Sword in the Stone: 45th Anniversary Edition (US - DVD R1)
Gabe just got the allegory of puberty and young men pulling swords from stones
Young Arthur, or Wart as his acquaintances call him, is a plucky squire in training when he happens across the magician Merlin, who not only knew he was coming, but who intends to educate the boy he knows will become something great. Wart’s responsibilities are bisected as Merlin demands his undivided attention while he prepares to assist a brutish knight in the upcoming battle for the crown of England.
I often tell people that the only movies we had in my house when I was growing up were Ghostbusters and The Empire Strikes Back, but now I’m recalling a taped from Disney channel VHS copy of The Sword in the Stone. The Sword in the Stone is not my favourite Disney classic, but it’s probably the one with which I am most familiar.
Apparently The Sword in the Stone was not one of the more critically acclaimed of the studio’s productions upon its initial release. The film came at the tail end of what was arguably Disney Animation’s finest era, specifically between my two personal favourites, 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book. This fact likely didn’t help the film’s reception, but it’s still sizably better than real quality drops like The Aristocats. Some of the production values are a stitch below what was likely expected from the studio, including repeated animation (literally recycled), and animation utilizing the still new Xerographic technology that was pioneered with 101 Dalmatians.
Yet despite these obvious flaws, Stone is brimming with some of the most charming character animation ever put to film. Merlin is the obvious frontrunner, his beard alone is a marvel of hand sketched craft, but young Arthur makes for a hilarious straight man, especially when stricken dumbfounded by Merlin’s gobbledegook, and the animal animation is nearly perfect as well, if not a little inconsistent. As was the case with 101 Dalmatians, the Xerox production creates a very sketchy look, which some people don’t like, but I continue to think it adds to the charm.
Adapting the first part of T.H White’s The Once and Future King for kids is no small task, and it makes for what feels like one fourth of an epic (one can only imagine what the studio could do with the entire series), but this is one of those rare cases where the thought actually counts for as much as the execution. The tale ends rather abruptly, and frankly rather awkwardly, but everything in the lead-up is fast paced and infused with more than enough cartoon comedy. The film’s humour has aged surprisingly well, from both a standpoint of original release date, and from the standpoint of the age I was the first time I saw it. Here we find the usually magical Disney mix of basic physical humour and sly wordplay, though the simple animation and performance in Archimedes cracking up at Merlin’s failed flying machine had me in stitches more than anything else in the entire, light hearted movie.
Either Disney isn’t putting a lot of effort into cleaning the negatives of their less classic features, or some of these negatives aren’t ever going to be perfect. I’m guessing it’s a bit of both. This print isn’t terrible by any means, it lies somewhere between that lumpy Aristocats transfer, and the sharp re-release of The Jungle Book. The image’s detail and sharpness is actually pretty remarkable, which only magnifies the cell dirt and other artefacts. It appears that some colour correction has been made, though the last time I caught the film it was on digital cable, not DVD (one can make comparisons to the film footage in the disc’s musical featurette). Colours are bright and full, though the consistency is a bit off. The edge enhancement is a little thick, and compression noise is obvious.
I should also probably note that the original press material listed the aspect ratio at 1.66:1. This final product is 1.33:1 without a doubt. I didn’t notice any side information missing, so I assume that this is simply the open mat version of the film. The studio intended for many of their theatrical release movies to be shown on television, so this shouldn’t be either alarming or strange to collectors.
Again, Disney DVD champions a 5.1 Dolby Digital track that is mostly just an effectively cleansed original mono track. The surround and stereo channels only really do anything when the musical track (minus vocals) comes into play. There’s more or less no discretion between the two rear channels, but I did notice some separation in the stereo channels. There’s quite a bit of inconsistency to the voice tracks, sometimes characters are tinnier then others, and sometimes things are muddled by unintended echo and reverb effects. The inconsistency in Wart’s voice can apparently be attributed to the fact that three young actors (with noticeably different voices) played him.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a Platinum Edition release, so there isn’t much behind the scenes information beyond some words about the film’s music, much like the semi-recent Aristocats release. Under the ‘Music and More’ banner is a brief featurette about the famous Sherman Brother’s and their work on The Sword and the Stone. Included here are cheap piano renditions of a few deleted songs, set to some production art and storyboards. The piece runs about eight minutes. Also included in this area is a song selection screen. When a song is selected the scene comes up and the lyrics are displayed on the subtitles.
Under the game section is a decently challenging game called ‘Merlin’s Magical Academy Game’. This includes quiz questions and DDR on a remote-like ‘action’ games. There are two classic Disney shorts included, both with a medieval theme. A Knight for a Day and The Brave Little Tailor both haven’t been particularly well maintained (dirty and interlaced), but both are surely watchable, and surprisingly both feature smoking, which I thought had been digitally erased from the Disney vaults.
Under the ‘Backstage Disney’ banner you’ll find a seven minute excerpt from an episode of Walt Disney’s old television show concerned with magic, a sixteen page concept art gallery, and a few paltry pages of text based behind the scenes information. Everything ends with a series of sneak peek trailers.
Sword in the Stone has some obvious shortcomings even the Disney die-hard must address, but it’s also much better than the critics originally gave it credit for. I really could’ve done with some meaty behind the scenes information, preferably in the form of a retrospective documentary, but the A/V presentation is acceptable (if not remarkable). I’m not familiar with the previous DVD releases, so I can’t recommend against or for a double dip, but will say that the extras really aren’t worth it if they happen to be the only deciding factor.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 17th June 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Extras: Musical Featurette, Song Selection, Merlin's Magical Academy Game, Backstage Disney, Production Art, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Cast: Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson, Rickie Sorensen, Junius Matthews, Ginny Tyler
Length: 79 minutes
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