Film Review: The Sword in the Stone (1963)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

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Norman Alden – Sir Kay

Barbara Jo Allen – Scullery Maid

Mel Blanc – Tiger and Talbot (the dogs; he seems to crop up a lot in small Disney roles)

Sebastian Cabot – Sir Ector and Narrator

Candy Candido – Pike and Mim (as a tiger, roaring)

Fred Darian – Singing minstrel (in the opening sequence)

James MacDonald – The Wolf

Junius Matthews – Archimedes

Alan Napier – Sir Pellinore

Tudor Owen – Knight in Crowd

Thurl Ravenscroft – Black Bart

Richard Reitherman – Wart/Arthur (Partial)

Robert Reitherman – Wart/Arthur (Partial)

Rickie Sorensen – Wart/Arthur (Partial)

Karl Swenson – Merlin

Ginny Tyler – Girl Squirrel

Martha Wentworth – Madam Mim and Granny Squirrel

Sources of InspirationThe Sword in the Stone, a British novel by T.H. White, 1938

Release Dates

December 25th, 1963 in the USA (premiere and general release)

Run-time – 79 minutes

Directors – Wolfgang Reitherman (First Disney film to be directed by just one person)

Composers – George Bruns

Worldwide Gross – $22 million

Accolades – 1 win and 1 Oscar nomination

1963 in History

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa exhibited in the US for the first time, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Five Japanese cities located on the northernmost part of Kyūshū are merged and become the city of Kitakyūshū

The Beatles record their debut album Please Please Me in a single day at the Abbey Road Studios in London

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published, reawakening the Women’s Movement

The infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closes, with its remaining 27 prisoners transferred elsewhere

Dr. No, the first James Bond film, is shown in U.S. theatres and the second, From Russia with Love, opens in the UK

Vietnam War: Huế chemical attacks, Huế Phật Đản shootings, Battle of Ap Bac, Xá Lợi Pagoda raids, 1963 South Vietnamese coup

In Saigon, Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức commits self-immolation to protest the oppression of Buddhists by the Ngô Đình Diệm administration

Alabama Governor George Wallace stands in the door of the University of Alabama to protest against integration, before stepping aside and allowing black students James Hood and Vivian Malone to enrol

Vostok 6 carries Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman into space

Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room opens at Disneyland, premiering the first Audio-Animatronics in the park

Sixteen-year-old Pauline Reade is abducted by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in Manchester, England, the first victim of the Moors murders; the second, John Kilbride (12), follows months later

The Great Train Robbery takes place in Buckinghamshire, England

President Fulbert Youlou is overthrown in the Republic of Congo after a three-day uprising in the capital, Brazzaville, known as Trois Glorieuses

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to an audience of at least 250,000, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Malaysia is formed through a union of the Federation of Malaya, the British colony of Singapore, North Borneo (which became Sabah) and Sarawak – this prompts riots in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta

The 1963 Honduran coup d’état begins two decades of military rule under General Oswaldo López Arellano

The car manufacturing firm Lamborghini is founded in Italy; in this same year, the Porsche 911 is also introduced

A volcanic eruption under the sea near Iceland creates a new island, Surtsey

US President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald (who is shot himself two days later on live television by Jack Ruby) on November 22nd – authors C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley also both die on this day

New president Lyndon B. Johnson sets up the Warren Commission to investigate

Kenya gains independence from the United Kingdom, with Jomo Kenyatta as prime minister

Births of Michael Jordan, Vanessa Williams, Quentin Tarantino, Conan O’Brien, Jet Li, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Helen Hunt, George Michael, Lisa Kudrow, Whitney Houston and Dan Povenmire


For their next film, Disney decided to take a dip into Arthurianism which had been a long time coming. Back in 1939, Walt had gotten the film rights to T.H. White’s classic children’s novel The Sword in the Stone, but for various reasons we’ve covered in earlier reviews, production couldn’t really get going for many years afterwards. The first storyboards were created in 1949, but it wasn’t until after the completion of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) that things really started to get going. At that point, this film was being created alongside another project called Chanticleer, which was going to star a rooster (shades of Moana {2016} there) in a more contemporary setting.

Ken Anderson and Marc Davis were the driving forces behind Chanticleer and they, along with Milt Kahl and Wolfgang Reitherman, spent months preparing elaborate storyboards for it, but later a test screening of a story reel was met with silence. A voice from the back of the room called out that “You can’t make a personality out of a chicken!” – it was Bill Peet, who would be made responsible for the story of The Sword in the Stone. Ultimately, one of the main reasons that Walt chose this film over Chanticleer (aside from its unwieldy protagonist) was because he had greatly enjoyed seeing the 1960 Broadway show Camelot, a production which would become a theatre classic in the years ahead and brought Arthurianism into the spotlight in a big way.

Milt Kahl in particular was said to be furious when Bill Peet’s project was chosen over Chanticleer, but Peet stressed that he hadn’t been trying to compete with the animator and simply wanted to make the film that he thought would work best. Unfortunately, The Sword in the Stone suffered from being in production alongside another of Walt’s beloved passion projects – Mary Poppins (1964). Walt was putting everything he had into that film, lavishing the sort of attention on it that an animated release hadn’t enjoyed for years, so The Sword in the Stone became something of a “B-project” and Walt was barely involved with its making at all.

Honestly, this lack of attention shows; like a neglected child, The Sword in the Stone was filled with potential which was largely squandered by its rather half-hearted production, so let’s take a look and see if we can figure out what prevented this from becoming the classic it could’ve been.


Characters and Vocal Performances

Right off the bat, I think most Disney fans would agree that one of the main problems with this film is its protagonist, Arthur, otherwise known as “Wart.” Unlike many other adaptations of the King Arthur stories, Disney took a relatively new position by portraying him in his early years, as an unknown, scruffy-haired twelve-year-old living with his foster family. This could have proved incredibly interesting had they explored his personality a bit and shown some of his future “kingly” qualities shining through in his youth, but sadly, this was not the case.

What we get here is another Disney “everyman,” a bland and generic “blank slate” who is little more than the ultimate cipher. Arthur is infuriatingly passive and subservient, blindly taking orders from anybody who happens to be bossing him about – Ector, Kay, Merlin, even Archimedes – and having little to no agency in his own story, making no decisions for himself but simply being pushed around from plot point to plot point. He’s a reactive character; only when things happen to him does he take any action, otherwise remaining helpless and indecisive. For a future king, he demonstrates a worrying inability to learn from past mistakes; despite all Merlin’s efforts to “educate” him, he continues to end up in near-death situations which he’s never able to escape from without help. In the end, his elevation to the throne comes across as ironic, more than anything!

As we see when he forgets Kay’s sword at the tournament, his first proper responsibility, he is probably not a person well-suited to being a monarch – he’s a follower rather than a leader. His reaction to being put into this position of authority is to try and run away from it; when he realises he can’t, he then tries calling out for help from Merlin again. While there’s certainly nothing wrong in asking for help, there is something wrong with a leader who can’t seem to do anything without continual assistance from another person. The question of whether Arthur was a real bloke or not continues to be debated to this day, but whatever the answer, I can’t help feeling sorry for my ancient English ancestors having had to be subjects of such an uninspiring king as this! Arthur should be the film’s best character; he’s the underdog, the ordinary child who grows up to become great – we should be rooting for him. Unfortunately, he’s just too poorly written to leave much of an impression, other than an underwhelming feeling of frustration.

One other thing that hinders the character is the voice acting; it’s honestly some of the worst we’ve heard in the Disney canon to date. Rickie Sorensen (best-known at the time from a series of Tarzan films) was in his mid-to-late teens when he voiced the role and inevitably entered puberty during the film’s production, so director Wolfgang Reitherman cast two of his own sons, Richard and Robert, to fill in the rest of the voice work. This was such a bad decision that, even with his attentions deflected elsewhere, it’s hard to understand how Walt could have let the film go out with such a glaring problem in it.

Aside from the clear American accents on all three boys (probably included to give them greater “relatability”), they sound nothing alike – during the film, sometimes even within single scenes, Arthur’s voice changes drastically from that of a young man to that of a little boy, a hugely distracting flaw that takes you right out of the film. You wonder why they couldn’t have just cast another boy to re-do the entire role – really, how long would it have taken? – for the sake of consistency. Was it perhaps a deliberate stylistic choice to have him sound like he was going through puberty? If so, it doesn’t come across that way at all; it’s more like Cubby, the irritating Lost Boy from Peter Pan (1953), with his “comedic” cracking voice sliding all over the scale every time he spoke. Even then, at least Cubby sounded like one person! The best that can be said is that the problem was averted in some of the foreign language dubs, so perhaps the character is more enjoyable there.

Arthur PendragonArthur Pendragon #2

Apparently, although Walt never knew, he was Bill Peet’s model for Merlin (who also designed the characters in addition to writing the story). Peet saw both of them as argumentative and cantankerous, but also playful and very intelligent – he even gave Merlin Walt’s nose! This was the second time Walt’s image had secretly made its way into a film, following “Yen Sid” the wizard from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia (1940). Merlin, the World’s Most Powerful Ham, is one of the film’s most enjoyable characters, at his best when he’s conducting “assembly lines” out of his furniture or the dirty dishes in the castle, and when he’s blowing his top over some trivial mistake or mishap. He’s fiery and moody and has some great chemistry with his owl companion, Archimedes (they squabble worse than an old married couple), as well as getting many of the best lines with his throwaway nods to future gadgets and gizmos that go right over Arthur’s head.

He’s also rather double-sided; sometimes, he can be bull-headed and careless, barging into situations without appearing to give much thought to the consequences, but at other times he’ll be gentle and wise like a favourite grandfather (or even Walt himself). In fact, to a certain extent, he’s a lot like Madam Mim; rather childish and self-centred, he throws tantrums when things don’t go his way and is more concerned with his own plans than Arthur’s own happiness (both evidenced clearly in the scene where Arthur tells him he’s to be Kay’s squire; poor kid, it’s the only time I really sympathised with him as Merlin savagely mocks the news).

One criticism, though, is that his gifts of magic and time-travel feel somewhat underused, serving largely as comedy devices or gag material – but then, I suppose he does note himself that magic won’t solve all your problems! Still, for the World’s Most Powerful Wizard, he doesn’t seem to use his magic for anything very important.

Merlin about to perform

Archimedes is another fun presence in the film, clearly based on Friend Owl from Bambi (1942) and to a lesser extent on the unnamed one from Sleeping Beauty (1959). Owls were a popular choice for the Disney animators back then, nearly always characterised as stuffy, pompous old gents like this (they do it again with Owl in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh {1977}).

Archimedes is a loveable grouch, getting many laughs from his dry, irritated way of looking at things, but what makes his character so good is that he is shown to have another, softer side underneath all that which endears the audience to him. We all love the “jerk with a heart of gold” character; there’s something about seeing a cold or angry person “warming up” and letting their good side show which inspires similar warmth in us. Archimedes is interesting because in his case, the change is rather sudden; he spends the first half of the film grumpy and complaining, apparently disliking Arthur from the moment they meet, but in spite of his hostility he is quick to rescue Arthur when Merlin’s experiment in the moat goes awry.

By the film’s last third, as Merlin goes off in one of his huffs, Archimedes has essentially replaced him as Arthur’s main tutor and friend, and you can’t help feeling a sort of relief – he seems so much more competent and emotionally stable than Merlin! It’s his softer side which really makes him appealing; one of his best scenes is when he and Arthur run back to the inn for Kay’s sword, only to find it locked for the tournament. It is the owl who first spies the famous sword in its stone and so indirectly sets off the film’s climax by directing Arthur to pull it out. I really liked the way this character was handled and only wish the rest of them could have been given the same treatment (incidentally, Archimedes also has the best hysterical laugh ever!)

Archimedes blustering at Merlin

Now we come to Arthur’s foster family, Sirs Ector and Kay, who bestow upon him the nickname of “Wart.” Ector is actually a pretty good character as he’s not painted in plain black and white; although he’s strict and at times even a little rude to the boy, a few key scenes show us that he does care for him deep down. In his first appearance we see him fretting about Arthur having gone missing in a wolf-infested forest, and at the end of the film, although he stills favours his own son, Kay, he does nothing to stand in Arthur’s way once the lad has proved himself worthy by removing the sword, even referring to him as “son” (which is more than Prince Charming’s weird father did in Cinderella {1950}). It would have been so easy to make this character a bland and forgettable villain, but he’s given some small degree of depth which prevents the audience from despising him; it also helps that he’s made a fool of so many times by “Marvin” – ahem, Merlin.

Kay, Ector’s son, is more of a minor plot device than a character, as Arthur’s main ambition for most of the film is to become his squire, which the boy sees as the highest status he can attain. Kay is, in a word, a lunkhead, a moody and slightly brutish young man who obviously isn’t over-fond of his adopted brother and seems to have suffered from being spoilt growing up; one can assume that Arthur hasn’t been a part of the family for long, as Kay seems like a clichéd only child. The funniest thing about Kay, for me, was his total lack of interest in anything – he never really gets properly worked up, never furious or elated but merely annoyed or mildly amused. His reaction to being knighted had me in stitches: “Sure, why not… why not?” (How did he ever get knighted in the first place?) I found myself wondering if the guy is a bit depressed, as he never seems to be able to summon any enthusiasm for anything. He’s a minor antagonist but a bit one-note, which prevents him from being too interesting.

Sword in the Stone EctorSword in the Stone Kay

The closest thing to an outright villain in the film is Madam Mim, the loony pink-haired witch who Arthur meets late in the film after tumbling down her chimney. She falls very much into the hammy category of Disney villains, with her bouncy animation and booming voice, but with limited screen time it’s difficult to consider her the main antagonist as she has little to no bearing on the plot. For any fans of TV Tropes, her scenes actually feel like one long Big Lipped Alligator Moment (look it up, it’s a strange phenomenon in animated films) – she simply appears about three quarters of the way in and does some stuff, then disappears and is never mentioned again.

Still, I’m glad she’s here, as she’s a lot of fun; her character is very childish in every sense, with an inability to take anything seriously (including herself) and a mischievous playfulness about her that’s only rendered dangerous by her magical abilities. Life is such a game to her that at times it’s like she’s speaking in clichés, such as when she says mildly to Arthur, “I’m afraid I’ll have to destroy you.” She’s also deliciously compelling in her confidence – it’s clear that she relishes being naughty (I can’t quite use the word “evil” for her) and apparently has boundless self-esteem, screaming “I’M AN UGLY OLD CREEP!” during her song. Her relationship with Merlin is interesting, as she’s the only character in the film (besides Archimedes) who seems to have any history with him; I’m very curious about how they met and what they’ve gotten up to over the years!

Perhaps if the filmmakers had featured her more consistently, she could have been one of the great Disney villains à la Captain Hook or Cruella De Vil. As it is, she sort of feels too good for the film she’s in; when her scenes end, you want to cry out, “Wait! Don’t go! You’re the only thing keeping the pace alive!”

Madam Mim

Among the other characters, we have a disappointingly low number of women; this was a common problem with many of the post-1950s films. The two most notable here apart from Mim are a pair of squirrels encountered by Arthur and Merlin during one of the wizard’s “lessons”: one is young, girlish and dramatic, the other pushy and matronly, but both of them are very “grabby” with no sense of personal space and, curiously, neither can speak. The older squirrel who attaches herself quite physically to Merlin is there purely for comedy, but the younger one who falls for Arthur does have some semblance of character to her – notably, when the wolf turns up, it is she who saves Arthur from him, an impressively strong moment for a female character in a Disney film from this time. Clearly she took more from Merlin’s lesson on brains over brawn than Arthur did!

Still, it is a bit frustrating to see the girls of the film relegated to such empty, hackneyed roles as this – it reminded me of Lulubelle from Fun and Fancy Free (1947), which is not a good thing. I also don’t get why they were made so annoyingly physical, practically assaulting Merlin and Arthur when it’s clear that they just want the girls to leave them alone. Merlin has a poetic little moment where he considers that love might be a greater force than gravity, but this is no excuse to let someone harass you! And it’s worth keeping in mind that real squirrels actually don’t mate for life; the male runs off and leaves the female to raise the young, which kind of puts a stake through the heart of the tragically-played scenes of the young squirrel sobbing over the loss of Arthur.

The wolf is played almost sympathetically; he’s clearly starving and proves remarkably inept at catching his dinner, rather like Wile E. Coyote of the Looney Tunes series. Arthur is so dull that you almost end up rooting for the wolf, as he has a lot more character than the boy and is also much funnier. You have to hand it to him, too; when it comes to stealth, he’s truly a master, as Arthur never even realises he’s there!

The other animals encountered by Merlin and Arthur include a happy-go-lucky bullfrog in the moat (who shows no dismay at being openly insulted by the lad), Tiger and Talbot, a pair of energetic dogs at the castle who show Arthur much more affection than his foster family do, and a hawk whose only function is to hunt Arthur right down Mim’s chimney. However, the stand-out among the animals is the pike, also from the moat scenes, who makes for a far more chilling and effective villain than Mim does! Seriously, if only this monster wasn’t a fish, he could have been a perfect menace for the entire film – his design, with the angry and slightly bulging fish eyes, is really creepy, and he comes closer to actually killing Arthur than any other character in the film!

The cast is rounded out by Sir Pellinore, Black Bart and the Scullery Maid. The latter of these is yet another degrading female character with no name (why can’t they ever give names to the nanny/maid characters?!), whose only function is to scream hysterically at Merlin’s magic and then start nagging him about interfering in her kitchen. Sigh. Sir Pellinore is a minor role (more of a plot device, really) who serves mainly as the link between the other characters and the big London tournament. He does contribute a bit to the “Dark Ages” feeling of the setting and has a great design, with a huge twitchy moustache – he also supports Arthur in the big sword-pulling scene, openly uncomfortable with the idea of “King Kay.” Black Bart, too, supports Arthur, adding a lot of solemn presence in his brief appearance thanks largely to Thurl Ravenscroft’s masterful voice – he really needed more scenes, he’s got such an imposing design!



This would be the last of the animated films to be worked on by Ub Iwerks, who had been with the studio since the 1920s and is uncredited for his work here for some reason. He went on to work on Mary Poppins (1964) and assisted the Imagineers in their work at Disneyland, before his death in 1971. There was also no live-action reference footage shot for this one, unusual as that had become standard practice by that time; it just goes to show how little priority this production was given, as it didn’t have a proper “making-of” documentary either.

Merlin was animated by several of Disney’s Nine Old Men, such as Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbery (I’ve found some sources saying that Kahl designed the character, even though many others note Bill Peet’s use of Walt in his creation of him). His character animation is some of the film’s best – I especially liked the recurring gag of him getting his wand (or other objects) tangled up in his immense beard. I also enjoy his packing and washing scenes, as he dances about sending streams of objects around the room to the lively jazz beat of the score.

Mim was done by Kahl and Thomas, and the climactic duel between the two characters is still cited by animation experts today as some of the best comic character animation created up to that time. Despite the numerous transformations the pair of them undergo, they are still easily recognisable as themselves, as they retain a set of identifying features; Merlin’s guises are all blue and include his glasses and facial hair, while Mim’s are pinkish-purple and have her messy hair and crazy eyes. This duel is the best part of the film’s animation, to be honest; although a lot of other critics have raved about the film’s animation in general, I found it pretty unremarkable for the most part.

The wizard's duel #1

This was the point where the studio started to noticeably and frequently recycle animation, with many shots from earlier films showing up looking almost exactly the same – the film even cannibalises its own animation, with expressions and gestures cropping up again and again, even within single scenes. Although this was apparently Wolfgang Reitherman’s way of paying “homage” to the earlier works, it really just feels cheap and lazy and prevents the film from really shining from an animation standpoint. There’s not really anything wrong with the animation, of course; this is still Disney, and even if they are just ripping off their earlier work, it’s worth remembering how strong that work was in the first place. It’s just a pity that they had stopped pushing the envelope by this time; there’s nothing new or ground-breaking here, just their usual standard stuff. I can’t help wondering how much stronger this could have looked had Walt been more deeply involved with it!

In some scenes, there are call-backs to earlier, better films, which just makes the film feel even cheaper. A lively mop featured in the kitchen scenes is a clear nod to the likes of Fantasia; indeed, dancing kitchen implements is fast becoming a staple of Disney films by this point. There’s also some nice underwater animation during the moat scenes, but it just doesn’t compare to the likes of, say, Pinocchio (1940).



The basis of the film’s plot is in Arthurian legend, which was drawn from the medieval literary cycle known as the Matter of Britain. With such high-flying source material, you would expect this to be one of Disney’s most popular classics, yet it has actually ended up becoming one of their most overlooked and forgotten – why? When you get right down to it, the problem is that the film utterly wastes its potential for greatness by squandering most of is run-time on a strange, meandering plot which focuses far too much on other characters at the expense of its hero, Arthur.

The question of who exactly Arthur is supposed to be isn’t clearly explained in the film; the king who dies at the start is presumably Uther Pendragon, the man traditionally said to be Arthur’s biological father, but would it really have been too difficult to work in a line or two to explain this? (The name “Uther” can be made out in the book text, admittedly).

Although it might have been easy to forget given how popular Arthurian legend was in the early 1960s, the filmmakers should have considered the fact that not everyone is as familiar with the world of King Arthur as they might have been. And after all, how familiar were they with the world they were adapting? They certainly don’t seem to have had much interest in the material, as they don’t really make full use of the setting or its characters. The titular sword doesn’t appear until almost the end of the film (except for the prologue) and the question of the throne is treated with an incredibly blasé attitude throughout; upon the death of the king, there’s no regent or steward appointed to maintain order in the absence of a monarch, and at the end Arthur actually considers “running away” from the responsibility (as though that’s so easy to do) and resorts to calling on Merlin for help, leaving the film hanging on a weird, weak note. He certainly isn’t portrayed as the powerful king of other adaptations!

Uther PendragonArthur on the throne

This would be the last time that Bill Peet handled the story, as he found working at Disney very difficult and argued frequently with Walt, eventually falling out with him altogether and leaving the studio during the production of The Jungle Book (1967). According to Peet’s autobiography, he found the narrative “complicated, with the Arthurian legend woven into a mixture of other legends and myths” and finding a direct storyline required “sifting and sorting”. Perhaps this struggle explains why the writing here is so poor and patchy; Walt criticised his first draft for lacking substance, so Peet tried to focus on the story’s more dramatic aspects the second time around. Walt apparently approved this draft by phone call from Florida, in a clear example of his detachment from the animated productions by then.

I do love the way the film celebrates education, but on the surface at least, Merlin’s methods don’t seem to have much to do with ruling a kingdom. The swimming lesson is supposed to teach Arthur to use brains over brawn while the squirrel lesson is meant to be about thinking before he acts, but neither of them are at all clear about their purpose, feeling more like filler or attempts to show off the animation. The flying lesson could perhaps be seen as an “art” lesson, but after it devolves into the encounter with Madam Mim it simply becomes the final, conclusive lesson about brains over brawn, which would be all very well if Arthur ever demonstrated a tendency towards wit or cunning – but he doesn’t. None of Merlin’s lessons seem to have any lasting effect on the kid, so that by the film’s end the audience isn’t at all sure that he’ll be capable of ruling England without Merlin and Archimedes shadowing him for the rest of his life.

The wizard's duel #2

The pacing of the plot is very strange, alternating from slow and meandering to wildly rushing through a great number of events at top speed. Mim’s duel with Merlin is almost completely irrelevant to the plot, yet it remains one of the film’s highlights due to the lively character animation (even if the dragon part is basically a rip-off of Sleeping Beauty {1959}). (Mind you, I can’t help wondering how Mim remains ill after Merlin has left her body and returned to his usual form – surely the absence of the virus should treat the infection? And why couldn’t she fight back with her immune system?).

After spending most of its run time on Merlin’s many lessons, the pivotal jousting tournament in London and Arthur’s subsequent pulling of the fabled sword from the stone are crammed into the last ten minutes or so, marking a sudden, jarring shift in tone from largely comedic to serious with high stakes. For anybody not all that familiar with the original story (like myself), it’s more than a little confusing to see this inept, clumsy little lad suddenly “become” king out of nowhere; even with a prophecy decreeing it, you would think that the characters would have noticed how useless Arthur is and considered ignoring the sword in favour of appointing someone more capable. Maybe they just needed a good civil war!

In the last scene, any attempt at building a dramatic or triumphant tone for the film’s climax is promptly ruined by Arthur’s terrified reaction to his appointment and the subsequent return of Merlin, dressed totally inappropriately in his “Bermuda” outfit. After some quick, bland reassurances from the wizard that Arthur will go on to become a great king, the film just… ends, flatly and abruptly. We really could have done with a few small scenes showing Arthur’s reign to prove to us that he ended up adapting to the role; in a modern film, such scenes would likely have appeared over the closing credits, but at that time there were no closing credits, so an epilogue or something of the sort could have done the same job.

The plot of the film overall is arguably its biggest weakness, as the inadequate pacing and lack of focus keeps it grounded firmly in mediocrity when it should be soaring in the echelons of Disney’s best works. The Sword in the Stone left me feeling very frustrated, that’s for sure.



There’s not a whole lot to say about the cinematography of this one; as I noted above, it is a very derivative film, picking and choosing elements of various earlier works instead of including anything original. There’s some decent scenery of the forest (called the “Forest Sauvage”) at times, quite dark and reminiscent in the best moments of films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), with some further scenic shots of the castle, but the backgrounds here aren’t among Disney’s best and neither is the camerawork, with little in the way of interesting shots or angles. One scene that stood out is when Merlin and Arthur are walking along chatting beside the moat, where we watch their reflections in the water rather than the actual characters; it was one fleeting instance of creative visuals in an otherwise fairly straightforward film.

Sword in the Stone imagery #1Sword in the Stone imagery #2Sword in the Stone imagery #3Sword in the Stone imagery #4Sword in the Stone imagery #5Sword in the Stone imagery #6Sword in the Stone imagery #7Sword in the Stone imagery #8Sword in the Stone imagery #9Sword in the Stone imagery #10

The design of the animal versions of Merlin, Mim and Arthur are a creative high point, as they retain the characters’ most distinctive features no matter how wacky the animal; seeing Mim as a rhino, a tiger and a rattlesnake is certainly very funny, but not as much as seeing Merlin’s tiny glasses perched on the snout of a walrus, or a goat, or a crab! At times, the designs in the Mim scenes made me think of the Hanna-Barbera studio, which was experiencing a boom in popularity at the time with their first animated sitcoms like The Flintstones (1960-1966) – perhaps the Disney artists took some inspiration from there?

The best scenes from a cinematography standpoint (aside from the duel) are undoubtedly the ones involving the sword – if only the film could have focused more on that aspect! The lighting and staging in the big sword-pulling scene are much better; I loved the random heavenly choir that rang out whenever Arthur went near the thing, it even freaked him out!

I suppose all I can say here is that I wish this film had tried harder to distinguish itself instead of blending in with the rest of the Disney canon, as there were endless possibilities for stylistic innovation – for instance, the design of Sleeping Beauty, while complex, would have suited this film wonderfully.



Once again, George Bruns was the composer here, with more of his toe-tapping jazz influences making for a fun and sometimes even danceable score. The songs, however, were written and composed by the Sherman Brothers in their first (animated) collaboration with Disney. There are hints of Gilbert and Sullivan in their lyrics, full as they are of wordplay, but at the risk of sounding overly negative about this film I have to say that these songs are not among their most memorable.

The Sword in the Stone, performed over the prologue, is often overlooked even by fans of the film, but it’s actually one of the better numbers. Wonderfully melodramatic and perfectly in line with the “medieval”/Dark Ages tone of the film, it’s almost misleading as it sets the film up as being something very different than it turns out to be. Perhaps Bruns and the Shermans should have tried to stick to this sort of sound for the whole score, as it feels the most appropriate for an Arthurian story.

That said, I can’t imagine The Sword in the Stone without Higitus Figitus, the first jaunty and hilarious number performed by Merlin (in place of a cut song about education called The Magic Key). This, I think, is my favourite of the film’s songs, as it features some of the best wordplay and animation and is a highlight for the character. I also enjoyed the antics of the little sugar bowl as it disrupts the “assembly line” Merlin’s set up, prompting him to chastise it for cracking the tea-set.

A little further on, we get a few more numbers from Merlin – the Shermans obviously liked working with this character! There’s That’s What Makes the World Go Round, which is done as a duet with Arthur and is simple and charming, but it isn’t helped by the fact that Arthur’s voice actor (whichever one it was at that point) couldn’t sing that well (the same problem was encountered during the making of Alice in Wonderland {1951}). During the squirrel part, we get A Most Befuddling Thing, which is similar to the other Merlin numbers – clever wordplay (props for using the word befuddled) and more of that “talk-singing” style. I have to admit, I’m aching for the big ballads of the Renaissance at this point…

Beautiful Mim

Mad Madam Mim is the best-known piece from the film, with the lyrics all about the marvels she can work with her magic and some more fun transformation animation (what a phrase), but like the film’s other songs it is more like a recital than an actual song.  A few other songs were dropped, including The Magic Key, The Sand of Time and Blue Oak Tree (this latter one can be heard being sung briefly by Ector and Pellinore just after Kay’s knighthood).

I’ve already covered my problems with Arthur’s voice acting, but it’s interesting to note that in his “rock bottom” scene in the scullery, as he’s working sadly through his demerits and talking with Merlin, the acting improves significantly – I wonder which of the boys was playing him in that scene? One other thing I liked about the performance (even if it is a stupid thing) was the fact that the filmmakers kept re-using the same “Whoa, what, OH!” cry every few scenes for Arthur; it gets funny in its repetitiveness, as it’s obviously not only the same line but the same recording of the line over and over again (it’s especially funny when paired with Arthur’s “older,” deeper-voiced moments, as the line is clearly from a prepubescent boy). The voice acting elsewhere is generally quite good, with Martha Wentworth and Sebastian Cabot standing out – not to mention Thurl Ravenscroft in his brief role.

My favourite line of the whole film is, unsurprisingly, one of Mim’s. Upon being told by a naïve Arthur that Merlin has declared himself the World’s Most Powerful Wizard, she retorts with: “Ha! Merlin! Merrrrlin! The World’s Most Powerful Bungler!” The writing might not be consistent, but there are a few gems like this from Merlin, Archimedes and Mim scattered across the film.


Final Verdict

The Sword in the Stone is a rather sad milestone in the Disney canon: it was the final animated film to be released before Walt’s death, almost precisely three years later. It came out on Christmas Day, 1963 to generally mixed reviews, but it managed to be a box office success and ended up as the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year.

Some criticised it for its overreliance on humour and weak plot, not to mention the expected hatred from Arthurian purists (no escape from those literary critics) for the Americanisation of the material, but others liked the animation and the more “philosophical” tone (as Neil Sinyard put it). Sinyard noted that the duel between Merlin and Mim could be interpreted as representing Walt’s constant battle with the critics, who also hated Disney’s “wholesome sunshine,” in a similar manner to the many clown jokes of Dumbo (1941) referencing the animator’s strike of the time.

Christopher Finch said that “The film totally misses the tone of T.H. White’s story” and that Merlin is “presented as a bungling nincompoop,” while John Grant summarises it as “thoroughly enjoyable” but “utterly forgettable,” noting the poor voice acting and the lack of “reverence” for the source material, which of course has a famously strong cult following.

The film warranted two rereleases, in 1972 and 1983 (with Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore), although strangely Wikipedia makes no mention of them. It also got multiple VHS releases, in 1983 (UK only), 1986, 1991 and 1994, before getting a combined VHS-DVD release in 2001 and another DVD in 2008 for its forty-fifth anniversary. The fiftieth in 2013 was then marked with a Blu-ray release.

Several of the characters have gone on to further life, with Mim appearing as a popular villain in TV shows and comics (where she sometimes romances Captain Hook, apparently!), while Merlin is the only character from the film to make regular appearances in the world’s Disney parks and also appears in the Kingdom Hearts video game franchise. (It’s perhaps no surprise that Arthur hasn’t proved to have as lasting of an influence).

Finally, just like pretty much every other Disney classic, there is said to be a live-action remake in the works (as of 2015), with Bryan Cogman writing and Brigham Taylor producing. Until that is released, however, it remains the only animated Disney film from the ‘60s to not have a Platinum DVD, a sequel, a TV show or a live-action remake – honestly, I can’t decide if it should be proud of that (as many of these spin-offs are notoriously poor quality), or ashamed (as it’s an obvious marker of its lack of prestige within the company).

After an unintentionally scathing review, I feel like I need to end this on a more positive note. The thing is, The Sword in the Stone isn’t awful – no single part of it is bad enough to make me hate it, and in fact it’s quite enjoyable and easy to watch. It’s just so frustratingly small, in a way that few previous Disney productions had been; Walt’s inattentive attitude towards it really left its mark, with the plot an unfocused mess and the artwork and casting leaving something to be desired. If this story could only have benefited from his usual critical perfectionist’s eye for detail, it could have been as a masterpiece. As it is, it’s just… OK. This certainly isn’t one I’d recommend if you’re on limited time or budget as it’s a prime candidate for skipping, but there’s nothing so bad about it that it’s not worth a watch if you ever find it playing on TV. Luckily, the next Disney outing would be a good deal better!

Arthur pulls the sword

My Rating – 3/5



I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant – credit for poster – wiki page – IMDB profile


18 Replies to “Film Review: The Sword in the Stone (1963)”

  1. I admit that THE SWORD IN THE STONE doesn’t necessarily have the strongest narrative (one reviewer I know of has even suggested that, on account of its rather episodic nature, it would have been better suited as a TV series than as a feature-length movie), but as it stands, I tremendously enjoy it. In a way, it’s like ALICE IN WONDERLAND, in the sense that though its plot leaves something to be desired, it’s a helluva lot of fun along the way.

    That being said, the only complaint that I have is with the inconsistency in Wart’s voice; listening to it fluctuate from one line to the next, from the higher pipes of the Reitherman brothers to the deeper tones of Sorensen and back again, gets very distracting, as you so astutely point out.

    Out of all the characters, I have to say that Merlin is the most well-developed; he could easily have been played as a flawless, imposing, serious being (as he was portrayed in his brief scenes in QUEST FOR CAMELOT [Warner Brothers, 1998]), but in this version, we are reminded that, all-powerful though he may be, he’s, above all, human– he’s forgetful, he makes mistakes, he sometimes loses his cool, and he can be a bit clumsy at times. This makes him a much more interesting character than he would have been otherwise.

    As far as Merlin’s relationship with Wart goes, I must argue against your opinion of him being “more concerned with his own plans than Arthur’s own happiness.” I’m inclined to believe that he sees that Wart deserves something better than the life he currently leads, being “a stooge to that big lunk Kay,” and so is trying his best to lead him towards that better life in the way that he sees fit. So, when Wart ultimately becomes Kay’s squire after all, I think Merlin’s well within his rights to be upset, since after all he’s done to help the kid, Wart’s accepting his current state makes him feel as though his efforts have been for nothing. (When you think about it, when Wart says that being Kay’s squire is the best chance he has, he comes across as rather ungrateful.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I must say, it’s good to hear there’s a fan out there who enjoys so many of the films I didn’t! There’s a touch of Disney magic to be found in all of them, somewhere. I didn’t care for Alice either; I think this style of episodic narrative just isn’t for me, but to each their own.

      Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate Merlin – he’s a lot of fun to watch – but I felt like Archimedes was a more effective tutor. He actually began to teach the boy to read and write, instead of turning him into random animals without fully explaining why! Still, perhaps I was a little hard on the old bean, I suppose he is only trying to help…


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