Though often treated as the runt of the litter when it comes to the 1960s Disney output, I find The Sword in the Stone holds a certain place in the heart of kids of my generation. I can't quite put my finger on why, but something about growing up in the 1980s made a lot of us big fans of the story of young Wart and his quest to be king. Perhaps it was a sign of the times that we all turned to fantasy for the promise of something more. Most of us probably already own the old 2001 Gold Collection release of the movie, but that's not likely to stop us from grabbing Disney's new The Sword in the Stone - 45th Anniversary Edition despite the notable lack of major upgrades in the extras department or in the technical specs. Such are our addictions.
The Sword in the Stone is basically Cinderella for boys. Young orphan Wart (voiced by Rickie Sorenson) has been adopted by the kind but stern Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot), who puts him to work around the house and aiding his idiot son, Kay (Norman Alden). Destiny has other things in mind for Wart, however, and the wizard Merlin (Karl Swenson) and his talking owl Archimedes (Junius Matthews) see great things on Wart's horizon. They try to train him and prepare him for his future, when he will become King Arthur, the legendary ruler of all of England.
Based on the book by T.H. White, the script and look of the film version of The Sword in the Stone was developed by one of the great idea men at the Disney Studios, Bill Peet, and directed by one of the "nine old man," Wolfgang Reitherman. From an animation standpoint, The Sword in the Stone is impeccable, full of vivacious characters and detailed backgrounds that combine more magical colors like purples and blues with more down-to-earth settings like stone castles of brown and gray. There is a lot of humor in the story, including a Warner Bros.-esque wolf that stalks the boy, and a riotous battle between Merlin and the crazy witch Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth). Amidst all this is a standard but heartwarming story of a boy discovering who he really is.
The updating of the story has several fun wrinkles. Peet has added a commentary on the generation gap to the tale, with Wart feeling that Merlin doesn't understand what his life is like and Merlin thinking Wart isn't paying him the due respect for his knowledge. This lends another development to Wart's character, as eventually he will be forced to defend Merlin to his stepfather when Ector can't see the good of the Wizard's magic, and it creates a greater understanding between student and teacher. This added theme of past vs. present even goes so far as to encompass the future, with Merlin now being a time-traveler and introducing many humorous anachronisms into the medieval environment.
Alongside the good stuff, though, there are also flaws. From a story standpoint, the string of training sessions, where Merlin turns Wart into a variety of animals only for him to run into predators and get in a tight spot starts to feel a little formulaic when we hit the third such teaching lesson. I have also always been a little disappointed by the ending. Wart acquires the sword in the stone with very little ceremony, and then the film is over. In that way, it feels like the first part of a much longer story--which it was in White's books. As a self-contained movie, the end point is a letdown.
Even with these flaws, The Sword in the Stone is still incredible entertainment, and it definitely has had a hand in inspiring future Disney projects. In keeping with the past/future theme, the story at times hearkens back to older Disney classics (Merlin's lessons on love are similar to the ones taught to Bambi, the animated cleaning tools doing the young ward's chores much like "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"), you can also see early traces of much later Disney features. The song "That's What Makes the World Go Round" has a lesson not dissimilar to the Circle of Life mumbo jumbo in The Lion King, for instance, and the animated crockery was a precursor to the kitchen staff in Beauty and the Beast. Even Pixar seems to have used The Sword in the Stone as reference. Does the little orange fish version of Wart remind anyone else of Nemo?
Though it hasn't quite been 45 years since I last saw it, The Sword in the Stone still makes me feel like a kid and all the possibilities that entails. It's a tried-and-true story: a young child with a greater destiny than anyone would imagine finds the key to making that destiny come true. As daydreams go, it's pretty potent stuff. The Sword in the Stone - 45th Anniversary Edition should prove that it can stand the test of time, even if its wizard isn't all that sure about all of this motion picture nonsense. If he had little use for the 20th Century, one can only guess what the old coot would have thought of the 21st!
I can actually see no improvement between the DVD released seven years ago and this new The Sword in the Stone - 45th Anniversary Edition. The picture in both versions--full frame, 1.33:1 aspect ratio--is fantastic, free of dirt and full of bright colors. I didn't do a comprehensive side-by-side comparison, but my random sampling reveals no real difference. Check these two screen shots of the movie taken moments apart.
The first picture is from 2001, the second from 2008. Could you tell? Me neither.
The Dolby 5.1 mix on this new disc also was on the Gold Collection. It's of equal quality to the image, with crisp tones and nice levels working the entire room when the musical numbers start up.
There are options for dubbed and subtitled versions in French and Spanish, as well as English Closed Captioning.
Edit: Of course, as should be noted (and I apologize for neglecting to do so when I first posted this review), the movie is still not presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.75:1. Perhaps that is being saved for a 50th Anniversary unlocking of the Disney Vaults.
Lately, when Disney has released new versions of films already on DVD, we have been treated to packages with a larger amount of extras. This makes it all the more surprising that The Sword in the Stone - 45th Anniversary Edition is just a redo of the old Gold Collection. The only additions to this new DVD are an interactive game for children, "Merlin's Magical Academy," and a couple more sing-along versions of the songs. They've also changed the format for this. Instead of being separate clips with the musical design created for their old "Sing-Along" series, the DVD now goes straight to the songs in the movie, playing them with the lyrics as subtitles. On the old disc, there were just two of these songs, now you get all of them.
Carried over from last time around are the following features:
* Two extra medieval-themed animated shorts: "Knight for a Day" with Goofy and "Brave Little Tailor" with Mickey Mouse
* "Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers": a short documentary on the songwriting duo, who made their Disney debut with this feature. Includes the deleted song "The Magic Key"
* "All About Magic": An excerpt from a 1957 episode of the Disney television show, with Walt Disney playing around with props and magic tricks in the studio archives. (Though, as one reader has pointed out to me, the Gold Collection actually had this program in full. Thanks, Mr. Powell!)
* "The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook": A short gallery of production art along with explanatory notes.
* "Film Facts": A very brief text-based history of the development from book to screen.
A menu of recent trailers rounds out the disc. They also include the FastPlay function, which plays the various trailers, the movie, and the bonus features as one continuous program, designed for parents to turn on the DVD and let it run without any added fiddling.
The DVD is in a standard plastic case with a cardboard slipcover. It contains a paper insert with chapter listings, as well as a couple of advertisement inserts.
I love this movie, and so there is no way I can give The Sword in the Stone - 45th Anniversary Edition anything less than the rating of Highly Recommended. On its own, the movie is a funny and fun retelling of the Arthurian legend, serving as childhood wish fulfillment. As a DVD package, it's got awesome picture quality, great sound, and solid extras. There is nothing that would recommend not having it--unless you have it already. I don't see any real need to double-dip here. If you own the 2001 DVD, you essentially own this one, too. A missed opportunity for Disney, but a great new one for those who have yet to add this classic cartoon to their video library.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.