Suspended Animation #281
While Madam Mim is cited as the main villainess of Disney’s animated feature film The Sword in The Stone (1963), her character and short scene are completely irrelevant to the story. She appears approximately an hour into the film and appears for only roughly ten minutes total and is never seen again since she is not really a credible threat.
The film is loosely based on the novel The Once and Future King by author T.H. White first published in 1958. The book collects and extensively revises several shorter novels by White published from 1938 to 1940 but eliminates things from the previous books including the character of Mim who appeared in the first novel.
In Chapter 6 of the 1938 edition (pages 74 -100), when Wart and Sir Kay are hunting for a lost arrow, they are tricked by Mim to come into her cottage where she captures and imprisons them. She intends to cook and eat them for her dinner. A goat in the next cage escapes with Wart’s help and brings Merlin to rescue the pair which he does when he defeats Mim in a magical duel and she dies.
It was only the second Disney animated feature to be entirely written by just one storyman, Bill Peet, who had previously done the same on 101 Dalmatians (1961).
Peet decided to resurrect Mim as a character for the film and incorporate the magical duel as it would be a visual treat. In one of his proposals for an alternate opening, he intended to have Madam Mim usurp the throne of England by trying to kill young Arthur before he ever pulled the sword and her using a raven to keep surveillance for her.
As Peet remembered, “When I designed Madam Mim, Walt said, “Who is this frowzy old lady? Bill, why can’t we have a big, tall dame with black hair?’ I said, ‘Walt, we always do that. She has to be a counterpart to Merlin. He’s an old eccentric, and so she has to be too. They have to match’.”
Animator Frank Thomas wrote, “The mad Madam Mim was a contrast of wild actions and restraint with unexpected outbursts accenting her overall timing. Storyman Bill Peet gave us the wizard’s duel, a perfect use of animation, maintaining personalities through a surprising change in forms and exciting action.”
“To give the design contrast, her body is kept short and chubby, her arms and legs are very thin and boney. Both animators just loved working on Mim, and they agreed that there should have been more of her in the movie.
“Frank had a lot of fun with her dialogue scenes. His acting is eccentric, too, but it feels very believable and grounded. Milt’s animation is full of inventive moves, like funky dance steps and hops. When Mim turns into a ‘beautiful’ witch, her moves are almost risque.”
Mim is a charmingly memorable character despite her vindictive nature and the Wizard’s Duel scene demonstrates a mastery of animation but Merlin’s lesson that brains can overcome the threat of brawn has already been established in a previous scene where Wart had been transformed into a small fish in the moat.
Animator Frank Thomas wrote, “Mim was first seen cheating at solitaire, which for her was as moral and honorable an attitude as we ever saw her have. She could transform herself into anything, never played fair, was an out-and-out liar and was naturally a poor loser which is why she had to cheat. On four different occasions she proclaims she has won even though no one is competing with her.
“With the voice of Martha Wentworth, she was a cross between an aging spoiled brat and a young crotchty hag. She was a great character, being alive and vibrant and fun to animate, but the story was not constructed to use her in more than one cameo appearance.”
Verna Martha Wentworth had a long radio career beginning in the early 1920s that included playing the role of The Wintergreen Witch on The Cinnamon Bear (1937) radio program. She provided voices for a few Warner Brothers animated shorts in the 1930s as well as Jenny Wren in Walt Disney’s 1935 Silly Symphony Who Killed Cock Robin?
She did voice over work in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (1961) providing the voices for the characters of Nanny, Queenie the Cow and Lucy the Goose. Two years later for The Sword in the Stone she provided the voice for Madame Mim and the overweight Granny squirrel. It was her last credited film appearance before her retirement and death at age 84 on March 8, 1974.
Peet drew the first sketches of Mim and several of his later children storybooks have short little witches in bloomers and scraggly hair that were very obviously inspired by his Madame Mim designs.
It was Disney Legend Milt Kahl who redesigned the character. When director Woolie Reitherman saw Kahl’s first rough drawings of Merlin and Mim, he remarked to the animator that they could be displayed in a museum. Kahl’s classic response was: “Aw, you’re full of it!”
In September 2017, I interviewed Disney Legend Floyd Norman who worked as an assistant to Milt Kahl on Mim.
“Bill had done some character designs but Kahl refined them. One of my most delightful assignments was cleaning up the wonderful character, Madam Mim. Mim turned out to be a very engaging character that audiences loved.
“I seldom spent time with Milt going over his scenes on the moviola, but the Mim scenes were an exception. Kahl actually seemed to get a kick out of viewing his own animation. He would run his animation of her over and over laughing his head off.
“In a final bit of animated fun, the less than attractive Madam Mim transforms herself into a sexy babe. It was no accident that the ‘sexy Mim’ bore a remarkable resemblance to a tall, leggy redhead who worked upstairs in the layout department on the second floor.
“Although Kahl never admitted it, it was obvious it was inspired by layout artist Sylvia Roemer. Sylvia had started in Ink and Paint and worked her way up into layout. Others recognized the resemblance immediately as well but Sylvia either didn’t notice or just never said anything.”
Mim has appeared in several hundreds of comic books worldwide and in 2001, Madam Mim showed off her magical skills once again in several cartoons as part of Disney’s House Of Mouse including Mickey and Minnie’s Big Vacation, Goofy’s Valentine Date as well as the 2002 direct-to-video feature Mickey’s House of Villains.