The 1963 Walt Disney animated feature The Sword In The Stone follows the adventures of a boy named Arthur (voiced by Rickie Sorenson) or, as everyone else calls him, Wart, who has been adopted by a loud, brash man named Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot) to work towards being the squire to his son, Sir Kay (Norman Alden). Although he's taken advantage of by Ector and the dim witted Kay, Wart works hard at his duties. His destiny changes one day when he quite literally falls through the roof of a hut inhabited by the wizard Merlin (Karl Swenson). As Merlin has travelled into the future, he knows that Wart is far more important than anyone else realizes and so he takes it upon himself to give him an education.
So as Wart and Merlin walk down this road, Merlin teaches him various lessons, be it how to do the dishes more efficiently by using an assembly line, what it's like to be a squirrel in love or how to fly like a bird. With some help from his cantankerous owl friend, Archimedes (Junius Matthews), Merlin's lesson get Wart into tip top shape in no time at all but when he mouths off to Ector and almost loses his chance to go to London as Kay's squire, he soon finds himself in a predicament. And yet, no one but Arthur knows the real reason Wart must go to London and even the sage old wizard seems unaware of what will happen should he make the trip and pull the fabled sword out of the stone… a task believed by most to be impossible and which, if accomplished successfully, will make he who can do it the King Of England.
This isn't the best Disney movie of the sixties but taken on its own, The Sword In The Stone is… fun. It's not deep, it's not a touching as some of the more established classics and many of Merlin's little songs sound like variations of Cinderella's 'Bippity Boppity Boo' but this is a good eighty minutes of light entertainment. There are good morals here as Merlin insists that Wart improve himself by continuing with his education and the movie makes a nice point about the merits of trying to do the right thing and also teaches younger viewers that appearances can be deceiving. We like waifish Wart early on, we see when he goes into the cave after Kay's stray arrow that not only is he brave but he also has a strong work ethic and takes his duties are a prospective squire very seriously. In short, he's a nice kid, the kind you wouldn't mind hanging around with your own. Merlin is a mix of crafty and bumbling, a fool based on mannerisms and outside appearances but clever enough to know that there's more to his new friend than meets the eye. His time travel experience gives him a perspective that differs from others and while his songs may seem like little more than gibberish, his back and forth with Archimedes offers some good comedic entertainment.
The quality of the hand drawn animation in the movie, if not on the level of some of Disney's better efforts, is still very good. Character design doesn't deviate too far from what you'd expect from the House Of Mouse but background designs are interesting to look at. We get some nice gothic styled interiors in the insides of the different castles and the design work on display in the hawk/sparrow chase scene is slick and eye catching. There are some memorable moments here, the most obvious being when Merlin and Wart turn into squirrels and Wart gets chased by a female squirrel completely unaware that he's going to change back into a human boy soon. She falls in love with him very quickly and when he reveals his true self, she watches him walk away and sheds a tear. The scene is kind of corny and more than a little ridiculous but it works in the context of the story, that being a context in which realism is never a concern and doesn't ever really need to be. In the end, the Sword In The Stone is a nice mix of action and adventure with some effective comedy and enjoyable characters that puts entertainment first and is all the better for it.
The Sword In The Stone: 50th Anniversary Edition arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.75.1. Touted as a new digital restoration, image quality looks pretty good here… at first. Eagle eyed viewers might note some banding here and there and there are some scenes that are soft, though this looks like an issue with the source material more so than with the transfer itself. Until the movie goes on, and the whole thing seems soft, scrubbed even. Those who like really clean, grain free presentations will probably be pleased, but those expecting this to look like traditional hand drawn animation presented on film will probably not be so thrilled. Colors look good, they're well defined and don't bleed over one another, but a lot of detail seems to have been washed away in an avalanche of smeary noise reduction filtering. Only minor compression artifacts show up, it's not really an issue and only noticeable in a couple of seconds worth of the movie, so on that level the disc is encoded well enough, but it doesn't stop there. Though not all of the compositions seem to be compromised, you have to wonder during some of the scenes that look a little tight if previous fullframe DVD presentations weren't a better option in terms of framing. Which aspect ratio is correct will probably be the subject of some debate but those who want it don't get a fullframe option here (the DVD that comes with the Blu-ray offers the same transfer).
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is your best bet but if you're into dubbed tracks you also get a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track in French as well as a Spanish language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo options in Portuguese, Russian and English. Subtitles are offered in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian with closed captioning provided in English only.
Let's get back to that lossless track though, shall we? This is a front heavy mix that really only uses the rear channels occasionally for the odd sound effect or to spread out the score a bit. Almost all of the dialogue comes from the front center channel, true to the movie's mono roots, while levels remain nicely balanced throughout. There's good clarity here and some reasonably depth and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion to complain about. If the mix could have been more active in a few scenes (think the dishwashing scene, for example), so be it but this feels fairly true to the movie's origins.
For a release touted as a 50th Anniversary package, we don't get a ton in the way of extras. We do get an interesting Alternate Opening sequence that runs for minutes and features Wart meeting Merlin. It's interesting to see though it's here in an unfinished black and white storyboard form. Also worth watching is an eight minutes featurette entitled Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers in which composers Robert and Richard Sherman talk about the work that they did on this particular picture and give a quick career overview. From there we get a few extras that relate to Disney but not so much to the movie, starting with the seven minute vintage All About Magic clips in which Walt Disney himself shows off the magic that lurks in the Disney studio. We also get two unrelated Classic Animated Shorts here: A Knight For A Day and Brave Little Tailor. Both of these are interesting enough to watch once with Goofy starring in the first and Mickey in the second. Both are set in medieval times like the feature so they're not really out of place here.
Fans will also find here a Disney Sing-A-Long option that allows you to do exactly what the name implies, and that's to sing along with the songs in the movie. All of the extras except for the Alternate Opening are in standard definition. Animated menus and chapter selection round out the extras and as this is a combo pack, you also get a DVD copy of the movie and a download code if you want to access a digital copy.
The Sword In The Stone: 50th Anniversary Edition offers up a lacking video presentation and solid audio with a few amusing extras for a movie widely (and rightly) regarded as a lesser effort from the Disney of the 1960s. With that said, if you're one of those viewers who enjoyed it as a kid and are able to carry that nostalgia with you into the present, you can have a good bit of fun with it, but depending on your expectations in terms of video quality you might not be so stoked with the image. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.