'The Sword in the Stone' is yet another of Disney's films taking place in England, this time in medieval times, telling the story of King Arthur. Well, a young Arthur, anyway. No one pays much mind to him; his foster father and brother basically make him do busywork and berate him with an unflattering nickname "Wart." But a wise old wizard named Merlin sees good things in his future, and decides to apprentice him and give him an education, by which I mean turn him into different animals and tell him stuff. I guess.
I kind of don't know what to make of this one, so let me try to break it down. Merlin, the wise old wizard, and his grumpy sidekick owl Archimedes see that Arthur can be so much more than what he is, and decide to give him an education. So we've instated that Arthur is our hero, and is to be taught the ways of the world by Merlin, the sage teacher. So Merlin turns Arthur (and himself) into a fish to teach him how to use brains over brawn against a vicious-looking sea dweller. Alright, that's important. Then they turn into squirrels, so Arthur can learn about relationships, as a girl squirrel immediately clings to him and won't let up. So I guess this will pay off later when Arthur finds a human girl? Maybe that'll be the future queen? Nope, there's no pay off. And it's even kind of mean of Merlin; he laughs at the situation the whole time, and pays no attention that the girl squirrel is crestfallen when Arthur is revealed to be a human.
The whole character of Merlin is kind of confusing to me. He's very ambiguous in everything he goes about teaching Arthur. His final "lesson" in turning Arthur into a bird really teaches him nothing, so basically only one of his lessons really helped. His ambiguousness is at least played off on Arthur, who doesn't understand the wizard either. When Arthur tries to explain that he can't be king because he's not of noble birth, a valid argument, what does Merlin do? He leaves in a huff. It's all very strange. So Merlin is somewhat unable to be trusted, Arthur is sort of a nobody, his father and brother are kind of amusing, but not very, and then you have our... villain? Madam Mimi, who is billed as the villain, even though she shows up with fifteen minutes left to go and she only occupies ten. And Arthur doesn't fight her. He just watches as she and Merlin go at it against each other. Kind of amusing, but since there's no build-up or purpose, what's the point?
So in the end (with four minutes left of film), Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king. Too bad he doesn't know how to rule the kingdom. How could he? He's a little kid, and Merlin certainly didn't teach him anything. He and the owl then try to escape, but can't. At this point I began to become interested. This movie could have been something more, a fractured retelling of the story, of a townspeople so deluded and won over by this mystical stone, that even though Arthur unearthing it was a fluke, they make him king and abide by his every word, even though Arthur wants no part of it. Disney certainly could have done something that irreverent, as within this film Merlin makes reference to 20th century inventions he's claimed to have seen and returns at the end of the film from Bermuda (in the proper shorts, of course). That would have at least been interesting, but instead, we have a movie with no real focus or purpose. I don't get what it's trying to be, really...
As for the animation, it's quite alright. We're still using xerography, but here it looks a little out-of-place in this ye olde fantasy story, which you'd think would look a bit more grandiose. The character animation is quite fine, but the backgrounds are a bit washed out, and some kinda look like lame watercolors. But all and all it's a pretty nice looking movie, but with not much else going for it.
Verdict? With a lack of characters with a purpose or a logically progressing storyline, I understand why this is one of Disney's oft-forgotten films. Its visuals are strong enough, but the film falls flat due to its lack of meaning or purpose. Gags involving transformations to animals and a sarcastic owl are fine, but don't mean bupkis unless there's a strong story to back it up.