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The Sword in the Stone(1963)
Based upon T.H. White's beloved novel, this Disney-fied version chronicles the tutoring of the Once and Future King, Arthur, as handled by the magician Merlin.
For more about The Sword in the Stone and the The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray release, see the The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on August 1, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.5 out of 5.
Starring: Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson, Rickie Sorensen, Junius Matthews, Martha Wentworth, Norman Alden
Narrator: Sebastian Cabot
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
» See full cast & crew
The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray Review
"This is what I call a Wizard Blizzard!"
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, August 1, 2013
Thanks to the August 6th Blu-ray debuts of The Sword in the Stone (1963), Robin Hood (1973) and Oliver & Company (1988), only fourteen theatrically released Disney Animated Classics remain, two of which -- The Little Mermaid and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh -- are already set to arrive later this year. It's hard to believe that just five years ago the beautifully remastered release of Sleeping Beauty (followed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 2009) hinted at a then faraway, now closer than ever future in which Disney's entire animated features canon is available in high definition. No, the Mouse House hasn't always led fans and purists down the smoothest of restoration roads (The Fox and the Hound), but it's been an exciting journey with far more peaks than valleys, and 2015 looks to be the year that it reaches its long-awaited end. For now, though, completists have a new batch of classics to enjoy, the most problematic being The Sword in the Stone: every bit as flawed but endearing as Robin Hood, every bit as playfully hit or miss as Oliver & Company, but with the crushing disappointment of a subpar video presentation.
The Sword in the Stone tells the tale of young Arthur (voiced rather noticeably by three different actors: Rickie Sorenson, Richard Reitherman and Robert Reitherman), a twelve-year-old orphan who doesn't realize he's the son of the late king, Uther Pendragon, whose death left the throne empty and thrust England into the throes of the Dark Ages. All that changes after a seemingly chance encounter with the wizard Merlin (Karl Swenson), a wily old sorcerer who takes it upon himself to guide Arthur to the Sword in the Stone; a sword of legend that can only be claimed by the next king. But first, Merlin, with the help of his trusty owl Archimedes (Junius Matthews), decides to whip the lad into shape, teaching Arthur about the world, science, magic and, above all, destiny. Unfortunately, the boy's cantankerous guardian, Sir Ector (Sebastian Cabot), and brutish bully of an older brother, Kay (Norman Alden), don't take kindly to Merlin or the attention he gives Arthur, and dismiss any potential the orphan may have. Now, if Merlin can defeat the evil sorceress Madame Mim (Martha Wentworth) and convince Arthur to pull the sword from the stone, the future of the land will be bright. If the wizard fails, the future will be dark indeed.
Long considered one of Disney Animation's darker hours, The Sword in the Stone is by no means one to discard. It isn't as rich or rewarding as other classics, but its cast of cute, colorful characters, featherweight adventure, and coming-of-age determination holds up pretty well fifty years after its release. It's also near and dear to my heart; so full of humor and heart that I found myself laughing and smiling even when I was entirely aware of its glaring flaws, production troubles and narrative tomfoolery. (It's Cinderella for little boys, in the event you hadn't noticed the similarities.) As far as childhood memories go, mine can't be separated from director Wolfgang Reitherman's wizard battles, animal transformations, and harmless 6th century fun. The Sword in the Stone was in constant rotation at my house in the late '80s, and it's now in my son's as well. That's not to say it's a strong film -- it isn't -- merely that nostalgia is a powerful force and that The Sword in the Stone has everything a young boy could want, not to mention everything a father could ask for to enjoy with his son.
Be that as it may, all is not well in Reitherman's Camelot. As an Arthurian adaptation it dabbles in the original mythos, and little more. As a theatrical feature it lacks conflict, cause, and the grand scale legend-weaving Arthur and Merlin require. (What once seemed larger than life now feels quaint and thin.) As a Disney classic it rarely rises to the heights of its fellow animated films, entertaining children without truly engaging their parents. Like Robin Hood, Reitherman isn't as sure of himself as he is in other films, leaning on episodic vignettes instead of crafting a more singular tale. The final moments are suitably climactic, but reveal just how inconsequential the majority of the second act actually is and how trivial Madame Mim is to all that transpires. Sadly, the animation doesn't help. As quick-hit cartooning goes, there are inspired sequences -- again, the wizard battle springs to mind -- but, by and large, only Merlin exhibits the expressiveness and energy of the most memorable Disney characters, only key scenes tap into the imagination, and only a few whirlwind encounters live up to the standard set by Merlin's clever toe-to-toe with Mim. (A virus! It never gets old.) Ultimately, Arthur's adventure delivers insofar as frivolous fun or warm nostalgia are concerned, but doesn't quite have what it takes to pull the sword from the Disney stone.
The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Sword in the Stone's 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer is an extremely difficult presentation to evaluate. Terribly, almost shockingly soft -- to the point that many shots appear out of focus, blurry, or as if the line art is plagued by the sort of ghosting you might find in a poorly aligned 3D image -- with nary a showcase scene to be found, the film suffers the wrath of heavy handed remastering that features an unforgiving application of noise reduction. The difficulty in evaluating the presentation, of course, is in discerning which issues trace back to the source and which have been exacerbated by the new overhaul. Softness is fine, if it's inherent to the print. Artificial sharpening can be just as detrimental as DNR. This isn't filmic softness, though; it's digital smearing, and it's some of the worst I've seen.
Yes, colors have been bolstered and black levels deepened, with a few instances of blazing primaries to boot, and yes, the palette largely retains its dreary, dismal disposition, as it should. Contrast is consistent too, even though the animation never really pops or looks overly "new." Sadly, detail is an utter disappointment, as evidenced by any one of the expanded screenshots that accompany this review. (In the interest of being thorough, I spent quite a bit of time searching for anything more striking, but to no avail.) The animators' line art has been scrubbed to the point of appearing squishy, disheveled or, at its worst, nearly indistinct (as if it's been blotted away), and every now and then it falls into all three categories. The painted backgrounds have the telltale smeariness of noise reduction gone awry -- as does the print, which tends to feature an ugly artificial cleanliness -- and grain has been wiped away in its entirety, almost to comical ends. How bad does it get? It isn't uncommon to run across a sequence that looks as if it's been restored using tracing sheets and Crayola markers.
The encode itself isn't as problematic. Banding and aliasing aren't in play, and the minor macroblocking that creeps in from time to time is tough to spot with the film in motion. (But still there, hindering the occasional splash of color.) Granted, The Sword in the Stone has never been blessed with precision animation or a pristine source, and I'm sure some of the trouble here at least began with the original elements. (In trying to remove dust and dirt, a noble pursuit, the remastering team jumped off a very steep cliff.) However, having carefully analyzed the film three times on three different displays, then poring over dozens of screenshots, it's become clearer and clearer that the choices made over the course of remastering the film for high definition have only made things worse. Much, much worse. This is, without a doubt, the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the animated presentations Disney has released on Blu-ray.
Reviewer's note: Originally my video score was a 2.0. Upon investigating the source and severity of the presentation's woes further, I've decided to reduce that score to a 1.5.
The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Disney's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track isn't as disappointing as the film's video presentation, but it also isn't all that remarkable either. With a narrow, front-heavy soundfield and all the signs of a competently restored but long-since-bypassed mono mix, The Sword in the Stone sounds better than it ever has... and yet still doesn't leave much of an impression. Voices are clean and clear on the whole, with minimal hiss, and effects are bright and well-prioritized, despite some presumably unavoidable flatness and tininess. There isn't much to write about LFE output or rear speaker involvement, though both add a welcome but reserved depth to adventure and magic-oriented sequences. The 5.1 remix never suffers, never falters. It simply doesn't have a lot to offer. Personally, I would have preferred a lossless presentation of the original mono. The additional channels don't elevate the experience that much. This'll do, mind you, but having the best of both worlds would be ideal.
The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Disney's 18th animated feature isn't its best, or even close to its best, but those who discover The Sword in the Stone in childhood will still find they have affection for it all these years later. Its issues are more apparent now, of course. And yet it's hard to suppress the joy that bubbles up with every chore, wizard battle and pull of the sword the film has in store. Disney's Blu-ray release is another matter, though. While it offers a solid DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, it also struggles with a mediocre video presentation and a slim supplemental package. Hardly the stuff of 50th Anniversary legend. And yet The Sword in the Stone is still sitting on my shelf. It may not be a perfect movie, it may not be a worthwhile video presentation, but fans shouldn't blindly steer clear. Despite all its problems, it's worth having, warts and all... if, that is, you can find it at a reasonably low price.
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The Sword in the Stone Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Sword in the Stone: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray - May 17, 2013
This summer, Walt Disney Home Entertainment is bringing The Sword in the Stone to Blu-ray in celebration of the film's 50th anniversary. The 1963 animated adaptation of the T. H. White novel of the same name was Walt Disney Animation's 18th feature, and makes its ...
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