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The Sword in the Stone: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

The Sword in the Stone (1963) movie poster The Sword in the Stone

Theatrical Release: December 25, 1963 / Running Time: 80 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), Norman Aiden (Kay), Alan Napier (Sir Pellinore), Richard Reitherman (Arthur/Wart), Robert Reitherman (Arthur/Wart); Uncredited: Thurl Ravenscroft (Black Bart), James MacDonald (The Wolf), Barbara Jo Allen (Scullery Maid)

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

Buy The Sword in the Stone from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + DC DVD + DC Instant Video
Past DVDs: 45th Anniversary Edition 45th Anniversary Edition Collector's Set Gold Classic Collection

Walt Disney always seemed to be on the lookout for the next big thing. Early in his career, animation appealed to his pioneer spirit. Then animated features, something the industry doubted could be done, attracted him. Later, the idea of a theme park caught Walt's attention and occupied him for a number of years. By the early 1960s, Walt was looking ahead to new challenges,
like employing Audio-Animatronics on park attractions and making a prestige film out of Mary Poppins.

Animated features were still an important part of his entertainment empire and he would spend considerable time promoting the latest one on his weekly television program. But you get the impression that the creative passion he had invested in the early pictures had dwindled by the time The Sword in the Stone was produced.

That lack of interest didn't spell doom for this 1963 film. While the company bearing his name celebrates the movies as the legacy of one visionary, films --especially animated ones -- are a collaborative art. IMDb lists the 1935 short The Golden Touch as Walt's last directing credit, while Steamboat Willie essentially ended his writing career. Though his hands-on involvement on the early films is well documented, it wouldn't be possible for Walt to do heavy creative lifting on everything his studio was doing. By the '60s, Walt undoubtedly would have been trusting his personnel, giving his OK or perhaps some notes for improvement.

Walt's personnel had earned his trust. Most of his core animators, the famed Nine Old Men, remained with him and maintained a high quality of output. Sword in the Stone closely followed the crowd-pleasing hit 101 Dalmatians and it would be followed by the esteemed The Jungle Book. The same period also produced the first Winnie the Pooh shorts and a number of the studio's most charming live-action films, including the brilliant Mary Poppins. In the midst of all that success, Disney seems entitled to the rare miss, which is what Sword in the Stone continues to stand out as.

In Disney's "The Sword in the Stone", the future King Arthur is Wart, a lowly, lanky boy. The new 1.75:1 widescreen framing puts Merlin and his pointy hat uncomfortably close to the top of the frame.

Adapted from T.H. White's 1938 novel of the same name, Sword in the Stone tells us of the Dark Ages childhood of England's future King Arthur. Disney's version depicts him as a gangling blonde boy of 12 who is known as Wart. As foreseen, young Wart crashes into the home of the scatterbrained soothsayer and wizard Merlin. Merlin appoints himself the tutor of the mistreated orphan and would-be squire.

With magic and the wisdom he has gained by traveling to all ages, Merlin teaches Wart some things. The wizard turns the two of them into fish to swim the castle moat. He turns them into squirrels for lessons on gravity and love. Finally, he turns Wart into a sparrow who then encounters the witch Madam Mim, who squares off against Merlin in a battle of one-upmanship.

Eventually, the movie gets around to the titular challenge. Wart, performing squire duties for a New Year's Day jousting tournament designed to crown a king, pulls the famously unmovable sword from its anvil, repeats the feat for an audience, and is instantly made royalty in the presently ungoverned England.

Even in fish form underwater, Merlin and Wart maintain their tutor-pupil relationship. Madam Mim demonstrates her own magic powers to Wart (in sparrow form).

Sleepy and sloppy, The Sword in the Stone is one of Disney Animation's lesser efforts. I believe you'd have to journey back twenty years or forward around forty to find another entry in the studio's canon as utterly disappointing as this. It's a curious failure,
both because of the aforementioned chronology and because Arthurian legend does seem like material well suited to the magic of Disney animation. But this movie has underwhelmed me too many times to chalk it up to a bad mood or poor timing.

The film's episodic nature cheapens it, largely because the episodes closely resemble one another and have little of substance. So much of the movie is just Merlin and Wart hanging out. Their adventures feel like a series of pointless, aimless detours, and stretch to be classified as learning experiences. This seems to be the Disney animated feature with the least going on at all times. The film way overestimates the entertainment value of having its characters change form while retaining their color scheme (and for Merlin, his spectacles). The final act is a hollow parade of this, as Merlin and Mim repeatedly reinvent themselves.

One of the film's most glaring problems is Wart's fluctuating voice. Three different young actors voiced the future royal, recording their lines in different stages of puberty. As a result, Wart vocally changes from boy to man and back a number of times. Two of the three actors were the sons of director Wolfgang Reitherman, so there are elements of nepotism and paternal love at play. But the inconsistencies are an affront to even young, indiscriminate ears. Whether real or imagined, the movie seems to have been rushed to make its scheduled release on Christmas Day 1963. While Disney's early film output was annual, by then, as many as four years could pass between new animated features. Sword arrived thirty-five months after 101 Dalmatians and feels like it could have easily benefitted from a little more time. It seems that no matter how primitive looping technology was back then, Wart stood to improve by having one of the three whose voice hadn't yet changed re-record all of the lines.

It's not as if Walt let some new guys take a stab at animated filmmaking with Sword. Director Reitherman, one of the Nine Old Men, had been animating for Walt since the '30s and had graduated from directing animator on films like Pinocchio and Cinderella to just plain director on all the studio's features from 101 Dalmatians through The Rescuers. The screenplay was credited solely to Bill Peet, one of Walt's most trusted story men, who had worked on virtually every feature and major short since Pinocchio. The songs came from the Sherman Brothers, who had contributed to a number of live-action Disney films and would come to define the era with their tunes for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, and others. With all that talent at the helm, it's surprising how much of a concerted effort it takes to stay invested in this film, which only runs a fairly standard 80 minutes.

Young Wart pulls the famed sword from the stone and becomes King Arthur at the end of "The Sword in the Stone."

I suspect my disapproval of Sword, particularly coming barely a day after extolling Oliver & Company, will not be met favorably by its fans. To this group, let me apologize for confessing I am unable to see the magic in this film that you do. Honestly, I am quite surprised to see the film currently standing with a plenty respectable 7.1 average user on IMDb, perhaps our best measure of a film's present-day reputation. That is nearly equal to 101 Dalmatians (7.2) and roughly in the same league as The Jungle Book (7.6), Disney's only other all-animated feature films of the '60s.

That Sword lags in comparison to those two contemporaries has never been in doubt. The movie's last theatrical reissue occurred in March of 1983, and it did just a fraction of the business then of Disney's more frequently revisited subjects (and even The Rescuers, making its first rerelease). Sword is one of the few non-anthology features from Walt's lifetime that never seems to have had any shot at cracking the company's Platinum and now Diamond lines of best-selling titles. A sequel was obviously never going to happen and even the film's presence in the Parks and Sing-Along Songs videos has been pretty limited. The film was one of Disney's last to debut on DVD via the Gold Collection in 2001 and when it was finally revisited in 2008, its 45th Anniversary Edition was little more than a disappointing repackaging.

This week, the film hits Blu-ray alongside two other mid-range entries (Oliver & Company and Robin Hood) in a 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack.

The Sword in the Stone: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.75:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), 5.1 DTS-HD (French), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, Portuguese, Russian); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish; BD-only: English, Portuguese, Russian
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: August 6, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $36.99
Two single-sided discs (BD-25 & DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as 50th Anniversary DVD + Digital Copy and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as 45th Anniversary Edition DVD (June 17, 2008), 45th Anniversary Edition DVD Collector's Set, and Gold Classic Collection DVD (March 20, 2001)

VIDEO and AUDIO

One thing that Sword in the Stone fans will most want to know and what the packaging strangely refuses to tell them is whether the film is presented in widescreen this time around. It is. After twice being presented on DVD in 1.33:1 "full screen",
the movie finally makes the leap back to widescreen in the 1.75:1 aspect ratio in which the movie's original press kit instructed theatrical exhibitors to project it. This seemed like a possibility, especially after The Jungle Book's 2007 Platinum Edition DVD presented it in 1.75:1. But not until this native 16:9 format do we get to see how Sword would have looked in its original release. As with Jungle, there are some indications that when matted like this, the movie is more cramped than it ought to be. Some words do get oddly cut out of frame in the early scenes of storybook pages turning and in Merlin's maps. In addition, the top of Merlin's hat is strangely cropped out of sight sometimes. Otherwise, the action avoids the frame's edges enough to look fine.

While this vibrant Blu-ray presentation offers a substantial improvement in picture, it is not without some serious issues. Medium and long shots regularly look soft and lack detail. Certain elements appear to be out of focus at times, like the eyes of Merlin, for instance. Your eyes are called to such imperfections, too, because the rest of the picture looks so clean and sharp. Other times, the whole frame looks splotchy and lacks definition, their lines far from bold. Whether the problem lies in the original production methods or subpar restoration efforts is unclear. The Fox and the Hound showed similar limitations, but it too is a mid-range title not subjected to the work of Disney's highest-profile editions. Of the few other animated Disney films from anywhere near this era that I have reviewed on Blu-ray, The Aristocats looked better, while The Rescuers exhibited similar issues.

I suspect an answer lies somewhere in between the extremes. Disney probably could have done more to make Sword look better, but at the same time, this release is only going to sell so many copies and this is a business. While fans will probably appreciate the chance to finally see the film in widescreen, they might be bummed by the results, especially when they realize that the movie is unlikely to get a better transfer on Blu-ray anytime soon, if ever.

The English soundtrack is presented both in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio and 2.0 Dolby Surround. The former remix is the default and the latter seems included less out of reproducing the original theatrical experience (which was mono) and more about Disney covering their bases for those without home theaters. The 5.1 track is fine, utilizing the soundfield mildly but appropriately without completely betraying the film's monaural origins. Dubs and subtitles are supplied in four foreign languages.

Merlin and Wart meet in a different way in this newly shared alternate opening. Songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman reflect on their "The Sword in the Stone" songs in "Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Supplementally, Sword's Blu-ray takes a small step back from the 45th Anniversary Edition DVD, which itself lost some content from the movie's original Gold Classic Collection DVD.

First and most excitingly is the disc's one HD feature, a new alternate opening (4:02) which somewhat changes how Wart and Merlin first meet.
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It is presented out of new narration and rough old sketches that are animated. You can tell it's kind of a stretch to make a new short out of this rough limited material, but at least the studio tried to provide something new.

Everything that follows was included on the 45th Anniversary Edition and remains in standard definition.

"Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers" is an 8-minute featurette evidently excerpted from a longer 2000 Vault Disney special. The songwriting siblings reflect entirely on Sword, playing some of their score, comparing it to their better future works, and sharing some unused numbers they wrote. It's a quality piece.

Walt Disney has an awful lot of fun in his studio's Magic Property Room in this excerpt from his anthology TV series' episode "All About Magic." This giant finds more than just hay in his cigarette in the 1938 Mickey Mouse cartoon "Brave Little Tailor."

Next, "All About Magic" (7:19) is an excerpt from Walt's frequently-retitled anthology series which has him give a tour of the studio's Magic Property Room, where he performs tricks involving a floating table, a headless princess, and a hat out of which he pulls a rabbit and doves. This bit of light-hearted fun concludes with a chat with the slave in the magic mirror from Snow White. As always, Walt is a charismatic showman. What's might frustrate some is that the Gold Collection DVD included a 36-minute excerpt of this episode. We do get the best part here, as the rest just featured cartoon shorts and a Cinderella sequence.

Sword is again joined by two classic Disney shorts bearing some thematic relevance. From 1938, Brave Little Tailor (9:01) has Mickey Mouse mistaken for a fearless giant slayer, a position he ends up filling not for the big payout promised but for the hand of Princess Minnie. 1946's A Knight for a Day (7:06) stars Goofy as Cedric, a squire who takes the place of his master to joust against the dragon for the hand of Princess Esmeralda. Both cartoons have their appeal, but they look terrible here. Not only do they miss the chance to be presented in HD, but they sport rough video riddled with interlacing that presumably pale in comparison to their Walt Disney Treasures' appearances.

Finally, the BD extends a chance to "Sing Along with the Movie." When selected, this plays the entire movie, putting up plain italicized subtitles with lyrics over the music parts. It's a nice touch, though it does complicate subtitle-toggling when multiplied by the wealth of foreign language options.

The Blu-ray opens with trailers for The Little Mermaid, Planes, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and Super Buddies, plus an anti-smoking PSA. The menu's Sneak Peeks listing repeats all those after first playing promos for Disney Movie Rewards, "Jake and the Never Land Pirates", Broadway's The Lion King musical, Disney Parks, The Muppet Movie, and Return to Never Land.

You needn't have seen the movie nor heard the question to answer this piece of trivia from Merlin's Magical Academy game. Ladies handle the ink and paint as seen in The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook's pages of behind-the-scenes photos.

As with the concurrent Oliver & Company, the FastPlay-enhanced DVD in this combo pack is a slight update on the film's previous one. Trailers match the Blu-ray's and the feature presentation is widescreen, taking advantage of the new restoration work. Meanwhile, a few extras that didn't make the Blu-ray's cut get preserved here.

The set-top game Merlin's Magical Academy has you answer trivia, navigate Fish Wart, and such for a few rounds until you're ready to pull the sword from the stone.

Image gallery The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook consists of sixteen pages. The first eight hold concept art sketches and paintings by writer Bill Peet. There are also behind-the-scenes photos of different departments working on the film, poster designs, and photos of Sword represented at US and French Disney Parks.

Eight text screens of film facts dole out facts about author T.H. White and this animated adaptation of his novel.

In addition, the DVD's Disney Song Selection feature provides the ability to watch any of four songs (all but "Mad Madam Mim") with lyric subtitles apart from the movie.

Squirrel Wart and Merlin make an appearance on the Blu-ray's animated menu. Though updated in other ways, the DVD hangs onto the menus created for the film's 45th Anniversary Edition.

The combo pack's final component is a downloadable digital copy, whose inclusion clearly adds $7 to the set's list price when compared to the digital copy-less Oliver. Digital copies have become a standard inclusion on new movies' combo packs. They're far less common on catalog films, although Disney has begun to offer them for more of their high-end titles of late. While few customers would object to getting them, one wonders how many customers actually bother redeeming or watching them.
At the end of 2009, a Warner Bros. study claimed only 18 percent of customers redeemed digital copies. Perhaps that figure has risen, given the ubiquity of UltraViolet. If not, it seems like adding a digital copy is an easy way for Disney to charge more for the same amount of content delivered. Providing it digitally as opposed to on a separate DVD-ROM even eliminates the manufacturing costs for the studio and bandwidth usage hardly seems an issue to a company with as much traffic as the Go.com family of websites. Rather than charging customers for the digital copy whether or not they redeem it, perhaps it'd be fairer to only charge those who redeem it. Besides, maybe I'm old and out of touch, but is there really that much demand for a format more portable than DVD these days on a 50-year-old film, no less?

The Blu-ray's scored, animated menu plays clips behind a CG sword and anvil amidst small colored twinkles. Disney renders the disc inferior to DVD by not giving it any way to resume unfinished playback. The recycled DVD main menu occasionally displays character stills on the sword blade

The only inserts within the slipcovered, side-snapped keepcase are a Disney Movie Rewards booklet (your code nets you both points and the digital copy) and a Disney Movie Club ad.

Merlin, summoned back from Berlin, takes his first look at King Arthur sitting on his throne in one of the Blu-ray's many shots looking out of focus.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though many love it, The Sword in the Stone is one of the few Disney animated films I would say is strictly for the completists. This 50th Anniversary Edition combo packs meets the low supplemental expectations of a modest effort Disney release, while oft-blurry visuals prevent the widescreen feature presentation from being the cause for celebration you expect. Since it's unlikely this movie gets a better release anytime soon, your choices are to settle for this mediocre set or to go without owning Sword on Blu-ray, perhaps a tough choice for those who like the film.

Buy The Sword in the Stone now from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + DC / DVD + DC / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
New to Blu-ray: Oliver & Company Oblivion The Producers
1960s on Blu-ray: Babes in Toyland Mad Monster Party Funny Girl The Sound of Music Lawrence of Arabia
Disney Animated Classics on Blu-ray: The Aristocats Lady and the Tramp The Rescuers & The Rescuers Down Under The Fox and the Hound
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story Pete's Dragon Bedknobs and Broomsticks King Arthur Camelot: The Complete First Season

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Reviewed August 5, 2013.



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