Stone, when all of life is still before a brave and noble young boy who’s just made friends with a deceptively dotty old wizard. And I wouldn’t lose that for anything. ♥