Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Sword and the Stone

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Sword and the Stone

Year: 1963

Source materials: The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Budget: $3 Million

Box office: $22.2 Million

Plot: After King Uther Pendragon dies, leaving no heir to the throne, a sword magically appears inside an anvil in London. The sword bears an inscription proclaiming that “whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king, born of England”. No one can remove the sword, which is eventually forgotten.


Years later, a 12-year-old orphan named Arthur, commonly called Wart, accidentally scares off a deer his older foster brother Kay was hunting, causing Kay to launch his arrow into the forest. In retrieving the arrow, Arthur lands in the cottage of Merlin the wizard, who declares himself Arthur’s tutor and returns with the boy to his home, a castle run by Sir Ector, Arthur’s foster father.


Ector’s friend, Sir Pellinore, arrives with news that the annual jousting tournament will be held on New Year’s Day in London, and the winner will be crowned king. Ector decides to put Kay through serious training for the tournament and appoints Arthur as Kay’s squire. In order to educate Arthur, Merlin transforms the boy and himself into fish. They swim in the castle moat in order to learn about physics, but more importantly for Arthur to rely upon intellect in facing dangerous situations (brain over brawn). Arthur is attacked by a pike but is saved by Archimedes, Merlin’s pet owl.


Arthur is sent to the kitchen as punishment for trying to relate his lesson to a disbelieving Ector. Merlin enchants the dishes to wash themselves, then takes Arthur for another lesson, turning them into squirrels to learn about gravity, and to understand to think before acting (“look before you leap”). During their trip, two female red squirrels fall in love with them. Arthur is nearly eaten by a wolf, but is saved by the younger of the female squirrels before Merlin returns them to human form. While Merlin’s pursuer is first scared then angry at this, Arthur’s pursuer is heartbroken.


When Merlin and Arthur return to the castle, Ector accuses Merlin of using black magic on the dishes. Arthur defends Merlin, but Ector refuses to listen and punishes Arthur by giving Kay another squire, Hobbs. Resolving to make amends, Merlin plans on educating Arthur full-time. However, Merlin’s knowledge of future history causes confusion, prompting Merlin to appoint Archimedes as Arthur’s teacher.


When Arthur imagines what it would be like to fly, Merlin transforms him into a sparrow and Archimedes teaches Arthur how to fly. However, during their lesson Arthur is attacked by a hawk and falls into the chimney of Madam Mim, an eccentric, evil witch and Merlin’s nemesis. Merlin intervenes before Mim can destroy Arthur, and she challenges him to a Wizards’ Duel. Despite Mim’s cheating, Merlin outsmarts her by transforming into a fictional germ called “Malignalitaloptereosis” that infects her with a chickenpox-like disease requiring several weeks of bed rest, illustrating the importance of knowledge over strength.

On Christmas Eve, Kay is knighted, but when Hobbs comes down with the mumps, Ector is forced to reinstate Arthur as Kay’s squire. This causes a falling-out between Arthur and Merlin, who angrily (and unintentionally) transports himself to Bermuda when Arthur defends his choices.

On the day of the tournament, Arthur realizes that he has left Kay’s sword at an inn, which is now closed for the tournament. Archimedes sees the Sword in the Stone, which Arthur removes, unknowingly fulfilling the prophecy. When Arthur returns with the sword, Ector recognizes it and the tournament is halted. Ector places the sword back in its anvil, demanding Arthur prove that he pulled it. Thinking anyone can pull the sword now, Kay and others try unsuccessfully to retrieve it. Arthur pulls the sword out again, revealing that he is England’s rightful king.


Arthur, crowned king, sits in the throne room with Archimedes, feeling unprepared to take the responsibility of ruling. Merlin returns and tells Arthur that he will go on to lead the Knights of the Round Table and become famous, starring in books and even movies.


Background: 1939, Walt Disney first obtained the film rights to T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (the first part was published separately. Only later was it incorporated into The Once and Future King), and the initial storyboards were produced in 1949. When work on One Hundred and One Dalmatians was completed in 1960, two projects were in development, which were Chanticleer and The Sword in the Stone.

Bill Peet decided to write a screenplay before producing storyboards, though he found the narrative “complicated, with the Arthurian legend woven into a mixture of other legends and myths” and finding a direct storyline required “sifting and sorting”. After Walt received the first screenplay draft, he told Peet that it should have more substance. On his second draft, Peet lengthened it by enlarging on the more dramatic aspects of the story, in which Walt approved of through a call from Palm Springs, Florida.

Animation: Madame Mim was animated by Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas. Kahl animated her initial interaction with Arthur, while Thomas oversaw her part of the Wizards’ Duel with Merlin. Merlin was animated by Kahl, Thomas, Ollie Johnston, and John Lounsbery. Kahl designed the character, refining the storyboard sketches of Bill Peet. Don Bluth worked as an assistant director on the film, also uncredited. The similarities between Sir Kay and Dirk the Daring from Dragon’s Lair suggest that if Bluth didn’t have a hand in the design, he was certainly influenced by Sir Kay.

Songs: The songs were written by Richard and Robert Sherman, who would go on to write many of Disney’s famous songs, including the songs from Mary Poppins, and the earworm tune “It’s a Small World After All.”

Voice Cast: Rickie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman, and Robert Reitherman as Arthur. As the actor’s voices changed, different actors took over, leading to noticeable changes in voice between scenes–and sometimes, within the same scene.

Karl Swenson as Merlin, Junius Matthews as Archimedes, Sebastian Cabot as Sir Ector, Norman Alden as Sir Kay.

Martha Wentworth as Madam Mim, as well as Granny Squirrel. Alan Napier as Sir Pellinore. He’s best known as Alfred in the Batman television show. Thurl Ravenscroft returns as Sir Bart.

Critical Reception: The Sword in the Stone was a financial success at the box office and became the sixth highestgrossing film of 1963. It grossed $22,182,353 in North Americaearning estimated theatrical rentals of $4.75 million. However, it received mixed reviews from critics, who thought it had too much humor and athin narrative“.

Legacy: The carousel in Disneyland is called The King Arthur Carousel. Each park also has its own sword in the stone that guests can try to pull.

My take: I would say from the start that the characters are much more cartoony than we have seen before. Merlin is particularly prone to slapstick. Yet I am thinking Merlin shrinking his possessions into a single carpet bag forsees Harry Potter a bit. Disney’s cost-cutting efforts show. Backgrounds are static yet colorfully painted. Compare the underwater sequences to Pinocchio

Next Week: The Jungle Book