The Sword in the Stone is the last Disney Animated Feature to be released during Walt’s lifetime. Although The Jungle Book would still have a strong influence from Disney, he did not see it to completion (no doubt adding to the causes of the four year interim between the films, the longest since the notoriously difficult development of Sleeping Beauty and a harbinger of longer gaps between films until the Disney Renaissance).
The Sword in the Stone certainly has the Disney stamp on it. From the whimisical nature of its version of the Arthurian world to the obligatory talking animal, Merlin’s owl Archimedes, it’s a textbook example of how Disney used to bring classics to the big screen.
Everything is prettied up from T.H. White’s original book, with most of the darker tones eliminated in favor of not-quite full-blown whimsy. But the book was always the lightest of White’s Arthurian texts, so it really doesn’t change the feel of the material that much.
The animations are some of the strongest of the era, so much so that animators would use scenes from Sword as templates for films as far ranging as the aforementionedThe Jungle Book to The Black Cauldron. The animations of Merlin and Arthur transformed into animals presage the more anthropomorphicized animals of the 70s and are extremely effective at portarying the animal in question while maintaining the overall effect of the character in question. (This is particularly impressive in the Wizard’s Battle between Merlin and Mim, as they change continuously and into a wide variety of creatures, never losing their essence.)
The songs were the first done by the Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard and, while not their best work, they are clear indicators of the wealth of more significant songs they would write for Disney and others for films such as Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Aristocats.
The voice cast is particularly strong, led by Sebastian Cabot’s narration and portrayal of Sir Ector and Karl Swenson’s Merlin. The three boys who portray Arthur are sufficiently similar sounding to make the portrayal sound consistant. (Helped by the portrayal of Arthur as being right at the age where his voice changes.) The other major performance is from Martha Wentworth, who imbues Madame Mim with a down-to-earth gusto not really seen in previous Disney villains.
And the story is ultimately faithful to the classic Arthurian Legend, taking place as it does during his youth, when there is greater available leeway for vamping. Even sillier aspects such as Merlin going to (modern day) Bermuda don’t seem too far out of place. All in all, The Sword in the Stone is Disney-fication done right. An adaptation that neither loses sight of its goal as a family entertainment, nor the basic elements that made the original work.