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The Sword in the Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition DVD Review

The Sword in the Stone (1963) movie poster - click to buy and browse through others The Sword in the Stone

Theatrical Release: December 25, 1963 / Running Time: 79 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman / Writers: Bill Peet (story), T.H. White (book)

Voice Cast: Sebastian Cabot (Sir Ector, Narrator), Karl Swenson (Merlin), Rickie Sorensen (Arthur/Wart), Junius Matthews (Archimedes), Ginny Tyler (Little Girl Squirrel), Martha Wentworth (Granny Squirrel, Madam Mim, Scullery Maid), Norman Aiden (Kay), Alan Napier (Sir Pelinore), Richard Reitherman (Arthur/Wart), Robert Reitherman (Arthur/Wart)

Songs: "The Legend of the Sword in the Stone", "Higitus Figitus", "That's What Makes the World Go Round", "A Most Befuddling Thing", "Mad Madame Mim"

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By Aaron Wallace

The legend of King Arthur is as storied and shrouded in historical myth as any other. The fables of a boy king -- anointed upon extracting the sword Excalibur from a stone and growing into a mighty warrior at the head of the Round Table in Camelot -- date back to at least the sixth century, and whether such a man ever lived in any form is the subject of fierce, ongoing scholarly debate. Medieval literature was particularly devoted to the development of Arthurian legends. Many years later, Mark Twain generated interest in Arthur among Americans with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Today's popular culture is no less fixated on King Arthur.

Of the great many films based on Arthur, one stands out as probably the best-known attempt at a straightforward telling of the King's origin story: Walt Disney's The Sword in the Stone. Released in 1963, Sword was the final animated feature to debut in theaters during Walt's lifetime.
The screenplay is adapted from T.H. White's 1938 novel of the same name, which later became the first of four installments comprising The Once and Future King, an epic considered to be among the more definitive modern accounts of the Arthurian legend. Like the novel, Disney's movie focuses on the period prior to Arthur's seating on England's throne.

As the film opens, the audience learns of a miraculous prophecy which provides that he who pulls the sword from its stone shall be crowned King of England. Attempts by many to remove the sword have all been unsuccessful and England remains ungoverned. Years later, a young orphan named Arthur (called "Wart" by his foster family) clumsily stumbles upon the wizard Merlin's cottage while being chased by a wolf. Merlin is a magical being who travels through time and something in his wizardly intuition informs him that Wart is more than his meager appearance suggests. With the help of his owl Archimedes, Merlin begins to educate Wart in everything from science to magic. Wart's various lessons lead to unexpected run-ins with all sorts of characters, including the villainous Madame Mim, who tries to destroy both Wart and Merlin.

Merlin instructs Arthur on what makes the world go round, proving the most effective lessons are those given in song. The marvelously mad Madame Mim is made memorable because of the missing motivation for her malignant mindset. (Alliterators, mount up!)

The Sword in the Stone is not Walt Disney's finest film. In fact, it is often placed alongside "package features" like Saludos Amigos at the bottom of Disney fans' rankings. Disney released just three animated films to theaters during the 1960s -- Stone came in between 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book. That's tough competition for a simple little movie.
But while the production values clearly aren't as high, I find a great deal more enjoyment in this one than I do either of the more widely embraced classics that bookend it.

Disney's film is as interested in the Merlin character as it is Arthur himself, and the story is accordingly brimming with magic. It's interesting to note that while magic is what Disney is best known for, The Sword in the Stone is the only unadulterated fantasy that Disney added to its canon of animated classics during the twenty-five year period from 1960 to 1985. The movie's lighthearted and whimsical use of magic (as opposed to the dramatic brand used in Sleeping Beauty and The Black Cauldron) is exactly what endows it with so much charm despite a narrative that wanders aimlessly from one excursion to the next.

The Merlin character not only looks the part (with that iconic blue cap and white beard, Walt's team may be able to claim the most recognizable face of the most recognizable wizard ever put on film), but his stubborn, easily flustered ire makes him especially endearing. The wizard's ornery owl, Archimedes, is his perfect compliment. With each explosive cry of outrage or surprise -- usually in the form of his signature phrase: "who, who? what, what?" -- he becomes one half of a long underrated comedy duo. I've seen the movie countless times and somehow am still giggling at this short-tempered wizard and his disagreeable owl with each and every viewing. That's because the folks at Walt Disney's studio knew how to make a character -- that is, how to write, draw, and assign one a voice actor -- and bring it to life, even when the storylines began to lull. And speaking of voice actors, Karl Swenson (as Merlin) and Junius Matthews (as Archimedes) are delightful in their respective roles.

Disguised as a squirrel, Merlin unwittingly attracts a female squirrel's fancy. Mim is a master of shape-shifting, a skill she uses to her advantage repeatedly during the film's imaginative wizard's duel scene.

Another character contributes immeasurably to the effectiveness of The Sword in the Stone: the magnificent, marvelous, mad Madame Mim. Though she appears in less than a quarter of the movie, Mim is among the Walt era's most memorable characters. A woman who takes delight in evil for no reason at all and revels in her penchant for dishonesty, Madame Mim is a laugh riot. She also serves as a kind of laughing house mirror for Walt's previous villains, whose inherent evilness was treated very seriously. Mim is something of a parody of that idea. Her utter lunacy is so outrageous that it's almost contagious -- and indeed, it's contagion that ultimately does her in. Actress Martha Wentworth is also to be commended for unforgettable work behind the microphone.

The wizards' duel between Merlin and Mim is one of the greatest sequences ever animated, both for its entertainment value and its consistency in characterization in spite of "metamorphosis" animation. That's a lot coming from this critic, someone who doesn't typically care for the appearance of the Xerox animation technique utilized here. But I dare say that if you remember anything from your childhood viewings of this film, the wizards' duel is it.

Set against all of those zany characters and outlandish scenarios is the supposed focal point of the film: Arthur himself. Unlike Merlin or Mim, Arthur is a quiet and unassuming young man. There's an innocence that makes him perhaps less entertaining but all the more relatable. Ultimately, the film holds up Arthur's humility and shortcomings as virtues. After all, the message that must be intended when such a person is deemed the only one inherently worthy of the throne is that the humble and meager are the ones meant to lead. Operating on the (probably accurate) assumption that most people view themselves as the underdog, the film allows the audience to live vicariously through Arthur. He gets to live on in Camelot and rule for many years to come, but it's we who pulled the sword from the stone. It's the same logic that makes "the boy who lived", "the High King", or "the One" so enduring -- ordinary is special -- and it's very much at work in The Sword in the Stone.

Mim and Merlin pace off for a wizards' duel, one of "The Sword in the Stone"'s greatest scenes. "Who who? What what?" is the typical indignant reaction of Archimedes, the non-nonsense owl.

Of course, I'd be remiss to talk about voice actors in this movie and not point out that Arthur is voiced by a total of three different individuals before all is said and done. Rickie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman, and Robert Reitherman all spend some time playing Arthur and the changes are quite obvious. I'm willing to chalk it up to early puberty, however, rather than allow it to become a distraction.

The Sword in the Stone is the first animated feature composed by the legendary Sherman Brothers Robert and Richard. The Oscar-nominated score and the brief catalog of songs are far from the duo's best work, but the catchy wordplay they would come to be known for is certainly apparent even here. "Higitus Figitus", "That's What Makes the World Go Round", and "Mad Madame Mim" are each quite fun and live on as noteworthy footnotes in the Sherman Brothers' career.

Walt Disney Home Entertainment first released The Sword in the Stone to DVD in March of 2001 as part of its now-defunct Gold Collection line. In keeping with the studio's recent trend of revisiting less popular animated classics, the movie saw its second DVD release last month in the new 45th Anniversary Edition. For coverage of this new release, as well as a detailed comparison to the 2001 edition, read on.

Buy The Sword in the Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Full Animation Aspect Ratio)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish),
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; Closed Captioned
Extras Subtitled in English, French, Spanish
Release Date: June 17, 2008
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black keepcase,
Housed in an Embossed, Holographic Cardboard Slipcover

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Sword in the Stone is presented in the 1.33:1 "fullscreen" aspect ratio. That's going to confuse some people. After all, when Disney issued the press release for the 45th Anniversary Edition, they announced a 1.66:1 widescreen feature presentation. Consider also that widescreen was certainly around by 1963 and Disney recently issued The Jungle Book to DVD in widescreen. Adding to the confusion: when Sword's fullscreen Gold Collection disc was released, the packaging there claimed that the film "has been modified from its original version". That disclaimer has been dropped from the Anniversary Edition's packaging, and for good reason. So why the full frame presentation?

The Sword in the Stone was animated in the Academy Ratio, so the picture seen here is the entire frame. So in this case, "full frame" means what it sounds like -- we're seeing everything that was animated. Of course, it was common in the 1960s for theaters that preferred to exhibit films in widescreen to matte the picture, thus achieving a wider ratio. What we get on this DVD, then, is the film as it was animated and not necessarily as it was exhibited (though undoubtedly, it was exhibited in the Academy Ratio some places).

Naturally, the folks at Disney would have known the substantial likelihood of their film being presented in matted widescreen and may have animated with that in mind. There's a very good argument, therefore, that a matted presentation is what the filmmakers intended to be seen. Nevertheless, there's nothing wrong with having the movie as it was made. To make everyone happy and honor both perspectives, Disney should have made a matted widescreen transfer available as well, but the 1.33:1 ratio is entirely acceptable.

Still from The Sword in the Stone: Gold Collection DVD - click to view screencap in 640 x 480. Still from The Sword in the Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition DVD - click to view screencap in 640 x 480.

Screencap from Sword's Gold Collection DVD

Screencap of same frame from 45th Anniversary DVD

It's tough to notice much/any difference in the transfers of the film's two DVD incarnations.

As for the quality of the transfer on this new DVD -- it's certainly new (in comparison to the Gold Collection), but only slightly improved. Looking at caps side by side, there is a small but noticeable difference between the two transfers. When watching the two back-to-back, however, the difference is harder to recognize. Overall, the colors are darker and richer on the new edition, with better contrast and less grain. That said, artifacts and grain were not a huge problem on the last release and I noticed a few spots where the new transfer appears to have uncovered some grain from the original film that wasn't apparent before. Ultimately, the animation in this movie doesn't aspire to be eye candy and the transfer as it is here is just fine.

The 45th Anniversary Edition presents The Sword in the Stone with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound. The Gold Collection did too; switching back and forth between the two discs, I notice some very slight improvement (clearer and more dynamic sound) in the new edition, but I wouldn't swear to it being a new surround sound mix. Calling this "surround sound" is a stretch; most of the sound emanates from the front three channels and you won't hear the rear channel effects and score enforcement unless your ears are against those speakers. Bass is certainly present but not booming. The audio track is less than dazzling but then it wouldn't be fitting for The Sword in the Stone to bring the house down. The track is clear and audible with mostly consistent volume levels and I have no complaints.

For foreign language viewers, a 5.1 Dolby Digital track is made available in Spanish and French as well. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.

The Sherman Brothers discuss their work on The Sword in the Stone in "Music Magic." The 45th Anniversary Edition's new virtual game Merlin's Magical Academy begins with a history question. Walt Disney causes a table to levitate in "All About Magic" a Disneyland anthology episode excerpt inexplicably truncated here.

BONUS FEATURES

The bonus features are divided into four categories. The first is Music & More. The best finding under that title is "Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers" (8:00). Apparently produced for The Disney Channel's Vault Disney programming block of yore, this featurette focuses specifically on the legendary composers' work on The Sword in the Stone.
Disney Disney Checks, Labels, Covers
Though all too short, it's an excellent overview that this piece provides. Not only do the brothers talk about the movie and the legacy it began for them, they also perform a couple of unused songs written for the movie: "To the Blue Oak Tree" and "The Magic Key".

Also under Music & More is the standard Disney Song Selection screen, on which viewers can select songs to view with on-screen lyrics. Maddeningly (no pun intended), there's no "Mad Madame Mim" option here, the only song that goes unrepresented. Granted, it's not the most melodic song, but neither are the others in this film. There's also an option on this screen to play the entire film with on-screen lyrics (still no "Mad Madame Mim" in this option either). Fortunately, one can just turn on the English subtitles to achieve the same effect.

Under Games and More, one finds a virtual game called "Merlin's Magical Academy". As Merlin's books fly by, you pick one (it doesn't matter which, you'll get what the game wants you to get) and will be treated to several rounds of movie trivia, history questions, and different but similar arrow navigation games. At the end, the gamer gets to pull the eponymous sword from the eponymous stone! As someone who generally deplores DVD games, I can say that this one isn't so bad. It helps that the actor supplying Merlin's voice doesn't do such a bad job (not a dead ringer, mind you) -- perhaps a good sign for that rumored The Sword in the Stone II.

The next section is Backstage Disney. First up is a Fantasyland excerpt from an episode of "Disneyland" entitled "All About Magic" (7:20). In it, Walt Disney teaches his viewers about magic, performing a variety of tricks and even talking with the Magic Mirror from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Like most of the bonus features, this appeared previously on the Gold Collection disc, only there it was almost a full thirty minutes longer. The loss of a half hour's worth of bonus content is inexplicable; there is plenty of room to include it.

The Sword in the Stone scrapbook offers concept art for several characters and other film-related imagery. Goofy readies his boss for jousting in "A Knight for a Day." The 16x9 main menu reveals the kid in the sword in the stone.

Next up is "The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook", an art gallery comprised of 61 images spread over 16 pages. Unfortunately, there's no slideshow option and the pages are difficult to move through.

The last item under Backstage Disney is "Film Facts", another scrapbook made up of 8 pages, each providing a fact about the movie's development and production. While not very thorough, the facts here are interesting and easy to digest.

The final section is Bonus Shorts.
Inside are two Disney cartoon shorts. The first is a 1946 Goofy cartoon named A Knight for a Day (7:06) in which Goofy has to take the place of a knight in a jousting match against Sir Cumference. The second is the more famous Brave Little Tailor (9:01), a 1938 Mickey Mouse cartoon based on the famous fairy tale. When writing this review, I didn't have my Walt Disney Treasures sets with me in order to compare, but the poor quality of these shorts suggests that the restorations done for the Treasures DVDs were not used here, for which there is little excuse.

The missing half hour of the "Disneyland" segment aside, this bonus features platter is nearly identical to that of the Gold Collection. The only additions are the "Merlin's Magical Academy" game and sing-alongs for "The Legend of the Sword in the Stone" and "A Most Befuddling Thing".

MENUS and PACKAGING

When the DVD is inserted, the viewer is taken immediately to a language selection screen. Once a language is chosen, an advertisement for Disney movies plays (chapter-skippable but the menu button is disabled while it plays). After that, Disney's FastPlay begins, meaning you can either press the menu button or do nothing and be treated to a sampling of movie previews, the movie itself, and a few bonus features.

The 16x9-enhanced menus are an improvement on the Gold Collection's scheme. The animated main menu moves in on the sword while a great bit of score plays. Once zoomed in, rays of light move down while Arthur's reflection sparkles atop the blade. All of the static submenus are accompanied by score.

The DVD's standard black keepcase is housed inside a cardboard slipcover that replicates the front cover art in textured, holographic form. The new cover art offers more improvement and it is practically reused for the blurry looking disc art.

Several inserts are inside the case. One of them advertises Disney and Me magazine and gives you a Disney Movie Rewards magic code worth 100 points (200 if entered before July 16th). Another three-panel fold-out advertises Disney Blu-ray. Finally, there is a chapter selection card with advertisements on the back.

From the main menu, one can view promos for: The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning, The Secret of the Magic Gourd, "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody": Lip Synchin' in the Rain, "Phineas and Ferb" on Disney Channel, Tinker Bell, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas: Collector's Edition DVD/Blu-ray, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure - Special Edition, Sleeping Beauty: Platinum Edition, The Jungle Book 2: Special Edition, WALL-E, and the Disney Movie Rewards program. That's a lot of previews; thankfully, there's a "Play All" option.

If England hadn't already asked everyone living in London to stop by the sword and give it a tug, I'm not sure I pity them for their leaderless condition. Merlin is at his best when his magic is at its worst.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Sword in the Stone is a simple film that neither offers a satisfactory telling of the Arthurian legend nor holds its own against Disney's finest animated classics. That said, it is a charming work that in spite of a rambling story manages to delight thanks largely to wonderful characters and a healthy dose of lighthearted fantasy. With just enough silliness to amuse but not annoy, the movie is able to affect its audience even without a strong emotional punch. No matter its flaws, Disney's adaptation has managed to consistently enchant this critic since childhood.

In comparison to the old Gold Collection disc, the 45th Anniversary Edition offers a slightly improved audio/video presentation, better menus and packaging, a decent new virtual game, and Disney Movie Rewards points. All of that comes at the cost of thirty minutes of a great "Disneyland" episode. I'm not sure it's worth it and so if you already have the Gold Collection, you needn't feel obliged to "upgrade". If you don't yet own The Sword in the Stone -- and especially if you've never even seen it -- you will certainly want to. If you fall within the latter category, the re-release offers a pleasing new transfer and a couple of very interesting bonus features. While a more lavish two-disc set would have been appropriate for a movie that Disney labels a classic, the 45th Anniversary Edition is easily recommendable.

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Related Reviews:
101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition (1961) The Jungle Book: Platinum Edition (1967) The Aristocats: Special Edition (1970)
Robin Hood: Most Wanted Edition (1973) The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Friendship Edition (1977)
The Fox and the Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition (1981) Meet the Robinsons (2007) Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Arthurian Legend: Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979) King Arthur (2004) Shrek the Third (2007) Knighty Knight Bugs (1958)

New to DVD: The Spiderwick Chronicles The Jungle Book 2: Special Edition The Suite Life of Zack & Cody: Lip Synchin' in the Rain

Magic and Fantasy: The Black Cauldron Beowulf: Director's Cut The Princess Bride Stardust Smurfs: Season One, Volume One

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Reviewed July 7, 2008.