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The Sword In The Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition

Walt Disney Productions (December 25 1963), Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment (June 17 2008), single disc, 79 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original negative ratio, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated G, Retail: $29.99

NOTE: This is a revised and updated edition of a review for the original Gold Collection release of The Sword In The Stone, which may be read here, and is still the more recommended version of the film on DVD.

Storyboard:

Based on the 1938 novel by T.H. White (Walt Disney actually bought the rights a year later, but it took him some 20-odd years to translate the story to screen), The Sword In The Stone recounts the tale of a young King Arthur back when he was a mere squire in training, and nicknamed Wart. He is destined for greatness, something only the wizard Merlin is aware of, and must be taught the ways of right and wrong before taking his place in history. Through a number of magical transformations, Merlin changes Wart into a fish, a squirrel and a bird in order to learn about the things that make the world go round (though parents needn’t worry – there are no bees involved)! Slowly Wart begins to understand that his otherwise downtrodden life has a purpose, and after he survives an encounter with the mad Madam Mim and finally makes it to the jousting match where he will make a name for himself, he is ready to fulfil his destiny as the only one who is able to pluck the title sword from its stone…

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The Sweatbox Review:

First released in 1963, Walt Disney’s take on the young King Arthur tale falls into his later period, when the Studio had to make its animated films without the intense supervision the old Moustro had shown to the early classics Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi. By the early 1960s, Walt’s preoccupation with Disneyland (the park and the show), big live-action features such as Mary Poppins, the EPCOT park project, and not to mention growing concerns with his health, meant that he spent less and less time in the animation department, an expensive operation to run. “You know”, he once said jokingly to his animators, “with live action I can go out and film a scene in a day. You guys take six months!” Although this was true, Walt was always true to his artists and chose to cut costs in the animation division rather than scrap the very department that had built the company entirely. These cost-cutting methods primarily came in the form of the Xerox process of copying the animators’ drawings directly to cels, eliminating the need for a large ink and paint staff considerably. The result shows the lines of the artists’ pencils much more clearly and lent a new sense of “life” to characters, although Walt took some time to warm to this new look.

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Primarily developed for One Hundred And One Dalmatians to aid the depiction of hundreds of spotty dogs, the Studio did produce some classic films in this period and artistic format. Dalmatians introduced the sketchier technique and this was a good choice of story to begin the new Disney style with, as its contemporary feel was well suited to the rough edged animation approach and the angular, block-colored backgrounds created for the film. The Xerox process also contributed heavily to the free-wheeling, loose feel of The Jungle Book (making the animals really feel hairy), while the look also helped give the Winnie The Pooh films a defined “illustration come to life” style – something that the computer aided systems of today have great trouble in replicating. Somewhere in the middle of all of this was The Sword In The Stone, an often underrated Disney picture that is all too seldom seen and usually released to home video as part of a package of titles that get lost under the weight of whichever lead title the Studio is pushing at the time.

Perhaps one of the main reasons why The Sword In The Stone does fail to slot into the “classic” features made by Walt Disney is precisely because of its rough animation style. While Sleeping Beauty was created with the lush storybook-come-to-life feel that audiences had come to expect from a Disney film, it was still the box-office failure that led to the cost cutting in the animation department. The new Xerox process fit Dalmatians like a glove, but here the story certainly calls for a recall of that fairy-tale quality, with its themes of royalty and magic. Given the rougher style of design, the screenwriters went with a more comically enhanced script, and so the otherwise awesome Merlin becomes a nitwit blundering wizard, and Mim never rises to being a true villainess.

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In fact, the story doesn’t actually have a central villain at all, apart from the slight danger in Wart’s own situations, and so there is no central arc or final incentive for protagonist or antagonist to aspire to. As a result, it’s easy to see how the Studio got into the rut of their next few films being very episodic in structure. There is no real thread that runs through The Sword In The Stone, as the story wanders from encounter to encounter, ultimately ending up at the title’s stone, from which the sword must be drawn. It comes very late into the movie, by which time the audience may well wonder why the film has been given its name at all. When it does finally come, the moment is portrayed very well, although again it seems that writers were stumped at how to top such a momentous occasion with any kind of climax, as the film winds up within minutes of this happening.

One could say that the whole point of the film is exactly this: that all of Wart’s lessons has been provided to him in order to arrive at this end, to become the man he must be to lead the kingdom, and once this event has transpired, what would be added by any extra running time? However, the lessons brought forward for Wart to learn do not seem to result in anything; the poor boy is never given the chance to do anything with the knowledge he has acquired. Even in the celebrated Wizard’s Duel, a clip that has been seen countless times in Disney compilation specials, Wart stands helpless while Merlin steps in to save him from Mim.

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The Sword In The Stone was the first Disney picture that owed all of its directorial vision to one man: Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman, who would continue to fashion the Studio’s animated output well after Walt’s death in 1966. As such, perhaps the team spirit that helped gel the previous Disney outings failed to materialise, with each part of the Studio carrying work out on their own particular section of the film independently. The few songs, by the Sherman Brothers, are, except for Mad Madam Mim, rarely included in any soundtrack compilation sets, although they all have a bouncy rhythm and Higitus Figitus uses the word play that helped establish the Shermans at the Studio and led to the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious tongue twisters of Mary Poppins and United Artists’ Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The rest of the soundtrack is the usual mixture of American and English voices that always seems to work in animation, and each compliment their roles nicely. Disney fans can have a field day listening out for the many talents involved as many of them were either veterans or future voices for other characters: Wart (Rickie Sorenson) was part-voiced by Wolfgang’s sons Richard and Robert (who also contributed to Winnie The Pooh and The Jungle Book); Archimedes, Merlin’s talking owl, was Junius Matthews, later to become Rabbit in the Pooh films, while Sir Ector was vocalized by Sebastian Cabot, also doubling as the narrator, another future Pooh performer (again as the story-teller) and as Bagheera in The Jungle Book.

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The story lends itself well to the Disney treatment (by Bill Peet), with its themes of magic and wizardry, and there are many memorable moments, but as a whole it just seems to lack the classic touch. Animation wise, it is fine and the backgrounds display good detail and continuity, although there is some recycling of material from Sleeping Beauty, both visually and musically, but given the irreverent tone, this is possibly an in-joke (the ending also bears a similarity with 1992’s Aladdin, when Merlin returns from the future clad in a loud Hawaiian shirt). One does wonder what direction the film would have taken if it had been animated in the 40s or 50s, when Walt first bought the rights and was in the middle of perfecting the animated art form, but in any event The Sword In The Stone does stand up as a faithful translation of White’s book and, Dumbo aside, could be described as the first of the Studio’s more broader knockabout comedies.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Previously released as a very rewarding edition in the Gold Collection line, The Sword In The Stone got a little extra deluxe treatment than most, which even as one of Disney’s lesser efforts, it does deserve. The Gold DVD certainly impressed and surprised in the extras department, but looking at the back cover here one might be a bit suspect as to what exactly has been carried over; it looks like slim pickings – with the only addition being the now perfunctory “new game” – but we don’t quite get as much as before.

Obvious updates to the previous disc are the new selection of Sneak Peeks, some of which run when the disc plays and some of which are accessible from their own menu. Those packed in include the now standard Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves-scored “Disney” promo, Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, Nightmare Before Christmas, Tinker Bell, 101 Dalmatians II, Jungle Book 2, WALL-E, Sleeping Beauty, the Movie Rewards program, and a pair of Disney Channel promos for Zach & Cody and Phineas And Ferb. Most intriguing is a spot for The Secret Of The Magic Gourd, Disney’s first international co-production effort, outsourced to Centro Pictures and originally intended for release in China last year. It seems that the company will be bringing these projects back to the US in the form of dubbed editions – good news for those interested in such properties as India’s Roadside Romeo.

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Back to The Sword In The Stone itself, and the menus for this new release mirror the ones done for the previous edition. While again not the fully animated 3D extravaganzas seen on some of the Studio’s bigger collector’s editions, the menu evokes the right tone, even if the earlier disc’s attempts (with some fun switchover animation between pages) are actually a lot nicer than here! Most interestingly, the Scene Selection shots have obviously been drawn from a widescreen composition of the film, so it seems even the Mouse House is uncertain how to present their own films! In the Bonus Features section you’ll find four options, which all essentially lead to the extras from the previous edition, though with one very important caveat.

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In Music & More, the brothers Sherman appear in a retrospective interview documentary, Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers. Here Richard and Robert Sherman explain their involvement in The Sword In The Stone (their first animated picture) and how they came to write the songs for the movie. Running around eight minutes, this is a great piece, similar to their accounts of working on Bedknobs And Broomsticks on that film’s DVD, featuring more concept art, storyboard sequences and, best of all, the brothers playing through a couple of songs from the movie, including two deleted songs, Old Oak Tree and The Magic Key, from earlier abandoned versions! A Disney Song Selection merely runs through the song sequences from the film fairly redundantly.

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The big addition to this release is that new Merlin’s Magical Academy game, but it’s not worth it for the material that’s been dropped in its place. A multi-level effort, the player must answer questions or guide Wart through various challenges, in return for one of six shields that must be collected before he can pull the sword from the stone. And…that’s it. While the recycling of material from the movie is artfully done, and just as well as the vintage animation re-used in a new way is, there really isn’t any input from the player. As a Blu-ray game, perhaps the use of up and down arrow keys where they actually have an effect on the gameplay might make this a bit more enticing, but as it is, it’s one of those player efforts where the player is almost redundant. As the only new addition I can see why Merlin’s Magical Academy gets a sticker on the front of the package, but it’s far from being the best thing on the disc.

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The inclusion of the game had to have an impact somewhere and it certainly is felt in the Backstage Disney section. Whereas on the Gold Collection DVD we were treated to a full magical edition of the television show Walt Disney Presents, here we only get Walt’s introduction from All About Magic. First aired in 1957, this is a typical of-the-time look at magical conventions and traditions, starting off with Walt himself hosting and performing a few magic tricks of his own (and looking like he had a fine time doing them as well!) before taking us down to the Studio magic prop room and handing over to the Magic Mirror (Hans Conreid in a role he would often recreate for TV) from Snow White. A fair amount of this particular program was made up from original material, but as it is here we lose all that as this edition only keeps Walt’s opening scenes, running just seven minutes.

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The Sword In The Stone Scrapbook is a collection of 61 concept, production and stills art carried over from the Gold DVD intact. The character designs show how Wart and Merlin evolved, and there are also some great poster treatments (including one from the 1940s when the film was originally intended to be made, and when it was promoted as “an amazing story of action and adventure”). Rounding out this section are some release and re-issue posters, and a selection of images from the Disneyland theme park Sword Ceremony which was introduced in 1984. The Film Facts production text history is a brief Gold Collection series of pages outlining White’s original story and its journey to the screen via Disney.

A couple of animated Bonus Shorts are again carried over from the Gold edition. Knight For A Day is a favorite Goofy cartoon of mine, and compliments the main feature well, with its modern spin on the jousting matches of old. The link between the feature and the 1938 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Brave Little Tailor seems to be only that it is set in olden times, though it is a great cartoon, with some of the best animation of Mickey in the 30s and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Short. Mickey looks the better of the two, but these appear to be the same composite video transfers as before, lacking the remastering that was carried out for their Disney Treasures releases.

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For what might be considered a “secondary release”, the material gathered for the Gold Collection displayed a well thought out choice. However, that some of that has been dropped to pack in nothing more than a token marketing ploy in the form of the new game is a real shame, leaving one with the no-brainer choice of hunting down the earlier edition before it disappears from shelves.

Case Study:

The Sword In The Stone is all too often overlooked by Disney and fans alike, usually bundled with other titles in lacklustre promotions, but for once it breaks out of tradition and it’s nice to see it emerge again now with its own spiffy new cover and Special Edition markings, even if the disc’s contents don’t offer up much incentive to upgrade. The cover art is a mixed bag: the titular stone is actually almost obscured out of existence by the main title, and the choice of character placement puts a distinctive lack of attention on the film’s two most memorable faces: Merlin’s shoved up top right while Madam Mim goes completely missing and has to settle for the back of the sleeve. Inside there’s a push for Blu-ray, a Disney Movie Rewards code, and Chapter Index that pushes a couple of other titles on the back. Though the slipcase reproduces the cover art glossily, it’s all a bit of a mis-mash at best.

Ink And Paint:

Previously released in a deluxe CAV LaserDisc and the Gold DVD edition, both discs announced that the film had been modified to fit standard TV screens. This is totally inaccurate, as The Sword In The Stone was shot to a 1.37:1 negative, which is essentially the same ratio as presented here – there is nothing missing in the image. As was the case with many films in the early 60s, it would have been cropped in some theaters to create a widescreen ratio look, and it is likely Sword In The Stone was masked to 1.75:1 (much like the recent Disney films are shot at 1.66:1 and cropped slightly to 1.85 for theatrical screening). In this age when Disney seems to hop and change as to which films get the widescreen treatment, even the Studio seems to have been caught out, with the menus presenting undoubtedly wider captures while the film is presented in its full-frame, open matte negative ratio.

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I’d have actually been quite up for seeing a widescreen transfer, as the movie is easily one of Disney’s better framed for that ratio from this time, as confirmed by the widescreen clips used in the added new game. It might have at least added a selling point to this edition, which otherwise falls short to the Gold disc. What is again a disappointment is that the film has not been given the all-digital cleanup that the other features have received, with the print on show the same transfer as we’ve been given before. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, save for a very few nicks and scratches, and this is definitely a more recently remastered print than the earliest tape editions, but it’s not a complete restoration. Colors are accurate though, and the general quality does nothing to detract from the knockabout nature and rough style of the film itself. To its credit, the cover never promises anything more, but this isn’t really the way to celebrate a 45th Anniversary.

Scratch Tracks:

The CAV LaserDisc introduced a “new” stereo mix of The Sword In The Stone, that had actually been created at the time of the film’s original release but not widely used. The LD track was fairly warm, with some depth to the sound and a few surround surprises thrown in. The previous DVD claimed a 5.1 remix, but I couldn’t really make out any discernable difference from the CAV laser, and the same is evident here as I believe this to be the same track. However, everything is present and correct and the audio effects do have quite a nice spatial separation in them. Dialogue was recorded cleanly and makes for good reproduction, as with the French and Spanish surround tracks also offered. In addition, subtitles in all three languages can be selected.

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Final Cut:

Opening on Christmas Day 1963, The Sword In The Stone may not rate as highly on many critics’ lists as some of Walt’s greater achievements, but remains an entertaining curiosity for fans and newcomers alike, falling well into the tradition of the recent comedy Disney features such as Aladdin and The Emperor’s New Groove. It’s never been seen as one of Disney’s best, but The Sword In The Stone is in fact a very enjoyable picture, even if none of the characters went on to much success outside of the film – Merlin is perhaps the most well-known figure in the movie, with his nose apparently based on Walt’s own!

Adding a pay hike of ten bucks to the original Gold Collection’s $20 price tag, it’s actually very difficult to recommend this new edition. With more involving menus, the full Disney television show program, a couple of Sing-alongs and a generally nicer feel, the Gold Collection edition was hard to beat at the time and is still the one to go for. This new version is nothing more than a re-print of the film’s same transfer and inexcusably loses much more than it gains. Fans needn’t bother about an upgrade here, and if you can live without the bland art’s slipcover and pointless new game, The Sword In The Stone is much better served by the previous Gold Collection edition for those yet to own one of Disney’s classics.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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