Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: David Lowery’s The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel as King Arthur’s nephew Gawain, has been postponed. But there are plenty of other interesting takes on the Arthurian legends available to stream from home today.
The Sword In The Stone is often considered a lesser addition to the Disney canon; it’s the only one of the studio’s animated movies from the 1960s not to receive a Platinum home-video release, a sequel, a TV show, or a live-action remake (though the last of those is in the works, reinforcing Hollywood’s refusal to give up on a legend that’s mostly failed to translate at the box office). Yet The Sword In The Stone remains an Arthurian take like no other. Based on book one of T.H. White’s The Once And Future King tetralogy, it focuses on Arthur’s training under the wizard Merlin, which provides many chances for Walt Disney’s famed stable of “nine old men” animators to show off. This was the first film, however, to be directed by only one of the nine: Wolfgang Reitherman, who would bring his singular focus to a variety of Disney properties, applying the same kind of picturesque world-building seen here to a series of Winnie The Pooh shorts and 1967’s The Jungle Book.
Like yesterday’s Watch This entry, The Sword In The Stone opens with an England in disarray and a lowly Arthur unaware of his glorious destiny. Here he’s known as Wart, the young, fumbling aspirational squire to brutish knights like Sir Kay and his father, Sir Ector. But Merlin rightly recognizes the potential greatness in Wart, and sets out to school him in the best way possible, transforming the country’s fate by placing it in the hands of an extraordinary future leader.
Walt Disney himself recognized the plot as a little thin, so the nine old men fleshed it out with scenes from the book that involved Merlin training Arthur, changing the young apprentice into a creature like a fish or a squirrel to see how Wart would fare in myriad environments. Merlin often goes along for the ride, which enabled the animators to apply the wizard’s features—fuzzy gray mustache, spectacles—and the blue of his robe to whatever animal he’s disguising himself as.
This is all a buildup to the movie’s climax, which does not involve the titular weapon but instead a wizard’s duel between Merlin and Madam Mim, an odd, purple-hued witch (maybe a bizarro version of Morgan le Fay, who had her own fights with Merlin) who matches him transformation by transformation. Mim’s alligator chases Merlin’s turtle, who changes into a rabbit, prompting Mim to become a fox, and then a rooster who pursue Merlin’s caterpillar. And that’s just the beginning. It’s a breathtaking sequence.
Likewise, the backgrounds, including a labyrinthine forest that brings to mind some of Sleeping Beauty’s loveliest sequences, are extraordinary. Merlin’s intricately detailed science lab/cottage contains models of future inventions like a steam engine and a flying machine. A segment where he casts a spell on the castle dishes to wash themselves, freeing Wart from his chores, both harkens back to the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section in Fantasia and foreshadows the “Be Our Guest” number in Beauty And The Beast. While none of the movie’s songs nabbed an Oscar nomination (though the score did), they marked the first Disney contribution from the Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, who would hit their stride the following year with Mary Poppins.
It’s Merlin’s ultimate message that resonates, and it’s pretty philosophical for a Disney movie. Although young Wart aspires to a world of jousting knights who privilege brawn over brains, the wizard recognizes England needs a leader who is smart as well as strong. When Arthur says that “knowledge and wisdom is the real power,” Merlin knows his work is done; his young apprentice is ready for the sequence teased by the title, awash in snowflakes and a heavenly light that proclaims him the new—and sufficiently prepared—king.