In Need of a Villain: Disney’s The Sword in the Stone

By the early 1960s, Disney had kicked into high gear, with a popular television show running every week on ABC (in the days before Disney owned ABC), and several successful live action films. Its popular theme park, Disneyland, was finally turning solid profits after the first couple of shaky years, with merchandise flying off shelves. These successful ventures turned animation—both for full length and shorts—into a decided sideline, especially after just a few too many disasters. But Walt Disney was reluctant to completely abandon the company’s roots—and One Hundred and One Dalmatians had shown that at least some Disney animated films could make money. And least on the surface, The Sword in the Stone seemed to offer several elements associated with Disney’s full length animated successes: British (Peter Pan; One Hundred and One Dalmatians), talking animals (One Hundred and One Dalmatians again; Lady in the Tramp), and a touch of magic (Cinderella; Peter Pan.) It seemed a surefire bet.

If Disney had learned anything from its previous films, however, it should have been this: surefire bets are not, alas, always surefire.

Part of the problem stemmed from a simple lack of money. Despite the success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Disney did not want to risk that much money on the film, and severely trimmed the film’s budget. It shows. If, for instance, you’re watching the film in a casual sort of way and just happen to think, huh, that shot of Kay eating a big leg of meat looks suspiciously familiar, that’s because it is suspiciously familiar: it appears in the film three times. Other bits were traced from earlier animation work, setting an unfortunate precedent that was to be continued all the way until The Rescuers Down Under, then repeated again in Beauty and the Beast, before computer technology finally allowed Disney to return to completely new animation in every film from Aladdin on.

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The budget cuts also show in the voicing. This is arguably the weakest vocal film of any of the Disney films done under Walt Disney’s direct supervision (we will encounter a couple of upcoming films that are worse), a particular disappointment after the spectacular voice work for Cruella de Vil in the previous films. Most notable: the voicing of the film’s supposed protagonist, Wart, who was voiced by three different child actors. Two were brothers, and sound somewhat similar; the third was not, and sounds distinctly different. Given that the film is about growing up, this problem might have been overcome—except that the director inexplicably chose to leave all three voices in for some scenes, drawing attention to the problem that they were not the same actor. Adding to the issue: all three had distinctly American accents, in a film set in Britain, otherwise voiced by Brits. The only positive: the vocal issues with Wart do help distract attention from the fact that the Brits aren’t particularly good here either.

But the real problem with the film isn’t any of this, but rather the plot, or, more specifically, the lack of one, along with the lack of a real villain. Wart, after all, is destined to pull the sword out of the stone and become King Arthur, somewhat robbing the film of any real suspense. This did not necessarily need to be a problem—T. H. White had dealt with this issue by creating a meandering fantasy that focused more on education, philosophy, satire and magic that used its lack of suspense to its advantage. And Disney had managed, with the help of some mice, to add at least some suspense to Cinderella, a film whose ending could only have surprised very very small viewers indeed.

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In this film, however, it is a problem, because The Sword in the Stone never really seems to have much of a point. As in the book, we meet Wart, who seems nice enough, if very American and rather bland, and the easily distracted, rather ditzy, and occasionally deeply irresponsible Merlin and his owl Archimedes. As not in the book, his foster brother Kay is downright brutal and mean here, with few if any redeeming qualities. Well, he’s not too bad at hitting things, and he seems to be somewhat fond of his father, but that’s about it. Merlin decides that Arthur needs to be educated—but not at all clear why. This presents a few problems: Arthur has a number of other duties as a scullery boy and Kay’s squire in training, and his foster father Sir Ector is considerably less enthusiastic about education in this film than he was in the book, leading to a few shenanigans where Arthur is late for washing dishes or says he has to wash dishes instead of going off with Merlin to be education which leads to Merlin doing magic which is all very nice, but not in the least bit suspenseful, or interesting. There’s also a slight side plot where in Arthur might be able to go to London, as long as he behaves, or might not, but again, it’s not all that interesting.

Again, this is a place where knowing the film’s ending does present a problem—but a problem that could have been solved. In Cinderella, for instance, we know that Cinderella will eventually get to that ball. Which means that the scene with her stepmother is not particularly suspenseful. It’s compelling, however, because it focuses on the deep injustice of Cinderella’s position: she worked her butt off to get to that ball, doing everything she could—and was attacked by her stepsisters as a result. It turns Cinderella into someone we want to root for.

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In the similar scene in The Sword of the Stone, Arthur doesn’t initially get to go to London (something that only pops up in the middle of the film in any case) because he actually and genuinely screwed up. Knowing that he’s already somewhat in disgrace for skipping out on chores, scaring his foster parent, and showing up late, he agrees to go off with Merlin anyway and skip out on his chores again. To be fair, the wizard sets up an automated cleaning spell to ensure that the dishes will get cleaned—it’s kinda cool—but then the two of them trot off without bothering to tell anyone about this. Naturally, when a scullery maid enters the kitchen and sees dishes, pots, pans and brooms flying around without human assistance, she panics, calling for Sir Ector and Kay for help. They hurry to the kitchen, where both get injured. Also, several plates get broken, in a time period where all pottery was still hand-thrown. It’s supposed to be a funny scene, and it sorta is, but the end result was to make me feel very sorry for the scullery maid and slightly sorry for Kay and Sir Ector, and feeling that Sir Ector’s decision not to let Arthur go to London is pretty justified.

It doesn’t help that Arthur, of course, does eventually go to London—not because of his own efforts, but because the other available squire is sick. It’s all very nice, and does lead to Arthur finally explaining—in the last ten minutes—why becoming a squire is a good deal for him, under the circumstances. Had that explanation come earlier (it does in the novel), it might have generated sympathy for Arthur. As it is—well, it’s a bit difficult to feel much sympathy for a character who has just found out that, despite his screw-ups, he’s about to get his one stated wish because someone else got sick.

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Which leads to yet another problem, this one from the original novel: Wart has absolutely no desire to become king. The only one who does, sorta, is Kay, and even Kay doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about it—his reaction is more along the lines of, oh, there’s a tournament that will be picking the king? Ok, whatever, I’m in. Wart is even less enthusiastic about everything except for going to London, making him about the only Disney protagonist, so far, to (a) not have a clear, desirable goal to begin with, whatever that goal is (stay alive, turn into a real boy, escape bullies/learn to fly, stay alive, get married, get home, have adventures, stay alive, save a number of adorable little puppies, and so on) and (b) to only sort of get his goal. He does find a place in the world, something we learned he wanted in the last ten minutes of the film, but it’s not the place he wanted, something the film could have explored, but didn’t.

Instead, what the film dwells on, often to the point of tediousness, is education. As in the book, Merlin’s idea of education is to transform Arthur into various animals—a fish, a squirrel, and a bird. As not in the book, it’s not entirely clear what Arthur learns from any of this other than education/thinking, good; violence, less good. For all the emphasis on education, for instance, Arthur only finally starts learning to read and write two thirds of the way through the film.

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The first transformation, into a fish, does at least provide a bit of entertainment when Wart finds himself attracting the attention of a curious frog and a vicious pike. The second transformation, into a squirrel, has not dated well at all, leading to a sequence where Wart and Merlin have to fend off the desperate overtures of a little girl squirrel and a large, fat, horny older woman squirrel. It’s fairly misogynistic—something not helped by the fact that dishes are attacking the denizens of the castle during all of this squirrel pursuit, like thanks again, Merlin, THAT WENT WELL FOR EVERYONE. You left a little girl squirrel IN TEARS.

The third transformation is just dull.

And then there’s the long sequence between Merlin and Madame Mim who decide to have a wizard duel because…well, they need to fill another five to eight minutes of the film. On the one hand, this is arguably the best sequence of the film as far as animation is concerned, as Merlin and Mim transform into various animals while still managing to look more or less like Merlin and Mim after each transformation. It’s clever, occasionally funny, and pointless. It might have worked had Mim been the film’s major villain, but she isn’t: she’s basically filler.

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Above all, perhaps, The Sword in the Stone showcases how much the Disney films, with very few exceptions, depend upon their villains. The Sword in the Stone has three: the pike, Mim, and Kay, but two of these are only bit villains, and Kay can’t, and indeed doesn’t, do all that much to Wart. He’s not kind, and he’s certainly not helpful, and he calls Wart all kinds of names and isn’t particularly concerned when the younger boy heads off into a dangerous forest. But he’s ultimately not responsible for making the major decisions about Wart—should Wart become a squire, do dishes, go to London, and so on, or cause Wart the major sorts of problems Disney villains usually create (death, taking over a country, more death). Kay does set the final bit of the plot in motion, when he realizes that Wart forgot to bring his sword, and sends Wart off to go get it, but that’s another thing on Wart, not Kay—well, really, on the magic that wants Wart to be king, but whatever.

This means that the film as a whole lacks urgency and suspense. As an adaptation, it also lacks White’s satire on contemporary political systems and deep set concern about war. It’s a film that doesn’t really know what it is: a comedy, perhaps (it does have its amusing moments); a coming of age story, not exactly. It’s just a meandering film, with a few comedic moments, and its biggest problem is that so much of it is forgettable or boring.

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Walt Disney himself did not think much of the final result. The film enjoyed an initial financial success, but nothing close to the previous One Hundred and One Dalmatians or the following year’s blockbuster success, Mary Poppins. Nor did it offer the same sorts of merchandising opportunities.

Slowly, The Sword in the Stone faded into obscurity. Madame Mim did escape into the Disney Comics and the later Kingdom Hearts video game. Merlin occasionally appeared at the Disney Parks. A merry-go-round at Disneyland was named for King Arthur. (The equivalent one at Walt Disney World was originally named after Cinderella and now is named after Prince Charming.) But that was it: a minor, forgettable film in Disney’s more storied animation history, noted, if anything, for being the first in a long line of largely forgettable Disney films.

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But the failure, or near failure, of The Sword in the Stone did not quite discourage Disney from eyeing yet another British property. The Jungle Book, coming up next.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida

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