Animation Cel-ebration
December 29, 2023 posted by Michael Lyons

Live Like a King: The 60th Anniversary of “The Sword in the Stone”

“When I suggested that we do a feature based on T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, a fanciful version of the boyhood of King Arthur, Walt was all for it. But once again, he insisted I write a screenplay before starting the storyboard work. Walt the wizard never knew that I patterned Merlin the magician after him when I wrote the script.”

So wrote story artist Bill Peet in his book, aptly titled Bill Peet An Autobiography, in a passage that reveals just how unique and full of the Disney spirit the Studio’s 1963 animated feature, The Sword in the Stone, was.

Based on the first book in author T.H. White’s tetralogy of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King, the film The Sword in the Stone first surfaced as a project at Disney in 1939, when the Studio purchased the rights to White’s books.

For the next twenty years, as the book went through various attempts to be adapted as a film, The Sword in the Stone would emerge as something distinctive for Disney. In his book The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin noted, “… few could resist commenting how different the film seemed from the earlier animated endeavors, not only in drawing style but in the whole atmosphere of the film, which was telling a medieval tale with a bit too much of its head in the 1960s.”

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, The Sword in the Stone tells the tale of King Arthur when he was young and before he was crowned. In Jerry Beck’s book, The Animated Movie Guide, contributor Martin Goodman notes how the film was one of two projects in consideration as an animated feature at one time:

“According to some accounts, none of the animators really wanted to make this film. Several of the ‘Nine Old Men’ of Disney’s brain trust wanted to revive the long dormant Chanticleer the Rooster project, but storyman/concept artist Bill Pete was able to convince Walt to go with The Sword and the Stone instead. Having greatly enjoyed the 1960 Broadway production of Camelot, Walt was easily sold.”

The Sword in the Stone opens with a prologue, complete with the traditional Disney storybook opening to the pages within, that explains that the King of England had died and no one could decide who would take over the throne. A miracle happened when a sword appeared in a stone in London. Written on the sword was “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise King born of England.”

Many try but are unsuccessful, and England is left without a King, leading into a dark age. And it is during this time that we meet 11-year-old Wart (voiced by Rickie Sorenson, along with Richard and Robert Reitherman, sons of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman).

Wart is an orphan adopted by Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot), who lives with his dull hulk of a son, Sir Kay (Norman Alden). Neither treats Wart very well, but the young lad’s life changes when he accidentally meets Merlin the wizard (Karl Swenson) and his talking owl Archimedes (Junius Matthews) while retrieving Kay’s arrow in the woods during a hunting excursion.

Merlin decides to be Wart’s tutor and mentor, preparing him for life through an education. This is where the creativity of Disney animation comes alive in The Sword in the Stone. Merlin is a marvel of character animation, brought to the screen in many scenes with humorous eccentricities thanks to Disney Legend and master artist Milt Kahl, a member of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” of animators.

As Merlin educates, he uses magic to transform Wart into a fish, a bird, and a squirrel to expand the young man’s horizons. While transformed into a bird, Wart runs into the film’s villainous, Mad Madame Mim (Martha Wentworth), a cunning witch trained in black magic, who challenges Merlin to a “Wizard’s Duel,” a true tour-de-force of Disney animation, where the two can transform themselves into different creatures – snake, mouse, rhino, crab, and fire breathing dragon – as they do battle. Merlin and Mim change into each animal in creative, dizzying ways that happen at a breakneck pace.

The sequence was storyboarded by Peet, with color model drawings by Kahl. The result is not just a brilliant highlight of The Sword in the Stone, but of Disney animation itself.

When Merlin transforms Wart into a squirrel, he transforms himself, and the two meet two female squirrels. The scene, animated by Disney Legend Frank Thomas, another member of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” teaches Wart and audiences an affecting lesson about the power of love through beautiful personality animation.

Author John Canemaker, in his book Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation, says of the sequence: “Thomas created a perfectly structured, emotional rollercoaster and made his cast perform brilliantly. In the bargain, he broke our hearts.”

It is Wart, real name Arthur, who inadvertently pulls the sword from the stone on New Year’s Day while searching for a replacement sword for Kay, who is competing in a tournament. This makes Wart King Arthur, to which Merlin says, in the film’s last line, “They might even make a motion picture about you,” to which Arthur asks, “A motion picture?” And Merlin answers, “Well… that’s something like television, without commercials.”

These contemporary nods in The Sword in the Stone and others where Merlin references airplanes, newspapers and even wears Bermuda shorts, were part of the film having its “head in the 1960s” that Mr. Maltin referred to.

It’s one of the film’s unique aspects, as is the look of The Sword in the Stone. The film used the same Xerox process used in Disney’s previous feature, 101 Dalmatians, which employed an electronic process for adapting animators’ pencil drawings to cels.

This provided a more contemporary look to the animation, which fit perfectly in 101 Dalmatians but provided a more incongruous tone when paired with a traditional fable like The Sword in the Stone.

One aspect of the film that did seem more familiar were the songs, written by Disney Legends Richard and Robert Sherman, in their first animated film collaboration with Disney, after which they would provide songs in Disney movies that would prove to be the soundtrack for generations. For more on the Sherman Brothers and the music of The Sword in the Stone, check out Greg Erhbar’s 2022 article.

Released on Christmas Day of 1963 in the United States, The Sword in the Stone may not have been the hit that previous Disney features had been, but sixty years after its release, with multiple theatrical re-issues, releases on home video, airings on The Disney Channel, and now streaming on Disney+ (in the best film transfer this writer has seen to date), the film continues to connect with warmth and nostalgia for many.

The reason for this could be best summed up by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who, upon the film’s initial release said of The Sword in the Stone: “The humor sparkles with real, knowing sophistication – meaning for all ages – and some of the characters of the fifth-century landscape of Old England are Disney pips.”



  • I’ve said it in many of forum on animation, but “the sword in the stone“ was the very first animated feature I’d ever seen in a theater. Thus, it was the very first Disney feature I’ve ever seen anywhere! I loved it! I still do, and luckily I was able to snag a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of it. Liking animation as I do, I suppose the highlight for me would have been the battle between mad, Madam Mim and Merlin the magician! Fantastic stuff.

  • “Walt was all for it. But once again, he insisted I write a screenplay before starting the storyboard work”

    Yes, Bill Peet says he wrote screenplays in his book for both 101 Dalmatians and Sword In The Stone.

    In Bob Thomas’ book “Art Of Animation from Mickey Mouse to Beauty And The Beast” he writes:

    “Until the late Eighties, Disney animated features had always been conceived on storyboards”
    “It’s okay to do it that way if you’ve got a guy verbalising the script” says Michael Eisner. “Walt Disney could do that”

    “Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Schneider reasoned that “The Black Cauldron” and other animated films since Walt Disney’s death had suffered from … problems .. (which) could be alleviated, they said, by having a script first”

    (I also recall reading about discontentment by some in the animation department over this decision)

    Something does not quite gel here –

    Especially as in the same book, Thomas (who had been the official Disney biographer) writes about 101 Dalmatians:
    “It was the first created by a single story man. Bill Peet was a gifted, headstrong artist and a superb storyteller. He fashioned the 101 Dalmatians story on his own”

    • Me too

  • Walt Disney’s insistence that Bill Peet write the screenplay before starting on the storyboard was a bad idea in the long run. I first became acquainted with “The Sword in the Stone” through one of my sister’s Disney storybooks, and I discovered later that the story is far more effective on the page than on the screen.

    It’s a remarkably dialogue-heavy movie, the “Gilmore Girls” of Disney animation. All that hockety-pockety higgitus-figgitus wordiness tends to work against it; it’s no accident that the film’s most powerful emotional moment is provided by the girl squirrel, a character that doesn’t say a word.

    At the same time, it has one of Disney’s most understated musical scores. Most of the cues are very short, accompanying the casting of a spell or some brief gesture, and whole minutes go by with no music whatsoever. There are only a few times (the animal transformations, the wizards’ duel) when the music is allowed to contribute emotionally to the story, and when it does, it’s as effective an anything George Bruns ever composed for a film. However, this is counterposed by the inane songs of the Sherman Brothers, in my opinion the worst they ever wrote for any film musical. I’m just glad that Walt gave them another chance.

    Of course there are many good things about “The Sword in the Stone”, not least the character animation. Even the embarrassing final line is bound to get a few chuckles. But as Disney features go, it’s decidedly subpar. It’s one of only a few that I don’t really care if I never see again.

  • Here we have a little offstage drama: the battle between the Nine Old Men plus Ken Anderson (this makes ten) and Bill Peet. I think “Sword” is a good indicator of where animation had gone by then. “Personality animation” was no longer synonymous with sequences like Ferguson’s, Moore or Babitt -essentially pantomime narrated by the character’s actions-, but with dialogue and more dialogue. I think Chantacler would have pointed a richer direction in visual terms, even if the story would have been full of holes… “Sword” is not too good either in that field, but its only real visual highlight is the battle sequence. As Merlin wisely said: “something like television, without commercials”. Not quite yet, but getting closer.

  • Regarding the contemporary criticisms of the “anachronisms” in “The Sword and the Stone” (e.g., Merlin going to Bermuda, mentioned motion pictures and television), in the novel, White has Merlin explain that he “experiences time backwards,” and periodically mentions future events (in one part of the novel, he mentions the Boer War). It’s been a while, but I don’t remember that being mentioned in the movie, so that may have led to confusion about it.

    It also occurs to me that this movie was contemporaneous with Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairy Tales” on TV, and critics may have been thinking of that as well.

    And, looking forward as to how times and tastes change, look at how the Genie’s “anachronisms” in “Aladdin” were received so well by audiences and critics alike (that last scene of the Genie showing up in Disney-park tourist garb parallels Merlin showing up at the end in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses).

    • “Regarding the contemporary criticisms of the “anachronisms” in “The Sword and the Stone” (e.g., Merlin going to Bermuda, mentioned motion pictures and television), in the novel, White has Merlin explain that he “experiences time backwards,” and periodically mentions future events (in one part of the novel, he mentions the Boer War). It’s been a while, but I don’t remember that being mentioned in the movie, so that may have led to confusion about it.”

      I seemed to recall Merlin indeed mentioned something about going backwards in the film when Wart first meets him, but I haven’t seen the film in a while.

  • Aside from the xerographic sketchiness and the anachronisms, there’s also the repeat animation and a limited cel color palette (lots of orange, brown, blue, and purple) that contribute to giving the overall film a cheap appearance. This would be perfectly suitable for the Sunday TV program, but as a big-screen spectacle, it falls somewhat short. Fortunately, there are enough fun set-pieces throughout that I am able to overlook the shortcomings.

  • Oh how I despise this film. Easily the worst of the Canon of Disney’s lifetime. At least I get some enjoyment out of the Package Features. There’s no plot, nothing really happens, and it just ends.

  • The timing of “Sword in the Stone’s” initial release, during the heyday of the musical “Camelot,” worked against it. The success of the latter, from whence Walt found his Mary Poppins, probably made the former seem rather pale and derivative. It’s a shame they couldn’t have done “Robin Hood” (which would have benefited from Walt’s personal attention) then and “S in the S” a decade later.

  • I actually didn’t mind Sword In The Stone, of all the Disney VHS tapes I had as a child it was the one I enjoyed the most, or at the very least the one I paid the most attention towards.

    I’m in agreement that it’s not one of Walt’s strongest – by this point I imagine he just didn’t care about animation so long as it came in on time and made its money back – but the parts end up being stronger than the whole in a positive way here. The wizard’s duel, squirrel love plot, and climatic pulling of the sword are masterfully done, the backgrounds take a lot of inspiration from Sleeping Beauty while proving how good they could look under a tighter budget, and there’s definitely some charm to the characters that would be missing in later productions of the era.

    But at the end it’s a case of “good, but not good enough”. Had this been produced by a minor studio it would’ve gained a more solid reputation in the following years, but with Disney people were likely expecting something more fantastic and magical, and got a rather low-key film that probably could’ve been done in live-action with no changes to the script. There’s also the fact that a story like that of Arthur goes well beyond the titular sword in the stone with plenty of material that even The Once & Future King covered, but perhaps the studio never really thought a sequel would work out…

  • I agree that this is a lower tier Disney entry. The lack of story development makes me think of the films made in the 70s. It’s kind of surprising that this came right in between two of Disney’s strongest animated features. Nonetheless, the characters are just as great. Milt Kahl, as critical as he was, actually considered this a great film.

    A side note, another of T.H. White’s books, Mistress Masham’s Repose, was proposed as a Disney feature and had similar character dynamics as Sword. It could have been a stronger feature, with the right story editors.

  • I agree this is perhaps the weakest animated feature Walt Disney produced during his lifetime.

    I teach a course on Disney – and screen each of his cartoon features (from Snow White through 101 Dalmatians) in production order for my class, each semester. Up through Dalmatians you can see progression or innovation in each film, despite any story issues… each one has much to offer to my animation students.

    The Sword In The Stone feels like a film Walt had to green light to keep his animation crew busy – while he was off concocting attractions for the 1964 NY World’s Fair and Walt Disney World, hosting and producing his weekly TV show, raising funds for Cal Arts… and most importantly, shepherding Mary Poppins into being. I’m so glad The Sword In The Stone wasn’t his final feature. The Jungle Book was a better “swan song”; a more fitting tribute to his talents (and the talents of his animation crew).

  • I noticed on the poster that Sword in the Stone is billed as the HAPPIEST Disney animated feature, same as the original Lady and the Tramp one-sheet. Well, they can’t both be the HAPPIEST, can they? Which one is it, marketing department?

  • “Sword in the Stone’s” content and approach make it feel like a B picture, despite excellent animation and production values. The scale is small, three and a half men plus an owl in a rundown castle. The stakes come across as almost trivial — the notion that Wart is preparing to become King Arthur is too distant and abstract, leaving a wizard teaching a kid life lessons . There isn’t a real villain or even a serious antagonist. Predators threaten Wart when he’s a fish and squirrel. Madame Mim pops into the story and out again, like James Brown energizing a beach movie by bursting in mid-film to do a single number, then dancing off without impacting the plot

    Apart from budget, it would have done nicely as one of those modest live action features Disney would put out for summer matinees. Delivering on modest promises, a pleasant entertainment, a good-enough reason to sit in an air-conditioned theater. Problem is, a new Disney animated feature was an Event, and this one was the Big Christmas Movie. People were expecting something big on the order of “101 Dalmatians” or “Swiss Family Robinson”.

    What might have helped? Madame Mim or another villain present throughout the story. Perhaps Sir Ector and Kay evilly pursuing the crown and recognizing Wart as a threat, the way the cruel stepmother recognizes Cinderella as a threat. Letting Merlin (and the audience) know early on that Wart is destined to be King Arthur, and England depends on his surviving and acquiring enough wisdom to rule. I was disappointed even then that we were told how awful England had become, but never shown it. That could have been a visit to a village where Wart sees how bullies and brutes rule.

    In the end, “Sword in the Stone’s” worst fault is being a nice little story when audiences were primed for a knights-in-armor epic.

  • The person who was most disappointed about the result of the film turned out to be Walt himself. Shortly after the film was released, he told his animation staff that the next project (which turned out to be “The Jungle Book”) would be done his way. Unfortunately, his decision clashed with Bill Peet who wanted to continue to do the screenplays in his direction and as a result, Bill got fed up and decided to quit the studio on his own birthday and focus on his other career in children’s books.

    I think it’s safe to say that “The Jungle Book” felt more like Walt’s film than “The Sword and the Stone” even though he sadly didn’t get to see the final film released.

  • And still no real Bluray release. For what was released is a mockery, a cheap vaseline upscale. What Disney put out does not deserve to be called “Bluray”, since it is nothing of the sort.

  • I still enjoy this, the Shermans’s first for an animated film and the first solo written-directed of the animated features..I saw ikt in 1972 when it was rereleased. remember the 1966 ALL ABOUT DRAGONS having the Mim sequence on the record with the original cast! Steve

  • The best version Of “The Sword in the Stone” can be seen on Amazon Prime Video.
    There it is shown uncropped in a 4 : 3 version and unrestored. It looks fantastic!

    • THAT IS TRUE!!

      Which also means….. they are more than capable of releasing a proper 4K+1080p Bluray set, they just…… don’t want to. Or maybe, being Current Year Disney, struggling for money. Cannot print a few thousand Blurays, too expensive!

  • I like “The Sword in the Stone” for what it is, not for what it isn’t.

    Unfortunately, what it isn’t forces me to appraise it as probably the least good (yeah, that’s how good Walt’s features were) feature produced in Walt’s lifetime.

    Archimedes the owl is the comedic highlight of the film for me; I love that little guy!

    Can anybody inform me if Junius Matthews or Sebastian Cabot did VO work for Disney prior to this project? It seems they were “discovered” here, and went on to do Winnie the Pooh, Jungle Book, etc. after.

  • One thing the film does very well is to serve as an introduction to the stories of King Arthur. It was on the basis of this film alone that I began to read about the Arthurian legends. I began with a book adaptation of the Disney film which provided more insight into the story by giving some details and explanations that underscored the key themes. Later, I read a book by Blanche Winder that retold the original King Arthur stories. Eventually I found my way to T. H. White’s original novel, which led me to read the entire volume “The Once and Future King” and I was totally hooked on the Arthur legends. To this day, I have collected dozens of books on all aspects of the King Arthur stories, including excavation attempts and some of the earliest ancient texts. “The Sword in the Stone” led me to a lifetime of learning about this fascinating and multi-faceted body of folklore, legend, myth, and pseudo-history known as the Matter of Britain. I loved Merlyn’s advice to the young Arthur–the best cure for depression is to learn something. I have taken that advice many times and it proves true.

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