I’m very old. Probably quite a bit older than many of our readers here at The Fandomentals. When I was a youngin’, after I got home from school (walking uphill both ways,) I would often bust out my Disney VHS. Status among my peers was measured by how tall your tower of Disney VHS clamshells was.
My favourite movie to watch was, well, The Lion King (can you blame me?). But a movie that I also popped into the VCR on a fairly regular basis was a mostly forgotten entry from Disney’s Dark Age: The Sword in the Stone.
We recently learned that this film was on the long, long list of old animated titles in line for a live-action remake, and that had me reminiscing. But the thing is, I don’t remember there being much, you know, plot to this movie. There was an evil old lady with turned into a dragon, and Merlin was there, and he was a squirrel at some point… I have no clue.
So it seems that I have to do the obvious, in the tradition of The Black Cauldron. Watch this thing again and figure out if it’s as vaguely odd as I remember.
Does it stand up to adulthood? Well… The first thing I noticed was how short it was, less than 80 minutes, even with the end credits. I remember so much happening, that this was one of the longer Disney movies, but it’s barely longer than an episode of Black Sails.
We open with an exposition song that really sets the scene for the wonderful anachronism of most popular conceptions of the Arthurian Legend. Everyone is dressing like it’s the 14th century and there’s Plantagenet heraldry everywhere. The tradition of anachronism started with Mallory, so it makes it own kind of sense, but the more you know about history, the more annoying it is.
King Uther Pendragon died without an heir some unstated time ago and England was threatening to devolve into anarchy until a sword one day magically appeared in a church yard, with an inscription saying that whoever can remove it from the stone is the rightful, god-approved, King of England. But no one can, so the country just…keeps on keeping on.
We transition to Merlin, the obligatory mentor character, in his stupid Dumbledore outfit. Fleur-du-lys are one thing, but no one ever wore a hat like like. He’s puttering around the house complaining about being in the Middle Ages, because he can see the future and has even been there. Oh the potential for anachronistic gags!
He’s preparing for the arrival of Arthur because he’s seen him in a vision (or something) and knows he has a magical destiny. His talking owl companion, Archimedes, is skeptical of this. But we vision-transition to where Arthur is hanging out with Kay, the obligatory bully figure, and helping him hunt Bambi’s mom at the edge of a forest.
Lil’ Arthur, the only person in Fantasy Medieval England™ with an American accent, is a kluz and causes Kay to miss his shot. Because Kay is a bully, he makes Arthur go into the forest to retrieve it, even though it’s swarming with wolves. We only see one wolf, though. It comically tries to eat Arthur multiple times this movie and always fails. Comically. Arthur also fails at retrieving the arrow and ends up falling through the roof of Merlin’s house, right into the chair that was prepared for him.
Merlin makes him tea and exposits about his future seeing powers. He knows about airplanes and things. Arthur is polite enough, he seems like a good kid, though he does manage to offend Archimedes. Arthur tells him about his ambition to be a squire, and that he spends a lot of his time training for that. Merlin offers to give him an education and says he’ll return to the castle with him to make that happen.
There’s an overly long sequence where he packs his bag using magic that I probably enjoyed more when I was eight. Then there’s another overly long scene where they wander about the forest being pursued by the comic-relief wolf.
In the castle, a fat dude called Sir Ector is eating dinner and fretting about where Arthur is, saying that he took him in and is therefore responsible for him. When Arthur does show up, he tells him off for worrying him, and disciplines him according to their pre-established and explicitly stated rules.
Wow, responsible parenting, I never thought I’d see that from a stepparent in a Disney movie. Kay is just sitting there being a jerk, though.
Merlin introduces himself and after some rigmarole, is able to convince Ector that he’s a wizard and that he should stick around to teach Arthur stuff. Ector doesn’t seem into Merlin at all, (he keeps calling him “Marvin”) but he’s unfailingly courteous, giving Merlin a room in the tallest tower. Merlin isn’t happy there because it starts to rain and the leaky roof is all leaky, but he’s determined to stick it out because he’s just that dedicated to educating Arthur.
A skinny dude with a moustache that would make Mace Tyrell proud shows up at the castle to tell Sir Ector some wonderful news. There’s going to be a tournament in London on New Year’s Day, and the winner will be made king. Sounds legit. Ector is super excited and wants Kay to enter, saying that he will really focus on his knight training until then. He tells Arthur that he will be Kay’s squire, which makes him very happy.
The next day, Kay is already at it, and I think the joke is supposed to be that he sucks. Merlin is very scornful of the entire concept of jousting and “brawny” things in general, but he admires Arthur for how diligently he throws himself into everything.
They go for a walk by the moat and Merlin decides that they’re going to be fish now. I think it’s to teach Arthur something about problem solving and “using his head”. The good news is that this leads to “What Makes the World go Round”, easily the most memorable song of the film. And that there is some not dumb discussion about how being a fish is instructive because every movement has consequences when you move in three dimensions.
The bad news is that Merlin is more than happy to get Arthur be in mortal peril to prove a point. A pike tries to eat Fish!Arthur and Merlin tells him to “use his head”, then gets his dumb ass trapped in an old helmet, unable to help. So Archimedes has to save the Once and Future King from ending up as a fish snack. This is the first instance of Merlin being more of a hinderance than a help to Arthur in his arc, but it won’t be the last.
Back in the castle, Sir Ector doesn’t believe Arthur’s fish story and punishes him for being late by giving him kitchen duty. While Arthur is diligently attending to that, Merlin crashes in and declares that it’s time to go be squirrels. Arthur argues that he should stay here like Sir Ector wanted, but Merlin uses his magic to set up a dish-washing assembly line.
So they spend some time running around, learning about the importance of “looking before you leap.” Unfortunately, any attempt at character building is sidelined when a girl-squirrel starts hitting on Arthur. He, being prepubescent, has no idea what to do with this. But Merlin thinks this is hilarious and sings about how romance and attraction are all part of life. And, surprise, he’s not even remotely sanguine about it when he gets his own girl-squirrel sexaual harraser.
But hey, Arthur’s admirer is a young, hot redhead, and Merlin’s is all, like, fat and stuff. This is lovely.
Comic-relief wolf shows up again to eat Squirrel!Arthur but the girl-squirrel saves him. She’s a little awesome.
Merlin turns them both back into humans, and while he and Arthur are both very sympathetic about the pretty girl-squirrel’s broken heart, Merlin chases the fat one away by barking like a dog. What a great role model for a young man.
Back in the castle, it’s the first of two appearances from my second favourite character in this movie. (My absolute favourite is obviously girl-squirrel.) A middle-aged woman comes running up the stairs screaming hysterically about witchcraft. Sir Ector and Kay run down to check it out, and are scandalized, calling the automatic dishwashing “black magic of the worst kind.” They start hitting it with swords. (Chill out, dudes.)
When Merlin and Arthur return, Sir Ector yells at Merlin a bit about all the trouble he’s causing, and also mentions, like, the point was for Arthur to do the work himself. Merlin gets really pissy and disappears in a puff of smoke. This freaks Sir Ector out, since now he doesn’t know if he’s listening or not.
Arthur is very upset that his foster father was mean to his new friend. He tearfully tries to defend him, but Sir Ector has had enough, damn it! He tells Arthur that some other kid is going to be Kay’s squire instead.
The kid is devastated and we see him sitting sadly among all the broken dishes. Merlin pops back in to be all “there, there”. He tries to look on the bright side of all this by telling Arthur that now they’ll have more time for all the anachronistic book learnin’ that he’s been wanting to get to.
In his tower room later, Merlin decides the best place to start is tell Arthur all about discoveries that will be made during the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. I haven’t really had cause to discuss it before, but Merlin’s speech throughout this movie has been peppered with references to things like electricity and gravity and the London Times. I think it’s supposed to be funny. Archimedes points out that all Merlin is doing is confusing the poor kid. Merlin had a temper tantrum worthy of a four-year-old and goes to sulk in a corner, telling the owl that he should be the teacher, since he’s so smart.
He gamely takes up this challenge, soon discovering that Arthur is illiterate and deciding to change that. However, he proves to have as little patience as Merlin, getting frustrated when Arthur doesn’t get the concept of writing perfectly on the first try.
Merlin meanwhile, is distracting this actual education by futzing in the background trying to find a toy plane. Arthur is amazed at the concept of humans flying, even after Merlin fails at getting the toy to fly. He confesses that he always dreamed of soaring in the sky, so Merlin turns him into a bird.
Archimedes, because he’s actually a much better mentor than Merlin is, takes Arthur out for a flight to teach him to fly. He’s a natural, but oh no, a hawk shows up wanting to eat him. Why does everything want to eat this kid? He’s as skinny as a stick.
He flies off into the forest and ends up down the chimney of a house that belongs to this crazy old bat who’s chilling out playing solitaire. I guess she’s a time traveller too. In any case, this is Mad Madam Mim, who I definitely remember from my childhood. She dances around singing about how evil and nasty she is while showing off her bloomers.
When she finds out that Arthur is buddies with Merlin, she declares that she going to kill him now, turning herself into a cat and chasing him around the house. But Merlin arrives in the nick of time to save him, you know, because Archimedes went to get him. Within about five seconds, he and Mim are marching out to have a Wizard’s Duel.
Arthur and Archimedes perch on a dead tree to watch as Mim and Merlin decide the rules of the duel. They’re going to turn into animals and try to kill each other. Hooray.
There’s quite a long, and not at all boring, sequence where they’re battling it out. Mim eventually cheats by turning into a dragon, but Merlin outsmarts her by turning into a germ and making her sick. I guess that was using his head.
We flash forward to Christmas. I presume that Merlin and Archimedes, probably mostly the owl, have been teaching Arthur stuff since the summer. Sir Ector and his mustachioed friend are hanging out singing and talking about how Kay is gonna do great in the tournament. The excitable middle-aged woman comes running up the stairs again screaming about how Kay’s squire has mumps and can’t make the trip to London. He should have gotten vaccinated.
Arthur happens to be standing there, so Sir Ector makes him Kay’s squire again. Arthur is going to London!
He’s thrilled, and runs excitedly to tell Merlin about it. Merlin, however, is a giant jerk. He wants Arthur to be an intellectual type, I guess, and doesn’t take it well when his protege wants of do some sports every once in awhile. He’s actually quite mean about it. Arthur yells at him that he’s perhaps not very in touch with the cultural zeitgeist of Fantasy Medieval England™. As always when another person has a good point, Merlin has a temper tantrum, and this one is a doozie. He’s so upset by Arthur asserting an idea that Merlin didn’t put in his head that he rockets off to take a vacation in 20th century Bermuda.
Archimedes stays with Arthur, though. Because Archimedes is the best.
We pop over to London where men are trying to knock each other off horses with sticks. Arthur might suck at being a squire though, since he forgot Kay’s sword at the inn. (How does that happen?) He and Archimedes run back to get it, but everyone is at the tournament and the door is locked.
The only sword to be seen is this one stuck in a stone in a church yard. Arthur pulls it out without much ceremony and runs back to give it to Kay. He immediately recognizes that it’s not his sword, but when he realizes what sword it is, everyone around starts to go a little nuts, though few are willing to believe that this scrawny kid was the one to do the thing that the greatest knight in the land couldn’t.
They all march back over to the church yard, but still, no one can pull the sword from the stone. When Arthur is finally given a chance, he pulls it out just as easily as before, prompting everyone to fall to their knees and proclaim him king.
In the final scene, the poor kid is sitting on his throne in his coronation robes, rather overwhelmed by this whole monarchy thing. Only long-suffering Archimedes is there to help him because of course he is. They decide to run away, but the church is surrounded by people screaming “long live the king!” so that’s not an option.
In despair, he calls for Merlin, who decides it’s time to get over himself and pop back from Bermuda. Arthur describes the pickle he’s in, but Merlin just chuckles and says it was all meant to be. Then he’s says that one day they’ll make an unfocused animated film with far too much comic relief about him, and the movie is over.
The one thing that was going through my mind as I watch this movie was “this must be an adaptation.” Only a bad adaptation would have such awful pacing, charging from set piece to unearned payoff like this. And indeed, this movie is based on the first part of the Once and Future King tetralogy by T. H. White. But that novel didn’t have a Merlin who had temper tantrums and time travelled, as far as I can tell. (Doesn’t Merlin know the future because he ages backwards or something? Not that that makes any sense.)
The biggest problem should be obvious: Merlin is a terrible person. And he dominates the movie. At least half of it is him talking, usually about nothing—just kind of blabbing about things the other characters don’t understand. For a old, wise, powerful wizard, he sure is petty and snobbish.
To add insult to injury, he’s totally superfluous to the plot of the film. If he had never come along, then Arthur would still have gone to London and presumably forgotten Kay’s sword, and therefore still would have become king. So what the hell was the point of his four getting-eaten near misses?
Arthur is a good kid, but there’s not much to him. His foster family is dumb and a little disciplinarian, but they actually care about him, to the extent that there isn’t even a hint of resentment when he becomes king in the end. Even Kay, the designated bully, seems proud if anything. Sir Hector is a better father figure, and Archimedes is a far better mentor, so seriously, why is Merlin even here? He made this movie difficult to watch. It feels twice as long as it is.
And we never got to see excitable lady’s reaction to the ending.