In 1937, Bill “You’re damn right I’m changing my last name to Peet” Peed joined the Disney Studio as an in-betweener animator. After a few years, he, uh…moved on to story art (And by moved on, I mean it’s documented he ran out of the studio crying “No more lousy ducks!”). Story artists, even today, are tasked to draw out a movie in the form of a long comic strip so the producers, directors, and writers can best visualize a movie long before they waste so much time and money on animation if something doesn’t work. Peet seemed to have found his calling here, as he spent nearly thirty years drafting sketches for 13 films and 11 shorts. However, to say the man was happy is far from the truth.
Peet was a very stubborn, passionate man, and he worked for another man who was similarly stubborn and passionate. But Walt Disney respected his artistry and creativity so much that despite numerous confrontations, Peet stayed at the studio. Walt trusted him so much by the time 101 Dalmatians (1961) was in production, Peet was the only credited writer aside from the original book’s author, Dodie Smith.
After Dalmatians, story artist Ken Anderson and animator Marc Davis were working on an adaptation of Chanticleer, but Peet saw it as futile. Why? Get this: he claimed they couldn’t get a personality out of a chicken. He went his own way and started doing drafts on T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, a property the studio had since 1939. Walt sat in on the pitch for Chanticleer and didn’t care for what he saw, but evidently enjoyed Peet’s project. The animators were understandably upset, but had no choice.
And now it’s time we take a look at this whiz-bang whizard of whimsy and watch this wonderful wizarding world!
The plot: the great wizard Merlin (Karl Swenson) and his educated owl Archimedes (Junius Matthews) meets a young, waifish boy named Arthur, but he’s simply known as Wart. Convinced the boy is destined for greatness, Merlin tags along with him and settles in the castle, under the wary gaze of the stubbornly oafish Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot) and the boorish Kay (Norman Alden). While Wart is expected by Ector to tend to Kay’s every need in his potential knighthood, Merlin invests in Wart’s future. He takes Wart on outings, teaching him the importance of brain over muscle as he turns the boy into a fish, a squirrel, and a sparrow. Maybe this education could come in use someday if England gains a once and future king.
How’s the writing?: It’s immediately evident the story doesn’t just not follow a typical three act structure, but it also comes off as very relaxed and slow paced. It’s not about high fantasy with grand sorcery or adventures beyond the Shire. Its not about battles and swordfights or mythical creatures and quests. It’s about a playful old codger using his magic to do what seem like quaint, charming things for quaint, charming reasons. He uses his magic for education, making sure Wart learns his mind is a far superior tool than any magic wand or flexed muscle.
The movie can annoy those who expect more than that, though. Never mind the titular blade is discussed in the intro and not touched upon until the final five minutes of the film. For all its insinuated promises of magic and sorcery, it’s pretty light on it. The movie also goes at a leisurely pace, not unlike an educational short. First time viewers may be unprepared for a classic Disney animated film that’s pretty light on action and adventure. Even with skirmishes between a pike, a wolf, and Madam Mim, The film’s sense of excitement is fairly minimal. It’s basically a diet Disney film.
Does it give the feels?: There’s only one area where there are some feels generated, and it’s all courtesy of one character who has no bearing on the general plot: the little red girl squirrel. (Not the same thing as Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl)
When Merlin and Wart are squirrels, Wart bumps into a female squirrel who takes an eager shine to him immediately. Wart, put off by her enthusiasm, tries to get away from her, until a wolf tries to eat him. From there, she goes full-on savage all to save Wart.
So imagine the look on her face when Merlin turns him back into a human. She actually becomes heartbroken, nay devastated, yet incredibly confused. Merlin and Wart quietly discuss the power of love, and it’s really kind of sweet and incredible. I once had a friend devise a head canon that that squirrel would later ask Madam Mim to turn her human, and she’s later become the infamous Guinevere.
And yet they didn’t make a sequel with that in mind? I’d watch it.
Who makes it worth it?: Without a doubt, the best character is Merlin. That should be no surprise, considering Peet modeled Merlin after Walt Disney himself.
Merlin is a cantankerous, fussy, but playful old coot with a twinkle of mischief in his eye. He delights in using his magic for fun and educational purposes. I’m glad he doesn’t stumble into the trope of being scatterbrained or forgetful, but he does seem a touch absent-minded at times. His relationship with the grumpy Archimedes is a joy to watch. And perhaps most unique, he incorporates science in his magic. He frequently refers to locomotives and airplanes and other things that you’d hear in a science classroom, which makes it a very clever take on a medieval wizard. Sure, Prospero can conjure a storm, Harry Potter can play Quidditch, Dr. Strange can bend time, and Gandalf can take on a Balrog and die and resurrect himself…but Merlin can make a model train run on tea! That is a truly underappreciated skill!
Best quality provided: By far the best part of the film is the Wizard’s Duel. I’m sure Peet had an absolute blast planning it out, the animators has a blast drawing it, and I have a blast every time I watch it.
When Mim challenges Merlin to duel for what I guess is ownership of Wart, the two have a duel by changing into different animals to attack each other. It’s a sequence that lasts just over four minutes of the two switching between various animals, and it’s funny and intense. The designs are great, right down to the color-coding between Merlin’s blues and Mim’s magentas. But it’s also great when you notice how Mim turns into big, carnivorous animals, but Merlin frequently turns into smaller, less fearsome animals. You see how each one employs their own strategies in the battle right down to Mim’s final cheating move.
Mim herself is a delight, a batty old witch who gets utter joy in watching misery and unpleasantness. Supposedly, Walt wanted someone more intimidating, akin to Snow White’s Queen or Maleficent. But Peet protested, not only because they’d done that before, but because she ought to be Merlin’s equal. And I totally get it. Maleficent is great, but Mim just cackles whenever she wins anything, like a bratty child. Definitely gets points for not being just another austere, refined dame.
Actually, scratch that other sequel. A buddy comedy starring Maleficent and Madam Mim. They’re roommates. Make it happen.
What could have been improved: The first and by far most distracting issue is Wart’s voice. Originally, Wart was voiced by director Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman’s sons, Robert and Richard Reitherman. (His third son, Bruce, would play Mowgli in 1967’s The Jungle Book). However, due to their ages, their voices broke, and Disney hired a third boy, Rickie Sorensen, whose voice was definitely broken. There are multiple scenes where this is incredibly obvious and distracting, especially when the dialogue tracks are placed right next to each other, which happens at least twice in the movie. I would cut Woolie a break, since it was his first directing credit (He directed all six animated features the studio released up through 1981’s The Fox and the Hound), but c’mon.
Sometimes I think the movie just didn’t quite know what to do with itself. There are lots of moments of padding or just generally lacking direction, particularly in a character like Pellinore. The character alerts Sir Ector about the jousting tournament for the crown, but his gimmick is his massive mustache, which he keeps sniffing and swishing. It’s really just one scene where he does it three times, but it’s really weird. Then you get Hobs, a character referred to twice, even taking Wart’s place as squire, even though we never see him. The wolf is at least kind of interesting, but he doesn’t do anything that services the plot, other than just get beat up or defeated as though he were Wile E. Coyote’s spiritual successor.
The songs are bland. And it’s a shame, too, because these are the Sherman Brothers! Less than a year later, they’d give the world “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”! Here, their songs just feel uninspired. “That’s What Makes the World go ‘Round”, and “A Most Befuddling Thing” don’t add anything productive. “Mad Madam Mim” is a spoken word track. The only one I like, on the far end of the scale, might I add, is “Higitus Figitus”, another nonsense song that doesn’t do anything, but has a fun melody to it.
Verdict: Yes, there are parts of it that bother or bore me, but the parts with Merlin and Archimedes and Mim are delightful. I’d rather watch a dull movie about them than one with perfect action and animation where they’re dull or uninteresting. I’ve heard Bryan Cogman, producer of Game of Thrones, is writing a version made for Disney+ streaming service, which launches this fall. I hope that lighthearted tone is kept, and Merlin and Archimedes and Mim are just as fun and entertaining, but considering what I’ve seen in the past seven seasons of his show, I have my doubts. The Sword in the Stone is best when viewed on an overcast day on your day off, bringing just enough humor and charm to just brighten up your day. I award this film, the last animated film Walt saw through completion, a humble seven Excaliburs out of ten.
Peet, by the way, would start a draft of The Jungle Book after this movie. However, his attitude clashed with Walt for the last time, and he left the studio in January of 1964, barely a month after The Sword in the Stone‘s release. But don’t feel bad for him, exactly. Since 1959, Peet has gained serious acclaim as a children’s book author, for such titles as The Wump World, The Whingdingdilly, Cyrus, the Unsinkable Serpent, Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure, Chester, the Worldly Pig, and The Ant and the Elephant. So if his name sounds familiar, that’s probably why.