Disney brought us to contemporary times with One-Hundred and One Dalmatians, but in his next film decided to take us back to medieval times with The Sword in the Stone. Veteran storyboarder Bill Peet had discovered author T.H. White's "The Sword in the Stone" and brought it to Walt's attention. The book's philosophies, combined with vividly described characters, the animation potential of sorcery, and an appealing boy hero were all very appealing to Walt who had always been enamored of the Arthurian legend. This was especially after seeing the stage version of the Arthurian legend called Camelot, which starred Julie Andrews, who would one day become Mary Poppins. This movie has the distinction of being the first to be directed by only one director, while in the animated films before, there would be up to four directors. This was also the first time one of the "Nine Old Men" had fully directed a film. Wolfgang "Woolie" Reitherman had been an animator at Disney since 1938 and had co-directed Sleeping Beauty. Reitherman would go on to direct all the animated movies up until the 1980's.
An unusual part of the production for this film was the fact that Disney wanted Bill Peet to write a screenplay. All animated films before this had their story hammered out on storyboards. So, like the solo director, there was basically a solo writer for this movie. Peet and Disney didn't actually get along very well and that comes out in the movie. Peet apparently based a lot of Merlin off of Disney, down to the nose. In White's novel, Merlin is a curmudgeony, argumentative person. Peet admitted that while Disney wasn't a curmudgeon nor did he have a beard, he was a grandfather and quite a character. Another unusual fact about the movie is that three different boys provided the voice for Wart/Arthur. If you listen really closely you can tell when the voices change, as some of the boys are clearly going through puberty and their voice hasn't quite changed and cracks, but luckily for Disney, two of the kids were brothers, so it made an easier transition for the film to change voices. You may also notice that the kids doing the voices for Wart also seem to have a Brooklyn accent instead of a typical medieval England type accent. "Hey! Watch it! I'm trying to be the King ova here!"
This also marks the first time that the Sherman Brothers provided songs for a Disney film. They would go on to write the songs for The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, The Many Adventures of Winnie of Pooh and The Tigger Movie. They wrote several songs for the movie, with a couple being deleted including a song called, "The Magic Key." "Higitus Figitus" is probably the most recognizable of the songs, and has a funny story behind it. The Sherman brothers needed a song for Merlin and his wizardry, but didn't want to have it filled with established magic words like Alakazam and Abrakadabra. They wanted to come up with words that sounded British, but also had a bit of Latin, since Merlin was a very intellectual and learned wizard. It does help give the film a more unique touch, as they now had a memorable song that didn't involve words everyone's associated with magic.
The movie is probably one of the most philosophical of all the Disney movies. White's novel focused on the conviction that all people are basically good, but they just don't know how to direct their powers toward positive ends. This is touched on a bit by the way Merlin and Wart converse, but not as much as in the original book. The movie does show a battle of sorts going between Merlin and Wart in the way they think about potential. Wart is convinced that since he is an orphan, the most he can become is a squire and should work towards that. Merlin, on the other hand, who knows Wart's future, tells him that he can do anything he wants. Throughout the film, Merlin expresses to Wart how important education is, and with that, he could become greater than he ever dreamed. There is even a whole song about the importance of education in the film called, "That's What Makes the World Go Round." Wart is a hard person to break out of that idea of becoming a squire, and this leads to Merlin leaving for 20th century Bermuda. Merlin mentions the 20th century several times, mostly to himself, and this makes one wonder why he doesn't just stay there since he can apparently time travel. The answer may lie in the fact that Merlin knows exactly what he is meant to do, which is make Wart into the King of England. At the end, we also hear Merlin complain about the 20th century, so it shows that no matter what time period he's in, Merlin is basically miserable. So, the movie deals with one's fate more than anything.
T.H. White's novel, from which the story is based, was first published in 1938. It was initially supposed to be a stand alone book, but soon became the first in a tetralogy called The Once and Future King. Disney didn't take too many liberties with the story, besides cooling down the philosophical nature of the book. In White's novel, Merlin is actually spelled Merlyn, and like in the movie, he lives backward in time, unlike everyone else. Wart is taught by Merlyn as a youth for the use of power and royal life. Through their adventures Merlyn changes Wart into various animals and they go on many more human adventures than in the movie, eventually running into Robin Wood (meant to be Robin Hood). White had an extensive knowledge of medieval culture and incorporated such things as jousting, falconry and hunting into the novel. White, however, did not try and make the book consistently historically accurate, as evidenced by the time traveling wizard.
This movie ranks very high on my list. Like Walt Disney, I've always been fascinated by the Arthurian Legend and this movie is just a lot of fun. I loved all the animal parts, because who wouldn't want to become a bird, fish, or a squirrel for a little while? One of my favorite parts of any Disney movie is the infamous wizard's duel between Merlin and Mad Madam Mim. Seeing them turn into different things was the coolest thing when I was a kid, and I still love watching that scene. This is also one of the funnier Disney movies, at least of the older generations. Most is visual humor dealing with facial hair, especially Merlin's beard, which seems to always get caught in things.
The movie was released in 1963 and did very well in the box office, becoming the sixth highest grossing film of that year. It was met with generally good reviews, with British critics liking it more than American. Some in America claimed that there was actually too much humor in the film and that it had a thin narrative. Regardless, it is today considered a great work of animation, with complex structure and philosophical ideas. That being said, it's also one of the least well known Disney films. Not Black Cauldron unknown, but it's generally forgotten about. Which is too bad because it is a very good film.