Thursday, December 29, 2011

DATE Night: The Sword in the Stone

Way to use alliteration, y'all.
We are now entering a new phase of our DATE Nights. Remember a little while back when we hit a rocky patch with the package films of the forties, starting with Saludos Amigos? Well, we patched things up by the fifties, leading to the second golden age, which began with Cinderella. We have come to what can be described as mid-relationship doldrums. Things are not completely bleak, but it's gonna be shaky for a good while, with a lot of ups and downs. Fasten your seatbelts. It's gonna be a bumpy (couple of DATE) Night(s).

The Background:

For me, The Sword in the Stone marks the end of the second golden age of Disney animation, which lasted from Cinderella to 101 Dalmatians and brought us a string of films that were each and every one masterpieces. Despite any quibbles that you may have with them or how they were received in their day, you have to admit that each one of these films was solidly structured, charmingly told and artistically stunning and bold. Sword is none of these things and it is the beginning of a very controversial and divisive period for Disney feature animation. Until we reach the third golden age, which is over twenty years away, there are few great films and bucket loads of inconsistency weighing down the rest. This movie is where the cracks really begin to show.

It had been two years since Disney released 101 Dalmatians and the public was eager for their new animated feature. All signs pointed to The Sword in the Stone being a success. Wolfgang Reitherman (director) and Bill Peet (story) had been keys to the last film's success and were once again at the helm. Many of the great animators were still behind their desks. The new kids on the block at the studio were the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the songs here before becoming legends for their work on Mary Poppins among many, many other classics. This would also be the last animated feature that would be released in Walt's lifetime and his guidance was usually a boon to the creative process. As the Disney Christmas release of 1963 it did well, but was not an all-out smash. It did decent box office and was somewhat well-reviewed. It was also pretty quickly forgotten. There is a small cult of devotees, which every Disney film, no matter how obscure, has, but by and large there are few traces of it left. It was re-released to theaters twice and issued with little fanfare on DVD. Merlin pops up at the parks here and there to get a kid to pull the sword from the stone. Otherwise, the film has kind of faded into obscurity and (hate on me if you must) somewhat deservedly so.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 12: The Sword in the Stone. The first time I've felt artistic disappointment. The style that worked for 101 Dalmatians does not work artistically for the Arthurian period. It isn't without charm. The girl squirrel is adorable. The Sherman Brothers wrote the music for the first time and it's fun. The duel between Madam Mim and Merlin is fun. But overall, I'm not so much a fan.
February 6, 2010 at 9:38pm ·

The Art:

A rare artistically sound moment.
6/10. This is a situation where the stylistic choices made by the creators did not jibe with the story that they were telling. At the beginning, we have a traditional opening of the illustrated storybook but when the movie starts, we are stepping into a completely different story. It's like aesthetically promising Sleeping Beauty and delivering 101 Dalmatians and it's off-putting. The background styling owes much to the look of 101 Dalmatians, with blocks of color behind detailed lines, but despite how well-done they may be, I can't help but wonder if they fit the story. Often they take on a kind of patchwork quality that looks haphazard, while the effect in 101 Dalmatians is consistently artful. (As you can see "does it fit the story?" is the query that spooled endlessly through my head while watching this film.) The Xerox lines, with their sketchy quality, do the rich legends that they are trying to present no favors. The effects animation (water, rain, snow, smoke, etc.), which are usually always standouts, end up looking pretty chintzy here for the most part, though they do improve over the course of the film. The reflections in water and magic effects, especially in the wonderful wizard duel sequence, are standouts. In the end, there is nothing that I love visually in this movie. I can't help but wonder what difference it would have made to base the look on artwork from Arthurian times, but the filmmakers wanted a modern look superimposed over a classic story. By taking the more economical and less artistic road, they ended up with a film that looks cheap rather than clever.

The Story:

5/10. Here's where the bulk of the problems are rooted. The creators obviously wanted to take an old world story and modernize it. The idea makes sense. It would allow "today's" audience to connect with it more and provide some humor as well. In some cases, this works like a charm (Hercules, The Emperor's New Groove), however, here it dates the piece instead, taking away the timeless quality that even animated classics set in modern times (101 Dalmatians, Lilo & Stitch) have. Merlin's ability to see the future doesn't deepen the story as much as it provides easy humor that is no longer terribly relevant to an audience in the 21st century. This issue has repercussions throughout all the other aspects of the movie, but is not the only mistake that was made.

The age old battle of crab v. snake, Disney-style.
The film is front-loaded with exposition at the top and then structured in a very disjointed and episodic manner. It feels less like a feature film than a series of "Merlin & Wart" shorts. "Merlin & Wart Swim With the Fishes". "Merlin & Wart Go Nutty". "Merlin & Wart Meet Mad Madam Mim". Each may be charming in its on right for five minute long chunks, but they feel strung together without having a clear arc to make it into a single story. They are also pretty preachy, each containing a hackneyed lesson to be learned from "look before you leap" to "brains before brawn", and none of these nuggets of wisdom is expressed in a very innovative way. Some of these sections are successful overall, such as the squirrel and Madam Mim bits, which are the highlights of the film, but for the most part they seem to drag on without building much in the way of tension or momentum. Then they slam into a moralistic brick wall that leaves you thinking "meh" and wishing there was more of a payoff.

All of the material that strings these pieces together doesn't much register. There are a lot of hijinks that seem better suited to a Looney Tunes short (everything with the wolf stalking Wart), jokes that repeat themselves (Archimedes' twisty neck) and sequences that feel like they are ripping themselves off (I'm being chased by a big fish! Now I'm being chased by a hawk! See how that's different and brings a new level of clarity to my journey as a character? No? Oh...well, nuts...). Even transitional techniques (sloppy fades and blackouts) feel unimaginative and the opening sequence a step backwards after the brilliant precedent set by 101 Dalmatians.

Ah! Snake v. mouse makes much more sense.
I like to root for the underdog and champion many underrated Disney gems. (Just wait 'til we hit Home on the Range.) Sometimes glaring mistakes can be made and yet the film somehow still works through sheer force of will, charm and fun. (The Aristocats, much?) Neither is the case for me here. Others, however, may see it differently. I went to a lovely holiday party not long ago (shout out to occasional DATE Nighters Stacy and Justin!) and chatted about The Sword in the Stone with a few of the folks there who gave me a very interesting point of view on the film. Stacy got all twitterpated when she found out which DATE Night I was on. When I told her how disappointed I was in the film, she told me that it was one of her favorites from childhood. When she was a kid she loved it because, along with Peter Pan (her other favorite), it was the only film until Aladdin that was a full-on adventure story that avoided getting weighed down with too much romance or sentimentality. Someone else offered that it's one of the films that he and his sibling still quote to each other even to this day and it wasn't until he read the book that he realized that it was just as episodic as the movie. All agreed that while it may not be the strongest story-wise or artistically, it offered a different kind of animated film for an audience who wanted something outside the classic fairy tale realm. So while I have a bit more appreciation for why The Sword and the Stone has loyal followers, I still think it is one of the least effective Disney animated classics in the canon.

The Characters:

Just a squirrel trying to get a nut.
5/10. To me, the characters in The Sword and the Stone are stubbornly unlikable. There is absolutely no one that I feel an emotional connection to. Wart, voiced by three separate actors owing, it seems, to the fact that puberty doesn't wait for production schedules, comes off as weak and a bit whiny. He is supposed to be the fellow that we root for, but when he has his emotional moment and weeps, it feels somehow unearned and empty. It certainly isn't as moving as it was clearly set up to be. Merlin certainly doesn't add too terribly much warmth and any that he has displayed flew out the window for me when at the end of the film he flat out abandons Wart after an abrupt blow-up. Archimedes, who is meant to provide comic relief, is rather an ill-tempered annoyance who seems to dare you to like him at all. Wart's caretakers are brutish jerks. It's a shame when the characters that pique my interest the most come and go in a flash because of the movie's bad structuring. I love the sassy sugar pot with attitude to spare who smacks Wart with a spoon. I was genuinely moved by the girl squirrel who broke my heart when she discovered through a fog of confusion that Wart was not a boy squirrel. The character also provides several dialogue-free moments of humor and imagination, such as the expression of attraction through hands on the face. And of course Madam Mim is fantastic. She's campy, crazypants and fully awesome, but she is seen only briefly in all her wackadoo glory before the story moves on to the next escapade. The voice work throughout is fine if not special, and the character design and animation is the same.  

The Music:

Higitus Figitus and so forth and so on.
5/10. This was the first animated feature that the Sherman Brothers worked on for Disney and the songs that they wrote are by no means top drawer. They may all function in the story, but they do not help propel it forward. They are flat exposition ("The Sword in the Stone") or show pieces ("Higitus Figitus" and "Mad Madam Mim") or lesson reinforcers ("That's What Makes the World Go 'Round" and "A Most Befuddling Thing"). All of this would be more forgivable if the songs weren't so forgettable. I would be hard-pressed to conjure up more than a very short phrase from any of the songs despite having seen it quite recently. Nothing is glaringly bad, but nothing is outstanding. Jazzy elements often throw you out of the time and place of the story as well. Considering the lack of clarity in the whole of the storytelling, I'm not surprised that these songs can't really find their place within it. I just can't help but get the feeling that these are minor songs by writers who are capable of more.

George Bruns, who I could write love sonnets to for scoring films such as Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians so incredibly, handles the score here as well, but really gets mired down in contrasting classic storybook versus modern jazzy stylings. Even in the beginning, we are watching a very solemn opening credit sequence with appropriate stately music playing, when a swinging overture plays bubbles up suddenly and makes us question exactly what kind of movie we are watching. Bruns' other scores elevate wonderful material. They serve as an emotional roadmap for the audience. Here, he is making what he can out of flat material and trying to abide by the "modern touches in a storybook world" concept that sinks the film. He is incapable of shoddy work, but this is far from his finest. Both he and the Sherman Brothers have made much more worthy contributions to the musical world of Disney elsewhere.

The Gay Scale:

And then there's this outfit.
5/10. There isn't much that is terribly gay about this film. There is plenty of effete British affectation in Merlin and Archimedes, but nothing in their actions suggests that it goes any deeper. Except maybe Merlin's pink boxer shorts. The characters actually seem quite asexual, which I guess makes sense considering that they are an owl and an old wizard, but hey, even Dumbledore was given a fun queer backstory. Beyond those characters, there is scant little eye-candy, which is sad considering that there is potential for hunky knights in shining armor. If the storytelling were stronger, then maybe it could have been interpreted as a gay man's journey. An underestimated and less-than-macho young man is taken under the wing of someone older and wiser who wants to guide him through an unfamiliar world, taught the ropes of life and love, and finally comes into his own, being respected in a man's world. But even that's a stretch. Of course, the gays love a good villainess and Madam Mim adds a bit of campy spice to the mix, but she isn't around enough to register that way she could have. I'm not sure whether I see less that's queer in this movie partly because I didn't enjoy it, or I didn't enjoy it partly because I saw less that's queer in it. Unclear.

The Bottom Line:

Sorry Walt. Not quite. But nice tree!
5/10. The Sword in the Stone is a major disappointment for me. The people behind the film seem to be aiming to wring cleverness and unexpectedness out of contrasting the modern sensibility of the art, music, storytelling and humor with the classic story set in olden times. Instead they came out with a dated mess of a movie that loses much of the timeless charm that defines the best of the Disney animated features. The style of the film seems to spring from economic need rather than artistic inspiration. The storytelling is disjointed, episodic and ineffective. The characters are unlikeable and do not make an emotional impact. The music doesn't help to tell the story, nor is it fun enough to be a joyous lark. After a decade of triumph after artistic triumph, the studio was bound to stumble, and they stumbled hard. They will recover a bit with The Jungle Book, but it will be decades before they are really able to get their moviemaking mojo back.

The Miscellanea:

This is an awesome video, called "White Magic" posted on YouTube that takes vocal and soundtrack elements of the movie and stitches them together to create a whole new beast. I devoted an entire blog entry to the many videos that this person has done (Odd Disney World: Disney Remixed). If you enjoy this one, you should check it out and see some of the remixes they've done for other films, which are all pretty spectacular.

This is the Sword in the Stone Ceremony at Disneyland (the show itself starts at the two minute mark). It's the only real presence that the movie has in the parks, which isn't terribly surprising, since the film isn't really popular enough to warrant a full attraction. But almost everyone has the ubiquitous trying-to-pull-the-sword-out-of-the-stone picture.

I love the "Darth Vader Goes to Disneyland" ad campaign that the parks did not too long ago leading up to the unveiling of the newly revamped Star Tours in the parks. It was simple and hilarious. The juxtaposition of this character in the happiest place on Earth doing typical theme park activities really tickled me. Here he tries his hand at dislodging that stubborn sword.

This is an extended version of "Legend of the Sword in the Stone" from the beginning of the film. I'm not sure where this version comes from, though it's probably from a record released around the same time as the film, but it's interesting to hear the additional lyrics.

So what was your take? Were you as put off as I was by the film's lackluster construction or were you happy that it ventured out of the box? Did you find the art derivative or appropriate? Did the "current" references throw you off or charm you? Did you find all the characters in the film as unlikable as I did or is that what you made you dig them in the first place? It seems like this film tends to really divide Disney fans. Do you think it marks the end of the second golden age, like I do? Or do you feel that it comes down the road a bit? On our next DATE Night, we'll be traveling to the India for The Jungle Book. I would appreciate it if you could please come dressed like you just came from speiling on the Jungle Cruise, pith helmet and all. I will take pictures and post them all over your FaceSpace for the world to admire and/or possibly giggle at.

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