60 Years Ago, One Throwback Hit Brought Disney Out Of The Dark Ages
The Sword In The Stone was more than just a cinematic Christmas present.
Today, it’s impossible to last a year without an animated movie from Disney becoming the talk of the box office. Frozen, Encanto, Moana, and Elemental are just a handful of recent films from The House of Mouse that dominated theaters and social media (I still haven’t stopped singing “You’re Welcome”). But, there was a time when Disney cartoons were struggling to find a spotlight, and the studio was considered a sinking ship.
By the 1960s, Disney shifted their focus from cartoons to what they viewed as more profitable ventures, including their theme park and TV franchises. After Walt passed away in ‘66, the studio plummeted into what Disneyphiles named “The Dark Age,” a problematic period where the company couldn’t figure out how to gain sustainable momentum, along with a changing of the guard within the animation department. Sandwiched between a pair of classics with 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, The Sword in The Stone from 1963 sits on a throne of obsolescence. Largely forgotten but pleasing to watch, this movie battled to exist, while still competing 60 years later to be remembered amidst its more popular animated siblings from Disney’s roughest patch. The Sword in the Stone almost stayed stuck in that boulder and anvil permanently, and the true miracle was the story of its production.
Arthur: Pendragon On The Rocks
It’s fitting this movie from Disney’s Dark Age coincided with The Sword in The Stone’s historical era during the tail-end of the real Dark Age of the 1500s when England was without a ruler. Pre-teen orphan Arthur (nicknamed Wart) literally falls into Merlin’s expectant cottage in the woods, taking him under his figurative wing (and actual wing of his educated owl companion, Archimedes) to tutor the lad for a greater unknown purpose.
Through Merlin’s enchanted educational sessions, Arthur transforms into a guppy, sparrow, and squirrel to learn to solve life’s problems with his brain instead of relying on brawn. After surviving these slightly precarious lessons and a wizard’s duel with Mad Madam Mim, Wart discovers he will be a squire during his foster brother’s tournament in London. Discovering he forgot to bring a sword before showtime, Wart runs out and unknowingly yoinks the titular sword from the stone, and becomes the de facto King of Britain.
Just as contentious as the relationship between Wart and his foster family, so too were things behind the scenes at Disney. Despite the success of Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians, dwindling margins from the animation side of things led to limited output from their department, including a pause of cartoons with the rodent who put them on the map from 1953 until 30 years later.
The veteran animation team had been busy for two decades adapting a play from the early 1900s titled Chantecler by Edmond Rostand, about a rooster who believes he is singlehandedly responsible for the rising sun. Despite decades of work, writer Bill Peet upended their years of toil when his idea for a loose adaptation of T.H. White’s The Sword in The Stone novel was instead given the green light by Walt, leading to sour grapes from the artists for the duration of production.
Despite charming animation that utilized the same photocopy technique as 101 Dalmatians, the movie had a lukewarm arrival on opening day on Christmas 1963. It made its money back with a little extra to spare but was snubbed by critics and audiences alike for its lack of substance. The only major historical impact this movie offered was its notoriety as the first animated feature with songs written by the Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard. These Academy Award and Grammy-winning siblings are among the most prolific songwriters in cinema history, with more movie musical scores under their belt than anyone else to this day, and their Disney career started with this bygone picture.
Is The Sword in the Stone a Christmas Movie?
Here’s the odd thing about this movie. Technically, one could argue this is a Christmas movie, but mostly in the same way some people argue Die Hard is a holiday staple.
There was always an air of festivity around the climax of the animated film, and it makes perfect sense when you revisit Arthurian lore. While never explicitly stated in the film, the day Arthur lifted the sword from the stone in the churchyard was Christmas Eve. Red and green garlands can be found hung from the castle walls, as a blanket of snow covers the land for the remainder of the film to visually drive the point home. Without going into the theological details, there’s a great deal of religious significance in the choice of date.
Digging deeper into Christianity, the 12th-century origin story of Saint Galgano may have served as partial inspiration for this Arthurian legend, featuring a rowdy young knight who gave up his seedy ways at the behest of an angel after plunging his blade into the earth, which swallowed it up inside a rock. While this hermit never became King of England, the sword still ended up in a stone, a concept that could have rubbed off into other myths and legends.
Is The Sword in the Stone worth watching with my kids?
As a kid, I loved The Sword in The Stone, and I still do as an adult. It kickstarted my imagination for medieval lore scenarios and Renaissance Faires, and was always easy to watch. However, even as a youngster, I knew this movie was paper thin.
There isn’t much of a plot in this flick, just a series of short episodes that supposedly teach Wart and the viewers a lesson. This isn’t necessarily a problem, as I could point out several Ghibli movies equally scant on story that are widely regarded as masterpieces, and part of that acclaim comes down to philosophical value and style points. The Sword in The Stone looks just as polished as any animated movie from Disney in that era, it’s just fairly unremarkable when it comes to the total package. Much like Billy Joel and Oliver & Company, even the contributions of the Sherman Brothers ended up meaningless beyond a trivia question, as the lyrics to their humdrum numbers could only be recalled by the most hardcore Disney fans.
The episodic feel of this movie might be its saving grace, keeping it watchable in perfectly-sized anecdotal doses. The Sword in The Stone is one of those Disney movies that would make the list of underrated gems, but its obscurity might be well earned. I’ll always treasure my VHS copy of this movie from when I grew up, and it’s an easy recommendation to any family looking for a new old classic to watch together. Just don’t go into the experience expecting the royal treatment and you’ll walk away as happy as Kings and Queens.
The Sword In The Stone is streaming on Disney+ and available on Blu-Ray and DVD.
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