A 45th anniversary seems a somewhat random milestone to re-release a Disney animated film, but any excuse is a good excuse to make another few dollars on the gold mine that is the Disney catalogue. It actually does give some people, like me, the first opportunity to sit down and watch 1963’s The Sword in the Stone all the way through. It also gives me the opportunity to say, “meh.”
The title of The Sword in the Stone, the picture on the cover of the DVD, the famous scene that is often used in advertising, and even the prologue of the movie itself would lead you to think this is a movie about, well, the sword in the stone. The removal of the sword is the event that showed young Arthur to be the one true king of England. Instead, the film, based on the book by T.H. White, doesn’t have much to do with that event, focusing instead on the actions of the wizard Merlin (voiced by Karl Swenson) in training up aspiring squire “Wart” (Rickie Sorensen) for some unknown important destiny.
The biggest weakness of the movie is that it is more a series of slapstick and goofy vignettes rather than a cohesive story or character arc for Wart. Merlin turns Wart into a three successive animals and teaches him that brains are more important than brawn by saying things like “brains are more important than brawn.” There is no villain or antagonist, although Wart's foster father, Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot), and foster brother, Sir Kay (Norman Alden), do provide resistance to him becoming anything but a squire. The climactic battle between Merlin and Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth) is unrelated to anything else in the story and involves a character who was introduced two minutes before the battle begins. It’s supposed to show Wart learning, but even at the end of the movie he doesn’t come across as any different than he was in the beginning.
A weak story in an animated film can be balanced by the beauty, wonder, or creativity of the animated world created. Unfortunately, despite the presence of director Wolfgang Reitherman, the animation is somewhat tepid. To be more precise, the backgrounds are dull. While the characters are at times very interesting and match the light, slapstick tone of the script, the backgrounds are cheap and uninspiring. No depth and almost no movement. Obviously, this was 45 years ago, but everything just looks flat.
It’s not terrible by any stretch and some of the scenes, including the battle between Mim and Merlin, are fun to watch. There are also a few songs by the Sherman Brothers in their first assignment for Disney. The time traveling absent-minded Merlin is funny and if the story were a bit more focused or the animation a bit more creative, this might have a higher place in the Disney firmament. Instead, it’s just ok filler that might appeal to kids who haven’t seen it yet.
Similar to the concurrently released Jungle Book 2(Special Edition), there is really no reason to pick up The Sword in the Stone (45th Anniversary Edition) if you already have a previous edition, like the Gold Classic Edition released in 2001. While the picture and sound look pretty good, there is no indication this was enhanced or restored for this version and the quality is probably similar to the 2001 release.
All of the extras seem to be held over from the 2001 release as well, except one new game. The game, “Merlin’s Magical Academy,” involves answering easy questions or playing simple games with your remote and earning shield shaped badges. The game will appeal to young children and no one else. It certainly is not worth upgrading your current The Sword in the Stone DVD, if you have one.
A real treat of an extra are two Disney shorts, each about seven minutes long. Goofy stars in “A Knight for a Day” and Mickey is the “Brave Little Tailor.” The two shorts were chosen for their medieval theme, but any excuse to watch some classic Disney cartoons is always appreciated.
The music of The Sword in the Stone is highlighted in two extras. One is the simple ability to jump right to a song in the movie and also to put the words on screen. It’s not like these are the top flight songs in the Disney Cannon, (have you sung “Higitus Figitus” lately?) so I can’t imagine wanting to seek them out, but they were written by the Sherman Brothers, so they do have some charm. The brothers are also featured in an eight minute featurette called “Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers.” They are interviewed (probably in 2001) about their experiences writing the songs for The Sword in the Stone. These two are probably the best ever in their field, and the extra could have easily been five times as long and covered more of their career.
“Music Magic” is the closest thing the disc has to a “making-of” documentary. Instead, we get a seven minute section of a Disney television show about magic. Walt Disney goes down into the basement room where all the magic tricks are kept and does a little magic act. It’s pretty cornball and has nothing to do with the movie. There is also a “Film Facts” extra that shows stills with a very small amount of basic information about the film. Finally, there is a “Scrapbook,” that shows stills of concept art. You can click on some of the pictures to make them bigger, but it and the “Film Facts” are uninspired add-ons.
This is a pretty weak release, although the Disney shorts and the feature on the Sherman Brothers are nice to have. The movie is in full frame, but you are getting the whole picture as it was released in that format in some theaters. A young child who has never seen this movie might enjoy the DVD, but to everyone else it’s a pretty mediocre movie and a pretty mediocre DVD reissue.