The Sword in the Stone
103 in x of animated feature film history
Release: Dec. 25th, 1963
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
“The Sword in the Stone is the 18th Disney animated feature film, and it the final animated film to be released before Walt Disney’s death. The songs in the film were written and composed by the Sherman Brothers, who later wrote music for other Disney films like Mary Poppins (1964), The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).
After years of warring, England can’t agree on a new ruler. A mysterious sword appears, which claims that whoever can pull the sword from its stone will become king. After no one can do it, the test is forgotten. Many years later, Arthur––a measly servant knave known as Wart––dreams of becoming a knight, but is barely certain he may act as squire to castle lord Sir Ector’s son Kay; then, the sorcerer Merlin and his grumpy, talking owl Archimedes invite themselves to the castle and move into its dilapidated north tower. Merlin, who can magically access the future, intends to give Wart a proper education. They transform themselves into animals, face dangerous situations, and battle the Mad Madam Mim. In the end, Arthur accidentally finds the forgotten sword in the stone and becomes king.
The film is based on the novel of the same name, which was first published in 1938 as a single novel. It was later republished in 1958 as the first book of T. H. White’s tetralogy The Once and Future King.
Walt Disney first obtained the film rights to The Sword in the Stone in 1939, 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. The former was developed by Ken Anderson and Marc Davis who aimed to produce a feature animated film in a more contemporary setting. Both of them had visited the Disney archives, and decided to adapt the satirical tale into production upon glancing at earlier conceptions dating back to the 1940s. Anderson, Davis, Milt Kahl, and director Wolfgang Reitherman spent months preparing elaborate storyboards for Chanticleer. When the time came to approve one of the two projects, Walt replied to Anderson’s pitch with ‘Just one word—shit!’
Meanwhile, work on The Sword in the Stone were solely done by veteran story artist Bill Peet. After Disney had seen the 1960 Broadway production of Camelot, he approved the project to enter production. Peet recalled ‘how humiliated [the other team was] to accept defeat and give in to The Sword in the Stone…They never understood that I wasn’t trying to compete with them, just trying to do what I wanted to work. I was the midst of all this competition, and with Walt to please, too.’
This was the first Disney animated feature made under a single director. Previous features were directed by either three or four directors, or by a team of sequence directors under a supervising director. The man hired for the job was veteran animator Wolfgang Reitherman, who would direct all of the Disney features up until the 1980’s.
Although Disney never knew it, he himself was Bill Peet’s model for Merlin. Peet saw them both as argumentative, cantankerous, but playful and very intelligent. Peet also gave Merlin Walt’s nose. This was the second instance in which Walt unknowingly served as model for a wizard, the first being the wizard Yensid from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia (1940).
For the voice of Merlin, director Wolfgang Reitherman estimated that seventy actors read for the part, but “none evidenced that note of eccentricity that we were seeking. We wanted Merlin to be eccentric but not hokey.” At the same time, Karl Swenson was initially cast for Archimedes, but the filmmakers decided to cast him instead as Merlin. Rickie Sorensen, who had voiced young Arthur, entered puberty during production, which forced the older Reitherman to cast his sons, Richard and Robert, to replace him.
The Sword in the Stone was a financial success at the box office and became the sixth highest-grossing film of 1963. However, it received mixed reviews from critics, who thought it had too much humor and a ‘thin narrative.’”
FIRST POSTED: 9/6/16