Based on a children's novel by T.H. White, THE SWORD AND THE STONE retells the legend of King Arthur's ascendency to the British throne. Or at least it does in the final five minutes of the film. Before that, it wanders around all over the place, from pointless sequence to pointless sequence, as Merlin the Magician teaches young Arthur about life. Or something like that.
THE SWORD IN THE STONE was a popular movie in its day, but there is a reason that you rarely hear it mentioned in the same breath as other Disney films: It's just not that good. There is absolutely no story, just random incidents featuring half-formed characters, none of whom have what it takes to leap out out of the film and into legend.
Despite the film's title, the climactic moment of Arthur pulling out the sword is almost an offhand gesture, and the magic of the moment is lost when Arthur has to pull it out twice because nobody saw him do it the first time. About a minute later, the film ends with Arthur on the throne and Merlin returning from a trip to Bermuda. Don't ask.
As in every Disney film, there are good things. The best parts of the movie usually happen when Merlin and Arthur have transformed into animals, but even these sequences tend to go on too long. Typical of the muddled nature of the film, the one character that truly evokes empathy is a little female squirrel who falls in love with young Arthur (who has changed into a squirrel) and has her little rodent heart broken when Arthur turns back into a boy. There is no attempt to make a happy moment out of a bittersweet one, as Disney sometimes can do. The story leaves the poor little thing crying in her tree, and we never find do find out what happens to her, but at least we care. The wizard's duel between Merlin and Mad Madame Mim is an impressive exercise in character animation, as it calls for both characters to be transformed into various animals yet still be recognizable as their human selves. Lots of stuff in this film is quite nicely done, even if it does seem that Warner Brothers did similar sword and sorcery business in some 1950s shorts like Broomstick Bunny and Knightmare Hare, shorts that managed to be ten times funnier than THE SWORD AND THE STONE in one tenth the running time, and with better characterization to boot.
The last animated feature to be released while Walt Disney was still alive, THE SWORD IN THE STONE is passable entertainment for young children but a poor epitaph for old Walt. It's probably better to remember THE JUNGLE BOOK or even THE ARISTOCATS, two films he okayed in his lifetime, as Walt's last picture. - JB