Review: Disney’s Sword in the Stone

I have been re-watching the classic Disney animated features in order, from SNOW WHITE onward. The well-deserved immortal fame of these films hardly requires any additional comment, but, as a professionally opinionated curmudgeon, at some point, I may write up reviews of each.

For now, I wish only to pen a critique of SWORD IN THE STONE, which was bland and boilerplate, badly-drawn, badly-adapted, and badly-told.

If this is not the worst Disney animated feature the company ever made, it is the worst I can bring to mind. Even HOME ON THE RANGE was better, and that was so bad it shut down the pen-and-ink branch of the animation department.

Story telling by means of animated film includes elements in common with all story telling: plot, character, setting, style and theme.

Elements not in common include draftsmanship and motion of the animation, richness and craft of backgrounds, the quality of the voice acting and background music, and, if the film is a musical, the songs.

When adapting the work from another medium, the faithfulness (or otherwise) is a film element, as is the cleverness (or otherwise) of negotiating the limits of the new medium to reproduce the effect of the original.

So: the elements here include plot, character, style and setting, theme as well as the skill of the animation, music (if it is a musical), and the faithfulness of the adaptation (if adapted from another medium). Let us examine these elements in reverse order.

First, the adaptation.

As when he tried to adapt ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Mr. Disney’s sense of humor, sense of timing, and sense of story telling differed so sharply from the source material, that the flavor and merit of the original was lost.

In T.H. White. the scenes of Wart (as young Arthur is called), and his tutorials under Merlin are at once whimsical and ironic: as when, as a bird, Arthur sees no borders or land divisions between men and men, as a map displays; or as when, as an ant, Wart sees the grim horror of totalitarianism. The payoff of these scenes is later, when, as an adult, Arthur applies the lessons learned.

But for Disney, since the childhood lessons under Merlin comprise the whole of the film, there is no payoff, hence no point, to anything that comes onstage.

Disney wanted to tell a children’s story, and so restricted himself to the boyhood episode that is largely preface to TH White’s whole story.

Disney then larded this one episode with endless and pointless slapstick humor, which mostly consists of seeing one small creature, fish, beast, or bird, yanking on the tail of a larger creature to save a third creature from its snapping jaws.

There is not a single scene without a bumble, stumble, tumble or pratfall into a thornbush, swamp pool, or washtub. Every character is smacked in the head at least twice. Young Arthur trips over his feet, breaking crockery, or falls from a broken treebranch whenever possible.

Nowhere present is the dry and ironic humor of TH White, as when he describes the motto of the ant kingdom to be: “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” Disney does not do dry nor ironic.

Nothing of TH White survives adaptation, nor anything Arthurian, aside from the prop of the magic sword. When Sir Pellinore comes on stage, I expected some of the goofy humor of his sad and endless hunt for the Questing Beast (he fears the poor beast will die of loneliness if Pellinore stops seeking him), which is the central gimmick or schtick of his character in TH White. It is never mentioned. Pellinore has no personality.

Disney portrays what is essentially a generic goofy wizard attempting to tutor a generic clumsy boy.

The boy is good-natured, polite, and meek, but displays no particular qualities of kindness or courage as one might find, for example, in Cinderella. No trace of the king to be is in him.

Each time Arthur is in peril, he does nothing to save himself aside from run away screaming. It never occurs to Disney that the lad born to be England’s king would not be willing to run screaming from a foe, no matter how large the foe nor hopeless the fight.


There are two or three songs sung by Merlin, and one by Mim.

In CINDERELLA the magic words of the Fairy Godmother casting her charms are set to music as ear-catching gibberish, as “Bippity Boppity Boo!” Here the same trope is tried again, but in a tired and trite way, “Higitus Figitus” — this lacks even the childish charm of JK Rawlings’ dog-Latin, or the DC comic’s Zatanna’s magic words being backward English.

Disney is a past master of cheery songs chock full of nonsense words, and yet here the nonsense is not lyrical cheery, or alliterative enough to be good nonsense. It is merely dull.

Merlin’s other song is called “That’s What Makes the World go Round”. Nothing can convey the superlative mediocrity and pointlessness of this song as well as reciting the opening lyric:

Left and right
Like day and night
That’s what makes the world go round
In and out
Thin and stout
That’s what makes the world go round

For every up there is a down
For every square there is a round
For every high there is a low
For every to there is a fro

If there is a Disney song more forgettable, I have forgotten it.


The voice acting is bland, despite having some veteran Disney voice actors on board, including the Sabastian Cabot and Thurl Ravenscroft.

I mention Thurl Ravenscroft in particular, because he only appears in one scene, with only one line, declaring the boy Arthur to be king, but his rich baritone is so robust, and because he is the only voice actor who seemed to really want to do a good job in this film, his voice stuck in my memory.

I had to look him up to remind myself where I had heard him before: he sings the “You’re a Foul One, Mr. Grinch” song.


Normally, in a review of this kind, I would find stills from the film, and pepper them throughout the text. The drawing quality is substandard, so I see no need to do so here.

The animation is terrible, and copies a sloppy technique commonplace in 1950s commercial art just then going out of style.

The sharp contrast with the full-blown oil paintings used in the background of SLEEPING BEAUTY, or the airbrushed ethereal detail of the background in SNOW WHITE makes the lazy brushwork, dull images, lack of color, composition, or cleverness all the more shocking.

If you are expecting Disney to match his work seen, for example, in the April showers scene in BAMBI, or the color changes and composition of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in FANTASIA, you will mourn.

None of the animation motions are particularly well done or memorable. The scene in SLEEPING BEAUTY has the three fairies clean house, bake, and sew using their brightly colored sparkling magic, accompanied by a song, and a duel of color-dye. Everything is done cleverly, is well colored and well composed, and all the candles and crockery dance in time to the beat.

Here there is a parallel scene, first where Merlin serves tea, and second when he packs his carpet bag. The same sugerbowl seen in SLEEPING BEAUTY is here, doing almost the same shtick of ladling sugar out of itself with a spoon, except that all is done in a dull fashion, with no surprise, no humor, no whimsy, no charm.

The floating objects move mechanically, except when they quarrel for no particular reason, for clearly Disney felt another slapstick distraction must intrude every ninety seconds of runtime or so.

The character designs are terrible. Madame Mim is meant to be a comedy relief menace, but she flounces around mooning the audience with her bloomers, which is neither comical nor menacing. She has nothing about her look or costume which is memorable, aside from being a grinning fat woman with bucktooth.

Likewise for Merlin, Arthur, Ector and Archimedes: to most bland and generic version imaginable of magician, boy, fat man, owl, as they would be drawn by the most hasty and uninspired of hackwork artists appear in this film.

I once had to draw a picture of thirty magicians as a prop for a game I was running: each wizard was remarkably vivid and particular in his look and costume, and easily could be told one from the next. So if even a talent as untalented as my own can manage to give a visual clue of personality and individuality to a character, any minimum-wage artist working on his first day at Disney, or even the unpaid intern, could do better.


The theme or point of the boyhood scenes in TH White is have Merlin teach lessons Arthur later in life would use as king to render his reign wise and just. Here, Disney never decides what he wants Merlin to be teaching.

Instead of teaching him any lesson, this film consists of generic wizard placing generic boy into deadly danger by transforming him into fish, squirrel, or bird, having the boy be comically menaced by a bigger fish, a girl squirrel, or a bird of prey, and then having the boy be comically rescued by a clumsy rescuer, or by sheer dumb luck.

Once or twice Merlin says that Arthur must learn not to prevail by brawn but by brains, but in none of the animal sequences does Arthur, or anyone else, prevail by brains. Arthur escapes death as a small creature in each case by screaming and running away and being rescued by someone else.

In one particularly poorly written sequence, Arthur is a squirrel with whom a girl squirrel is romantically infatuated. After the fashion of the comically aggressive females of BAMBI, she pursues him, despite his attempts to shoo her away. Throughout this all, Merlin jibs at Arthur, delighting in the lad’s embarrassment, until a fat female squirrel corners him and makes the same aggressive advances.

When both Arthur and girl squirrel are attacked by a wolf, Arthur, would-be knight and future king of England, takes no steps to protect the female. Instead he screams and runs away.

The petite female screws her courage to the sticking place, assumes the port of Mars, and leaps to the attack, gnawing on the rear leg of the wolf just in time to save Arthur from the snapping fangs.

The reward for her valor is nothing. When he is returned to human form, the girl squirrel is naturally heartbroken and lovelorn.

Guinevere never puts in an appearance in this film, so whatever the boy was supposed to learn about love and romance would be pointless, had he learned anything, which he did not.

The wolf kayos himself in a pratfall, but since this is the same wolf who mugs Arthur in two or three other scenes in the film, each time kayoing himself in a pratfall, sometimes without Arthur even being aware of the menace, the audience has no reason to regard him as menacing, or interesting, or anything.

Nor in his episodes as a fish or bid does Arthur learn anything else in any way that changes or improves his lot in life.

Style and setting:

Arthurian myths have a particular style and setting which is unmistakable. Allow me to quote from Mallory, then Tennyson:

“The very purpose of a knight is to fight on behalf of a lady.”

“Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of: Wherefore, let thy voice rise like a fountain for me night and day.”

Even when rewritten into modern language, there is a  certain tragic dignity to Arthur and the Knights of the Table Round which cannot be excised from the tale without losing the whole tale. This is what Disney has done here: Disney lost the whole tale.

Even as a comedy version of Arthurian England, there is nothing of knighthood, of chivalry, of battle, neither doughty and worthy knights, foul enchanters, or fair damsels found here. There is not even the peevish mockery of chivalry and all for which it stands as one finds in Mark Twain’s CONNECTICUT YANKEE. Chivalry is neither upheld nor mocked.

The Round Table is mentioned only in passing in the final scene, where it is used as a joke, because Merlin offers Arthur that the table can be square if he wishes.

Knighthood is simply not mentioned, except, perhaps, when Merlin scorns the whole business as brainless. Perhaps the narrative agrees: the once or twice when we see knights in practice or in tilt, they smash into each other to end up unwounded in comical heaps with broken swords and dented helmets.


How does one set a character in the society of Arthurian England without any but the briefest passing mention of knighthood? Answer: one does not. One ends up with a character devoid of character.

The three episodes of Arthur being transformed into critters by Merlin occupy the bulk of the run time. Allegedly this is to tutor Arthur, but for what and how, is never made clear. It is certainly not meant to teach him to be a knight, because Merlin badmouths knighthood. It is not meant to teach him to be king.

As a fish, he learns that the world has up and down, round and square, to and fro. I am not sure what this means. The comedy relief owl pulls him out of the jaws of the pikefish. As a squirrel, he learns love is the most powerful power on earth. As a bird, he learns to hide in a chimney from a bigger bird.

Arthur learns nothing to help him solve his problems because he has no problems. He has no problems because he has no ambitions, and nothing threatens him. He has neither hopes nor fears because he has no character. There is no reason for this non character to be in the plot at all, but then again, that is no problem, because there is no plot.

There could have been a character. All the writer had to do was decide to put one on stage.

Once or twice, it seems as if Arthur, called Wart, was supposed to be Cinderella, unfairly abused in youth, his true worth hidden. Except that Sir Ector and Kay are simply not that bad. Arthur is overworked, but then again he smashes all the crockery in the kitchen, and Kay picks on him for being a pest, but then again Arthur actually is a pest in this film, interfering with Kay’s serious business of getting venison for the larder. Cinderella was kind to animals, and even made them clothing, and she was a hard worker, uncomplaining and good-hearted. Arthur, in this film, is not particularly kind nor particularly hard working nor particularly anything.

He is shown tripping while carrying dishes at least twice, smashing crockery in a pratfall, and then Merlin cracks the rest while casting a comedy relief dish-washer spell, which ends up attacking Sir Ector and Kay. Cinderella never breaks a plate.

The relation of student to teacher is truly one of the strongest of lifelong bonds when it is not merely book learning, but a master and disciple. There is nothing of that here. Arthur leaps to the defense of Merlin when Merlin is criticized, but he has nothing to say other than that Merlin uses his magic for good — we assume so, because Merlin says so, but we never actually see Merlin do anything with his magic aside from (1) see the future (2) pack bags (3) turn people into animals (4) disappear (5) clean the kitchen (6) blast himself to Bermuda. He does not cure the sick nor find the missing  sword of the lady of the lake, nor tell the hero how to break a curse, nor anything else that actually helps anyone.

You see, the problem is that Arthur does not need help. He picks up the sword out of the stone my mere mischance, because he forgot to bring Kay his sword. Angelic voices and lights descend from the cloud when he touches the hilts, but he decides to ignore this obviously supernal omen from heaven and yank up the sword anyway. The scene is played for laughs. Arthur is a comedy relief in his own story.

Or perhaps this is Merlin’s story. The camera rests mostly on him, and he does most of the talking.

But Merlin is comedy relief also. Merlin trips over his beard in every scene where he does not tangle it in machinery. Merlin has one schtick, which comes from TH White: namely he remembers the future, and so knows about airplanes and steam engines and other modern inventions, and is irked by the lack of indoor plumbing in the Middle Ages. Nothing comes of this, and no contrast nor insight between Medieval and Modern is ever made.

His rival Madame Mim is also comedy relief. One actually good bit of character development is seen in the duel of magic she holds with Merlin: she lists three rules which she immediately breaks, while he abides by the rules (while seeming to break them) and overcomes her nonetheless. It is actually a clever bit, and the only good scene in the whole show.

Archimedes is comedy relief also. He is sputtering and cross, but not in a way that is funny, or understandable, or interesting. Merlin at one point mentions that Archimedes does not like being woken up during the day — if this had been the schtick from the get-go, it could have been a good bit of business. As it is, it is merely tiresome.

Sir Ector is also a good-natured if blustery comedy relief buffoon, as is Kay, who is a scowling and meanspirited comedy relief buffoon.

At times Ector doubt that Merlin has magic powers, and at other times is terrified of them. The film never decides which way to handle it, but it is really hard to make one comedy clown be afraid of another comedy clown unless at least one of them can be taken seriously enough to be impressive.

Every character is comedy relief. Every character is a clown. No one and nothing onstage looks handsome or normal or has clothes which are not hanging baggy.

Now, you may be wondering, how can there be nothing but comedy relief without any straight men? In CINDERELLA the king and his butler were cartoonish and silly, but the prince and Cinderella herself were drawn as fair and fine, and the evil stepmother was dignified.

In this, everyone is silly, everyone stumbles, everyone is foolish, and nothing much happens.


There are stories which do not have plots. These are usually called vignettes or slices of life. Disney’s BAMBI is a story with no plot, or not much of one: the action revolves around watching the young prince learn to talk and walk, make friends, learn lessons, lose loved one, grow from youth to adulthood, fall in love, fight for his love, take a mate, fight, survive, and eventually take his place at his sire’s side as Prince of the Forest. Every scene is wonderful, and more to the point, no scene could be plucked out of the whole without marring the thematic unity of the theme.

This is the opposite. For example, the opening sequence where Merlin complains about the lack of modern plumbing while tripping over his comedy relief beard could have been left out with no loss to the plot. Everything he says to the exposition owl he repeats later to Wart.

The sequence where Arthur is a fish and gets chased by a pike also could have been removed without any loss to later events because Arthur learns nothing, befriends no one, gains no foes.

Likewise, for the scene where he is a squirrel. Had it been removed, nothing would have been lost. It was not needed for any later events. The character learns nothing and suffers no change.

Again, nothing comes of being turned into a bird. Nothing comes of Merlin’s attempt to educate him. He learns nothing, but since Arthur never wanted an education to begin with, nothing is lost.

In fact, not a single, solitary scene that is needed. Any or all of them could be dropped with no loss.

There actually is not a single event which makes any difference whatsoever.

SWORD IN THE STONE, like BAMBI, also has no plot, but then again it has no theme and no unity either.

Generally, story telling requires a character whom the audience is given some reason to like, who has a goal he wants very much, and an obstacle stands in his way. The plot consists of seeing the steps whereby he overcomes the obstacle, if this is a happy ending, or the obstacle overcomes him, if not.

Here, the obstacle introduced in the opening is that England lacks a king. Nothing is made of this; the lawlessness of being kingless is not mentioned again; it never comes onstage.

In one scene, Arthur mentions that, as an orphan, he cannot hope to be a knight: at best, he can hope to be a squire to Kay, his foster brother.

But there is no obstacle to doing so, aside from his own clumsiness and disobedience to Sir Ector. Indeed, when the climactic joust is to be held at London town, and Arthur is forbidden to go, the offstage character of Kay’s other squire falls sick, and Ector immediately appoints Arthur to go.

Please notice what is missing: Arthur is not the one who yearns desperately to go to London and takes some step to arrange that he might. Like a treebranch out of nowhere clocking an menacing wolf on the head for no reason, the problem blocking Arthur’s desire is solved offstage by events not influenced nor even witnessed by him.

One thing that could have produced an obstacle blocking his desire to be a squire was that Merlin was opposed to the idea, but when the two of them begin to have a tiff over the topic — a particularly pointless tiff, because the plot has given neither character anything to say nor any reason to say it — Merlin accidently vanishes from England for no reason, when a random interjection accidently acts as a magic spell. This might have been a funny running gag, showing both the power and the incompetence of the senile archmagician, but it s only done once.

In fact, Arthur does nothing whatever at any point in this film, aside from at times obeying orders meekly and at other times talking back.

When Arthur stumbles by mistake across the sword, he yanks it up with no trouble and no thought. Merlin is not needed to help him draw the sword. No one is needed.

When he is made king, he does not want the job, but is too incompetent to find an escape hatch, or a way to sneak away. Merlin reappears for no reason, and utters a lame joke about motion pictures being like television with no commercials. Roll credits.

In sum, in terms of plot, character, setting and style, theme, animation and song, the adaptation of a beloved book by TH White is a failure on every level.

SWORD IN THE STONE is bland and dull from stem to stern. It is not bad because it is bad; it is bad because it is not good.