I’m sure I’m not the only one whose introduction to the Arthurian mythos was through Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. This film was based on the book by T.H. White, which described King Arthur’s youth and made the often fearsome Merlin into a kindly and somewhat absent-minded old man. There are a few different editions of the book, which was edited by American publication and then again for inclusion in The Once and Future King. White uses Sir Thomas Malory as his main source, but adds his own touches, which include bits of humor. While Once and Future King as a whole is a tragedy with some comic touches, Sword is mostly a comedy, albeit a quite philosophical one. Disney’s take on the story is, as you may expect, less philosophical and more slapstick than the book. I had forgotten about the wolf that suffers a series of misfortunes while trying to catch prey, much in the vein of Wile E. Coyote.
The characters’ comic traits are also more exaggerated, particularly Kay’s buffoonish side, Archimedes’ fussiness, and Merlin’s bumbling.
In White’s original story, much of the wizard’s scatterbrained nature is explained by his living backwards, but there’s no mention of this in the film. He does mention having visited the future, but doesn’t specify how. Still, his anachronisms are still a major part of the film’s humor, and I think Disney managed to capture both the main plot and the heart of the original. One of the more memorable scenes is the wizards’ duel between Merlin and Madam Mim, which doesn’t appear in Once and Future King. Also clever are the sequences of Merlin manipulating household objects, which at one point brings us the jazzy number that was pretty much required in Disney animated films around this time. My wife mentioned that the squirrel scene was her first real exposure to the concept of heartbreak, and also pointed out that the tournament with the winner getting the crown really doesn’t make any sense. For what it’s worth, this plot device isn’t in the book.
Oddly enough, this movie never received a direct-to-video sequel, even though Disney potentially has the whole rest of the Arthurian legend to work with. Maybe it’s better that they haven’t, though. Besides, it might be a little difficult to make a story involving Arthur being conceived by rape and Guinevere’s ongoing affair with Lancelot into a children’s film. Sword itself, however, works quite well.