Monday, March 30, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXII: A dark age indeed, one big medieval mess


More like Bored In the Stone, and that's still funnier than 90% of the gags in the film.

Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Written by Bill Peet (based on the novel by T.H. White)

Spoiler alert: he's the once and future king, bud

Of all the Disney movies I've seen, and in all the years that have passed since I was a kid watching the undifferentiated mass of cartoons my father taped for me on VHS, I have to wonder if The Sword In the Stone is the one that's changed the most in my estimation.  Not that you should let me imply that I ever had too much use for it.  All I mean is that, when I finally watched it again as an adult a few years ago, it sank immediately from a neglected but affectionately-recalled and very minor piece of my childhood to a dull mediocrity.  Now having seen it for a second time as an adult, for this (likewise neglected) Disney retrospective, it's fallen again, from dull mediocrity to a strong contender for my least favorite Disney film of all time.  For even the worst of the worstyour Peter Pans, your Ralph Breaks The Internetsare at least offensively bad films, not necessarily transfixingly so (they're both also a little boring themselves), but enough to rouse some passion, even if it's just aggravation, or an embarrassment on Walt's behalf.  Sword In the Stone, though, is just about as close to the void as a Disney film's ever gotten, lacking even the meager comfort of engaging your attention with its spiritual ugliness.  On the contrary, as a product of Disney's Dark Age, the Xerography Eraand you can claim it as the penultimate effort of their so-called Silver Age if you so desire, though doing so could only further tarnish an already-tarnished epochhas naught but its physical ugliness to fall back upon.  Plus, I suppose, bad comedy.  And, yes, I write these things knowing it has a real constituency, despite comparative obscurity; but it's desperately hard for me to see whatever charms it's alleged to possess, so while it might not be the most oppressive Disney film, it's one of the very few that feels like a complete waste of time.

Still, like so many Disney features of the 50s and 60s, Sword In the Stone went back a long way, all the way to 1939, though one gets the impression that at first it was considered only just long enough to buy the rights to the first book of T.H. White's tetralogy of young adult novels that dealt with the youth and tutelage of the legendary Arthur.  While it's true that the occasional empty gesture had been made towards active development during the intervening years, it's likely that the 1958 publication of the tetralogy as a single volume, The Once and Future King, had reminded somebody at Disney that they had the rights to the thing; if not that, then Camelot.  Maybe the one who remembered was Bill Peet, who became the project's champion against its competitor, Ken Anderson and Marc Davis' hoped-for adaptation of Edmond Rostand's play Chanticleer, and Chanticleer is a thing that I can't help wondering about, even if I have the same "a singing chicken?" response the project's opponents had, because Davis was one of the most talented of all of Walt's Nine Old Men, and Anderson had been the creator most responsible for the xerography technique previously deployed on One Hundred and One Dalmatians working even as well as it did.

One will occasionally hear great things about Chanticleer's art design and the like, and it's an incontestable fact that, in the decades to come, Disney animators would keep pulling Davis and Milt Kahl's drawings out of storage, hoping to get somebody higher up the chain of command to recommit to their ideas.  It doesn't hurt that when Chanticleer did show up in a Disney movie, in highly-modified form, he was arguably the best thing about it.  Of course, you can surmise that Chanticleer itself never did happen (at least, not at the Walt Disney Studio...), and it certainly wasn't about to happen now:  Sword In the Stone was the cheaper, safer alternative, and in the aftermath of Chanticleer's disposal, Davis was exiled from animation, the first of Walt's Nine Old Men to be dispatched entirely.  Others were in the process of putting down their pencils: Les Clark had been shifting his energies to the direction of educational shorts for the studio; Sword In the Stone itself represented Wolfgang Reitherman's debut as the sole director of a feature.  Davis, however, was assigned to help out WED Enterprises, better known today as Disney Imagineering, to make rides, and shit of that nature.  In full fairness, it's doubtful Walt genuinely conceived this as a punishment.

It's worth mentioning that the shift out of Disney's Silver Age was not marked solely by the change to xerographed animation and the corresponding obsolescence of Disney's inkers in the face of copying machines (even if, to my mind, the firing of the inkers must be considered the single brightest line between the industrial mode of the Silver Age and whatever was to come after).  The transition also involved the increasing obsolescence of Disney animation as a whole institution.  It'll come up again, but I don't think Walt's death really mattered very much by the time it came, and, as it stood in 1963, Walt had spent a decade falling further and further into distraction with his new pastime, his theme parks.  Meanwhile, Roy, ever the pragmatist, was by this point pushing hard to close down feature animation altogether, which had had its hits but was always going to be one overbudget production away from ravaging the company once more.  Such a thing had come perilously close to happening with Sleeping Beauty, and Roy tempted his brother with the thought of the free money they could generate simply by issuing periodic re-releases of the seventeen animated films they'd already made.  Waltwiser than his brother in this one instanceperhaps intuited that, in fact, his theme park business depended real damn heavily on his animation studio continuing to create family product.  But whatever it wasmaybe nothing but Walt's submerged love for animation coming back up for airhe agreed only to a reduction in the studio's output, down to a feature every three or four years, essentially just acknowledging the status quo, though it was a demoralizing thing for the animators to hear said explicitly.  Nevertheless, they could take solace in the fact that Walt had effectively dismissed, for all time, the idea that Disney would ever abandon the art form entirely; and, as bad as it would ultimately get, his successors never could pull the trigger on Walt's dream factory.

As for the movies such corporate hand-wringing left us with, you'd be correct to guess that they would frequently wind up a bit of a drag, though perhaps none drag more than Peet's collection of conceptually-linked comic vignettes smooshed together into an object that somewhat mimicks the form of a coming-of-age tale without ever actually feeling like it became one.  Its first mistake might be that it usurps the illuminated storybook opening of Disney's extant Princess FilmsSnow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beautythereby exploiting a tradition it has no intention of living up to, and not just because its protagonist is male.  Reading aloud from the book against the backdrop of a heavenly choir, a narrator explains the situation in sub-Roman Britain (ha ha, as if this movie even knows what "sub-Roman Britain" meansno, seriously, perish the fucking thought), which has been muddling along in a political stasis ever since the death of King Uther years earlier.  Violent succession war has been avoided solely by the miracle of the sword in the stone: a sword that appeared from the sky in a beam of light, fixed by the promise of heaven that only the one true King of England may remove it from this holy place, which has ensured that nobody has bothered, for example, raising an army to take the throne by force.  Bear this sword in the stone in mind!  Because in about an hour and ten minutes, it shall indeed reappear in the actual narrativejust in time for the movie to end.

And so, somewhere in East Anglia or somethingI don't know, and despite correctly pinning the date to roughly the late 6th century, Sword In the Stone does not appear to be aware of the slightest contemporary distinction there might have been between "British" and "English"we find a young squire-in-training named Arthur but only ever called Wart (Rickie Soresen, plus Reitherman's two boys, after Soresen's voice was choked out by puberty).  Wart's out with his master's son, Sir Kay (Norman Alden), and when Wart goes to retrieve an errant arrow, a series of misadventures send him falling right through the thatch roof of a local hermit, who declares he's been waiting for him.  And he might well have been, for this hermit is Merlin (Karl Swenson), and White's great innovation in his books was to make the wizard a time traveler.  (Technically, White's Merlin was an immortal literally living backwards through time.  This bizarre and esoteric ideait is the one thing about the novels that has ever even briefly tempted me to actually read themwas clearly considered too much to pull off for this slip of a cartoon, and honestly I don't blame Peet too much for just taking the easier way out and making Merlin a visitor from the 20th century in order to explain his anachronistic knowledge and general disdain for medieval times.)  The implication is that Merlin knows exactly who Wart shall become, and, alongside his reluctant owl sidekick Archimedes (Junius Matthews), tasks himself with the education of this illiterate slave to this region's most prominent Saxon warlord, Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot), in the process inviting himself to live on-site in Ector's castle by way of veiled magical threats.

In practice, what Wart's education becomes is an extremely repetitive series of cartoon shorts wherein all the lowest-hanging fruits of animated comedy are seized whilst Merlin turns Wart into an animal of some kind.  Songs, sung poorly, issue from the characters, written by famed brothers Robert and Richard Sherman, who had been working with Disney's live-action and television units since 1961; the most interesting thing about these songs is not that they are good, because they're not, but that they are bad despite representing the same lyrical silliness and even serving the same narrative function of the songs for their next collaboration with Disney, which would likewise involve a magical mentor figure horsing around with children towards no apparent aim, but which had way, way better songs, and (this helps) infinitely better voices to give them life.  In any event, lessons are supposedly learned from these episodes, nominally to do with the film's philosophy of using one's intelligence to succeed, though this is a somewhat hypocritical ethos for a movie this cavalier with fact and legend alike to preach.  (Not just historical fact, either.  Merlin also propounds an inaccurate theory of gravity, and asserts that squirrels mate for life in order for the scene to sell a dubious joke.)

All we really learn, anyway, is that Merlin is an abusive jerk, and Wart's successive transmogrificationsfish, rodent, and bird, respectivelywind up with him almost getting eaten by a pike, almost getting raped by a squirrel, and almost getting eaten (again) by a hawk, each one in ostensibly funny ways which never build on one another to really suggest Wart actually being bettered by them in the slightest.  These sequences are then buffered with bellowy shouting from Ector and dimwitted sneering from Kay, who grouse and complain about Wart and Merlin despite it evidently being only the latter's good humor that keeps him from turning them into newts.  (Probably the funniest thing in the whole movie is that Kay is simply too surly and stupid to even care about Merlin's magic.)  By the last sequence in this pattern, Sword In the Stone has largely given up even pretending to be about Wart's education; in fact, it barely has anything to do with Wart at all, and he's been made a bird more-or-less just to put Merlin in a position to battle his (apparent) nemesis, Madam Mim (Martha Wentworth), something of a low-rent Morgaine, who has not been so much as previously mentioned.

All told, it's lethally arbitrary, and so lumpy you gag on it.  It's not the first nor the last time that a loose, borderline-nonexistent narrative structure would be used in a Disney film, and it's true that Walt clearly had some fascination with episodic narratives without a lot of forward drive, given how many times he selected source material that moves (sometimes jaggedly, sometimes quite limply) from one plot point to the next.  Yet I can't name a Disney film where it's more aggressive about it, for while Alice In Wonderland and Pinocchio have, let's face it, really annoying story structures, they offer up good vignettes to go along with their bad ones, and there's ultimately some sense of questing to them, and a satisfactory conclusion for their heroes' struggles.  Sword In the Stone tries to copy that with its wizard's duel, and to its credit, as out of nowhere as it is, this is the one part where any sort of noticeable drama or spectacle comes into play.  Mim herself certainly isn't the worst of Disney's run of sloppily comic villains during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, either, though it's arguably to her benefit that she exists inside a self-contained module, since this means she has no opportunity to demonstrate mewling incompetence like Hook, the Queen of Hearts, or Cruella.

Her battle with Merlin is driven by a remarkably interesting idea, each sorcerer required to shift form from one animal to another, with each change by one wizard demanding a change in tactics from the other.  On a technical level, it is demanding and well-executed animation; the way the lines shift imperceptibly from one creature to another represents exceedingly fine work from Frank Thomas and Kahl.  But it suffers from a lot of dull, lateral stagingjust the two running at one another from screen-left and screen-right respectively, and it switches this up only in the climaxand it suffers further from the film's constant, degrading need to remain jokey fluff.  It suffers most of all, however, from a radically unappealing clash of colors and Peet and Kahl's consistently shitty design, this being a special case of the film's try-hard comedy and undetectable emotional stakes, with Merlin's powder blue and Mim's precisely-wrong shade of pink keeping our two combatants consistently recognizable just in case the absolutely appalling anthropomorphism, down to the personal characteristics of the two, translated to their animals forms, was somehow too subtle.  They look like cotton candy vomit that someone's stuck googly eyes onto, but then again, this has been the way of the film's animal transformations all along, with Merlin continuing to wear eyeglasses in his fish/squirrell/et cetera forms, Mim retaining her bushy hair and repellant crossed eyes, and Wartwell, you can tell Wart by his demeanor, and because he's yellow, though he tends to look better as a fish/squirrell/bird because it's less dismaying to look at a cartoon animal with a face as vacant and dumb as Wart's than it is a cartoon human with the same problems.

And the wizard's duel is the highlightthat, or some of the reasonably complicated and mildly delightful object animation used to depict Merlin's deployment of magic in the service of menial household chores (like Yen Sid, Merlin is said to be based in part on Walt, possibly indicating Kahl and Peet had forgotten what he looked like, which is plausible, but either way we're certainly a hell of a long way from "The Sorcerer's Apprentice").  The rest is fine as far as the xerographic process goesmostly, though there's moments of Archimedes in flight with downright hideous processingbut one suspects that it was indeed this inelegant aesthetic that preempted any thought of actual seriousness taking root in Peet's mind as he adapted the novel, and, with the writer leaning into the unseriousness of it, Sword In the Stone winds up even more direly frivolous than it even had to be.  The backgrounds are pleasant, at least, with just the right amount of detail not to overwhelm the characters; and, to this film's credit, the effects animation is vastly better-integrated into the action than in Dalmatians, where it had a nasty tendency to hover in a netherrealm above the frame.  But the loveliest single shot in the movie by a mile, a bit where Merlin and Wart walk by the castle moat and the effects animators remember water and reflections are Disney's thing, is jarring precisely because it manages to not be stupidly zany for almost fifteen seconds in a stretch.

I said it eventually gets to the actual sword in the actual stone, and Sword In the Stone finally does establish how Arthur became King of the Britons, and it's as emotionally barren as it could possibly be, because nothing in the film has prepared you to care.  Wart doesn't even care, and Merlin himself isn't even around to see it, let alone push Arthur toward his destiny: having thrown a magical hissy-fit due to Wart's incomplete subservience, he has fucked off to Bermuda well before Wart's denouement mechanically plays itself out.  It's astonishing how empty one can feel while a hero achieves their destined greatness.  But that's what happens when the hero has faced no obstacles, sacrificed nothing, learned nothing beyond "think with your brains and don't cunttease the squirrels," and had no real goals in the first place.  Indeed, Arthur has never appeared to have any particularly grand heart's desire, being an identification character whose sole motivation throughout the film has been to become some asshole lord's trod-upon man-at-arms, and whose characterization has topped out at dull-eyed surprise and bland servility.  For all this, Sword In the Stone was a solid commercial hit, and of course that's for the best.  But I have never been able to ascertain why.

Score: 2/10

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