I’ve decided that our education system grossly underuses this movie. Every single science and biology teacher should be using this movie. Imagine the excitement on the kids’ faces when their teacher tells them that today they’re going to watch a disney movie! The one time that happened to me, it was in 7th grade. We watched Hercules and compared it to the actual story (yeah.. more on that later obviously), but we were SO EXCITED. Because no one EVER watches an actual movie in school, unless it’s the last day. But this movie… man… this movie REALLY needs to be used.
I almost put this movie in the same realm as Alice in Wonderland in the sense that this movie really doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead it’s a movie you experience. Sure the movie follows characters we know: Merlin the wizard and Arthur the future king of England. But it’s not like this is a knights of the round table movie. It’s not full of fights and dragons and action and adventure….
Actually as I’m writing this, it actually does have all those things. But… not in the way you’d think. This movie follows Arthur (or Wart, as they call him) when he’s an orphan kid working up to be a squire in a castle. He meets Merlin, who has it set in his mind that this kid is destined for greatness and he must teach him the really important lessons. We follow through some of these lessons, and it all leads up to the inevitable moment that Arthur is in… London…? for a jousting match as a squire and pulls the sword from the stone, signifying he is King.
This movie preaches brain over brawn. It preaches the importance of knowledge and of schooling. It tells us that to be destined for greatness, you must be educated. It teaches lessons about love and the way the world works. But it doesn’t do it in an annoying way. It’s very subtle, and is handled in ways that kids can easily understand and enjoy.
This movie can easily be shown just pieces at a time to kid who is younger or doesn’t have the attention span for the whole movie. It’s really great in that aspect. I honestly think I remember this happening on the Disney channel when I was younger. They’d show just the fish part, or the squirrel part, or the duel with Madam Mim. That’s sort of the brilliance of this movie. Because it doesn’t really have a huge plot it has to follow, it’s instead split into lessons that Merlin teaches Arthur. After changing him into a fish, they learn about action & reactions, and brain over brawn. As a squirrel, Arthur learns about the harsh realities of love and loss. As a bird, we learn a bit about the basics of flight, but more about instinct. Heck, even in the duel with Madam mim, we learn that a germ is a living organism! (how many kids actually think that?)
The characters are memorable. Arthur is a bit bland, but I think that’s the point. He’s like a blank slate. At the same time you can tell he’s a smart kid, but wants to just fit in and be a squire like he thinks he’s supposed to. He doesn’t think he can rise above that because he’s not a royal, and so at some level wonders why he should even try. (by the way, can we also talk about his ever changing voice? for the longest time I thought more than one kid voiced him, but that’s not it. That poor voice actor must have been going through puberty. It actually REALLY bugs me in this movie that his voice changes from scene to scene!)
Enter Merlin. There have been many depictions of Merlin the wizard throughout the years. A lot of people remember this one, and for a long time this is the one most people think of. He’s a nice old man if a bit forgetful and a bit bumbling. He has a good heart but at the same time is passionate about teaching to the point where he can be a bit mean if people don’t see it his way. He makes references to the future all the time, signifying he’s either been there or has knowledge of it, and at one point in the movie even returns from Bermuda wearing very modern looking clothes. *Side note: seriously, now that I watch this, I’m wondering if this is where they got some of the idea for the modernness of the Genie in Aladdin. Obviously Merlin is nothing like the Genie, but the same general ideas are there* He knows that Arthur is destined for greatness, but he doesn’t seem to know what that greatness is; he just knows he has to help him get there by teaching him the important things in the world. And honestly, without Merlin, would Arthur have been as good a king? We can only surmise that his time with Merlin helped him become who history remembered him for. (on a personal note: I much prefer BBC’s Merlin. If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, I really suggest watching. It messes with the whole story, but it’s SO good. It’s on netflix)
Our other more major character is Archimedes, Merlin’s “pet” owl. He’s arguably smarter than Merlin, but can be a bit cranky. He acts like he doesn’t care about the boy and calls him lazy, then goes and saves him from the moat from the barracuda. He remembers things Merlin doesn’t, and even takes over teaching for a bit, arguing that not only should the boy have knowledge of the world, but he should be able to read and write as well. It’s a good point, and he’s a good character. Honestly he’s my favorite in the movie.
We also have Sir Pellinore and his son Sir Kay. they’re meant in the movie to be a bit of an adversary for Merlin and Arthur, but they really aren’t “bad” per se. They took Arthur in (they call him “wart”) and are giving him the chance to become a squire, which they see as a pretty good deal for the kid. Kay does think he’s a bit of a bumbling idiot, and both think that this whole “learning” business with Merlin is worthless and have some major issues with it. But they’re not really villains. they still allow Arthur to have meetings with Merlin, and he even stays in the tower. Sure they get mad at Arthur for any little thing, but that’s the way that society is, so they’re acting in accordance.
Then there’s Madam Mim. I don’t know why but this is always the character most kids remember. Probably because she’s an evil witch, but at the same time she’s kinda hilarious. She catches Arthur when he’s a bird, tries to eat him, then gets into a wizard’s duel with Merlin. She lies and cheats to get her way to the top, but ultimately falters because Merlin is too smart. Lesson? lying and cheating is no way to get ahead.
This movie doesn’t have a ton of songs, but that’s ok; this movie doesn’t need them. The songs it does have are mostly ok, and then there’s “That’s what Makes the world turn round” or whatever that one is called. If you’ve seen the movie, you know which song I’m talking about. In that song we learn about action and reaction, we learn that it’s up to us to make our own success, and we learn what mediocrity is. Plus, that song will get stuck in your head FOREVER.
So this seems like a really great movie, and it is, don’t get me wrong. I know a lot of friends and relatives who say it’s a favorite. There is so much going for this movie, and so much of it is actually better when you watch it as an adult. Personally, it’s not one of my favorites. There’s one big reason: I think it’s long and boring. It’s NOT a long movie by any stretch of the imagination, but what I mean is it feels long. I’m normally good until right up after they turn into squirrels and back, then i’m kinda like “ok, how much longer?” I dunno if it’s the lack of plot or what. Maybe I saw it in chunks too much as a kid. For whatever reason, this is why it’s not in my top 10 or 15 Disney movies. It’s almost like Alice. I love what the movie does, but for me, I prefer my movies to have plots. You can bet I’ll be showing this to my kids though. Seriously. Most educational Disney movie EVER!
I give Sword in the Stone (1963) a 4 out of 5 (but it’s going to place lower on my personal list) Great movie with a lot in it. Even if I think it’s boring.
Up Next: The Jungle Book (1967)