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60s Flashback: 'The Sword in the Stone'
Classic animation, on Disney Plus in 4K.
Now Streaming: Of the 129 titles currently listed in the Ultra HD and HDR section on Disney Plus, the oldest is The Sword in the Stone (1963), one of only two fully-animated films released by Disney during a decade in which the studio increasingly turned to live-action films. (For context, Mary Poppins, with brief animated scenes, arrived the following year.) It was also the final animated Disney film released before the death of Walt Disney.
It's a weird little movie that looks and sounds ... stunning in 4K.
Based on T.H. White's novel, first published in 1938, Disney acquired the film rights the following year, though it was pushed onto a back shelf during the war years and afterward, finally entering active production in 1960.
The story follows young Arthur as he comes to the attention of Merlin, who proceeds to mentor him, first by transforming him into a fish, leading to an an underwater sequence, and then into a squirrel, where he encounters a red-haired female squirrel, who falls in love with him instantly and thinks she has found her lifelong mate, only for Merlin to turn him back into a boy in the morning, leading to poignant heartbreak, which is sad and touching.
I've never seen the movie before, though I remember that as a child, I read an illustrated version of the film's story. To my knowledge, it is yet to be released in 4K on physical disc, though a Blu-ray was released some ten years ago.
Since I wrote the above February 17 (on Facebook), which I've now slightly revised, I've watched the movie again, and it holds up for what it is, a lighthearted musical fantasy, though the weirdness became more pronounced on a second viewing. Arthur becoming different animals to learn something from each is a good idea, though it's reduced here to background for jokes and gags playing on Arthur's vulnerability, as though Arthur will only become a man -- and later, a worthy king -- if it dispenses with his vulnerable side and embraces his masculinity.
Playful animals and a magical broom had already been explored in earlier Disney films, such as Bambi (1942) and Fantasia (1940), respectively, so they function here as backdrops for the "Merlin trains Arthur" second act of the film. The marvelous underwater "fish" sequence, however, suggested what Disney could do with menace under the sea, the setting, if not the tone, taken for some of The Little Mermaid (1989).
As part of Disney's movement to remake animated classics as live-action films, as with the upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid, the studio hired director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Days Later) to helm a remake penned by Bryan Cogman (Game of Thrones) back in 2018. Since then, things have been quiet on that front, and Fresnadillo busied himself with directing action-thriller Damsel, starring Millie Bobby Brown, for Netflix, due for release later this year.
For now, subscribers can enjoy The Sword in the Stone in glorious 4K. The 2D animation looks splendid, if not up to the heights of previous Disney animated affairs. The antics of playful animals appeal to the child in all of us, while the story moves at a good pace and varies pleasantly from Arthur-ian expectations. [Disney Plus]