The Arthurian legend got the Disney treatment in this animated retelling of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. In trying to match the success of 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Disney refashioned the tale as a contemporary comedy, still set in medieval England but with hip, modern references and a fairly Americanized hero.
A storybook introduction spins the background tale: A sword has been thrust into an anvil on a stone, and whomever unsheaths it will be England’s next king. Many have tried; all have failed. The story moves to a forest cottage, where magician Merlin and his owl assistant Archimedes are stumbled upon by a young boy nicknamed Wart. The lad is a servant to the pompous Sir Ector, but Merlin sees in him a grander destiny. The sorcerer takes over Merlin’s instruction, transforming him into a variety of animals to learn how these creatures survive.
First, the boy becomes a small fish, menaced by a hungry pike in a tense sequence. Next up is a turn as a squirrel, where Wart becomes the love object of a very determined female squirrel. Finally, Merlin changes the boy into a wee bird. When a hawk chases him into the cottage of rival sorceress Mad Madam Mim, the crazed Mim decides to eat bird Wart. Merlin arrives, challenging Mim to a “Wizard’s Duel,” in which the competing mages transform themselves into a succession of increasingly dangerous beasties. The duel completed, Wart’s duty calls, and he searches for a sword for his knight master, whatever sword he can find...
It may not have been as popular as Disney’s earlier animated efforts, but The Sword in the Stone was still a modest hit, and the “Wizard’s Duel” was classic Disney, combining terror and comedy in the same breath. Had it been produced by any other animation studio, The Sword in the Stone might be more well-remembered, but sandwiched between those darling Dalmatians and the upcoming The Jungle Book, the film was simply overshadowed.