THE SWORD IN THE STONEOriginal Medium: Prose
Produced as a cartoon by: Walt Disney Productions
First appeared: 1938
Creator: T.H. White
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Following 101 Dalmatians (1961), Disney returned to the classic fairy tales/legends of Snow White, a source his features had used only a couple of times in the past decade-plus (Cinderella, 1950, and Sleeping Beauty, 1959), while retaining the British setting that had characterized most of his features since Alice in Wonderland (1951). The result was
The Sword in the Stone, released Christmas Day, 1963, recounting the familiar English legend of King Arthur's ascension to the throne. The particular version of the legend used as the basis of the film was that of T.H. White, whose 1938 story of that name had been incorporated into his omnibus Arthurian volume, The Once & Future King, in 1958.
In White's story (adapted into a screenplay by Bill Peet, who also wrote The Truth about Mother Goose, Ben & Me and other Disney films) Arthur grew up as Wart, a member of the household headed by Sir Ector, his foster father, which also included Ector's son, Sir Kay. His teacher was Merlin the Magician, a acatterbrain who taught by transforming Wart into various creatures and letting him learn by facing the vicissitudes of life in those forms. Of the major characters, the only one who didn't come from the original legends was Madam Mim, a frumpy old lady who doubled as a malevolent sorceress who wanted to do Wart harm. Mim was also the only one who went on to a post-feature career in comic books, as a villain.
The eponymous sword and stone were magical objects that had appeared in the village, with an inscription saying whoever managed to pull the sword free would be the rightful king, an office that was currently vacant. Since nobody had succeeded in doing so, a tournament was being held to decide the issue. Kay expected to win it, but Wart, who knew nothing of all this, drew the sword while nobody was looking, to replace Kay's, which he'd foolishly left behind. Kay, recognizing it, ordered him to replace it so he could draw it in front of everybody and be proclaimed king. But even having been pulled out once, the sword got stuck in the stone, and Wart was the only one who could pull it again. The movie ended with Wart in his new role as King Arthur.
The Sword in the Stone wasn't a critical flop, but it wasn't a great success, either. Both critics and the general public don't seem to have cared one way or the other about it. It happens to have been the last fully-animated feature completed during Disney's lifetime, but even that distinction is diminished by Mary Poppins, which combined animation and live action like Song of the South or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, having slipped in after this one but before Disney's 1966 death. (Poppins was also better received both critically and popularly.)
Wart's voice wasn't done by just one actor. The main voice hired for the role was Rickie Sorenson (who had very few other toon connections), but the sons of director Wolfgang Reitherman (The Jungle Book, The AristoCats), Richard and Robert (who also don't have much in the way of non-family toon connections) did a few additional lines. Merlin was Karl Swenson, who usually didn't do voice roles but did have parts in live-action versions of Spider-Man and Steve Canyon.
Face actor Sebastian Cabot, who was also heard in Disney's Winnie the Pooh series, played Sir Ector and also provided the film's narrative voice-over. Junius Matthews, another face actor who was also heard in the Pooh cartoons, was the voice of Merlin's adviser/pet, Archimedes the Owl. Martha Wentworth, who did Madam Mim and a couple of smaller roles, was another who mostly did face acting. Norman Alden (Aquaman in Super Friends) was Sir Kay.
Gold Key Comics issued the comic book adaptation when the movie came out, and followed it with further stories about Wart's upbringing, in its attempted series Wart & the Wizard. Only one issue was published, dated February, 1964. Later that year, Mad Madame Mim co-starred with The Beagle Boys, when the Uncle Scrooge villains were given their own title, but the team-up lasted only one issue. Mim currently appears on a semi-regular basis in European Disney comic books.
The Sword in the Stone may have had only a lukewarm acceptance at the time, and it may be thought of as only a minor Disney feature. But like all the rest, it's marketed as one of the classics now. And whenever it's made available, either in theatres or as home video, people are glad to see it.