The mere thought of the King Arthur legend, of the knighthood, chivalry, and magic of it, never fails to bring to mind rich personalities and landscapes, and has thus had an enormous impact on all media. You would think, then, that the grand scope the legend provides might result in some enthralling animation. But as Michael N. Salda’s Arthurian Animation: A Study of Cartoon Camelots on Film and Television (McFarland) endlessly proves, the legend and the medium might be a mismatch.
When Michael Salda contacted me a few years ago telling me of his plans for a book on Arthurian-themed animation, I was curious what he would come up with. As much as I love the legend (and the best thing to come out of it, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), when I think of its connections to animation, “misfire” is the word that immediately comes to mind. (The Disney feature Sword in the Stone and the bomb Quest for Camelot being exceptional cases.)
Arthurian is very dense in description, and with good reason: there isn’t a whole lot in the cartoons for Salda to talk about otherwise. The book stands apart from a lot of academic animation studies in that the author is not afraid of voicing a critical assessment. A necessary requirement, considering Salda takes pains to trace the Arthurian elements found in the worst kiddie TV junk that he can’t pretend goes deeper than “Merlin was a magician.”
Unintentionally no doubt, what Arthurian reveals most successfully is how the legend can be used to illustrate how a lot of bad animation tends to fall under two categories: cynic corporate waste and artistic overindulgence.
Certainly Sword in the Stone falls somewhere in between. It’s too clumsy to be taken seriously, but too expertly crafted to dismiss out of hand. Knight-Mare Hare (embed below) is Jones working without Mike Maltese, his most important collaborator; his latent stuffiness is therefore not tempered and unleashed. The much later A Connecticut Rabbit in King Arthur’s Court suffers even more in this regard, but as Salda makes plain, Chuck Jones’s worst was as good as animation got in 1977 – not exactly a rousing endorsement, but there it is.
The most interesting part of the book from a historical perspective, and what makes it worthy of at least a Kindle purchase, is the examination of Hugh Harman’s unproduced King Arthur feature (it went by at least three different names while in development). Salda used Harman’s papers verbatim for an enlightening look behind what he calls “the best Arthurian cartoon never made.” It was in development in the first half of the ‘40s and Harman was still trying to sell the screenplay as late as 1955. Being that he was untested in the feature realm, no one was interested in Harman’s project.
Harman was the Don Bluth of his day, an animator who never seemed to consider entertaining the audience as important as lush surfaces and upstaging Disney animation (and of course, always at a cheaper cost than the genuine article). Harman was determined his movie “retain as much of the authentic Arthurian data as possible,” but he also planned to employ musical interludes and hackneyed comic reliefs. If the movie was ever made, I’m sure it would have been at least as endearing as the Fleischer features, though like them, it’d only ultimately reaffirm Disney’s status as the sole maker of successful animated movies of that era.
Undoubtedly many will find Arthurian a taxing read, particularly the unavoidable dryness of the second half as Salda descends into the wasteland of TV animation, but anything that brings new, accurate animation history to print is worth recommending for your reference library. The subtext, though, that one of the greatest legends has yet to find a balanced home in the greatest of collaborative media, is a bit unnerving. As Salda concludes, “the king and his court seem certain to continue to play roles in cartoons short and long for years to come.” Whether any of them will actually be any good – we have the answer in Salda’s book.
Here are two cartoons with Arthurian themes – from two extremes: Knight-Mare Hare (1955) by Chuck Jones and Horning In (1965) from Paramount, directed by Howard Post. Enjoy.