No such criticism can be levelled against another Rankin-Bass production, The Last Unicorn (Channel 5 video, CFV 01862) which is one of the most pictorially evocative cartoons ever made; and certainly the most ornate piece of animation since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959), to which this film owes a particular debt for the angular stylization of its backgrounds.
The film is based on Peter S. Beagle’s mystical novel about a lone unicorn’s search to find others of her kind. And since the novelist is also responsible for the screenplay (he earlier scripted Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings), the movie has all the beauty and poignancy of the original. What it lacks, to its total detriment, is humour and muscularity. There are so many moments of delicate gracefulness and poetic thoughtfulness, that it moves with an elegant solemnity that becomes increasingly tedious as the 84 minute running time slows to a seeming eternity.
Seldom, outside the Disney studio, has such animated artistry been seen, and seldom has such skill been so unsatisfyingly utilized. Consider, for example, a scene towards the end of the film: from the caverns beneath the crumbling castle of Hagsgate, comes the Red Bull, huge and terrifying, wreathed in flame and smoke, to drive the last unicorn towards where a thousand other unicorns are imprisoned in the foam of a rising sea. That the sequence fails to excite in the way that it should or to engage the heart as it ought, is due to pedestrian editing which lacks all pace, drama and emotional tension.
There’s nothing wrong with the story-telling in Walt Disney’s 1963 feature, The Sword in the Stone (Disney Home Video 229), although the difficulties inherent in T. H. White’s rich, curiously worked tapestry of a story had ramifications that were to effect the finished film. Based on the first part of White’s The Once and Future King (itself musicalized as Camelot), The Sword in the Stone tells of an orphan, Wart, who – helped by an education from the enchanter Merlin, eventually becomes Arthur, “rightwise King of all England”.
Despite being only the second Disney feature to be animated using the Xerox method pioneered in 101 Dalmatians (1961), and the first to have a single director (Wolfgang Reitherman), The Sword in the Stone is one of the studio’s most frequently overlooked movies.
It has, of course, some celebrated high-spots: Merlin’s magical method of washing up with a production-line of enchanted scrubbing-brushes; the underwater sequence in which Merlin and Wart (transformed into fish) tangle with a huge pike that is the menace of the castle moat; and the much-shown Wizards’ Duel with Merlin and Madam Mim attempting to destroy one another by using their powers of sorcery to transform themselves into a circus parade of creatures – domestic, wild and mythical – that each have the facial characteristics of the duellists.
The film also has a literate, witty script by Bill Peet which skilfully utilizes T. H. White’s device of Merlin living backwards through time and so possessing prior knowledge of such things as the law of gravity, the discovery of America, and the invention of the steam engine, aeroplane and motion picture.
Why then is The Sword in the Stone a somewhat unsatisfying experience? Perhaps the film’s most obvious weakness is its emptiness – both physical and emotional. Apart from the six central characters (of whom two are visitors and one is the cook), the castle is deserted and lifeless. More importantly, the film lacks an emotional core, in that whilst Wart is a pleasant enough character, he never has to face the kind of forces that threaten other Disney heroes and heroines and, in consequence, is difficult to identify with.
Somewhat less obviously, The Sword in the Stone suffers (as did Alice in Wonderland) from being based on a rambling, discursive book filled with more characters, situations, oddities and anachronisms than Disneys could possibly handle. They were very probably wise not to have included Measter Brock the Badger, Colonel Cully the goshawk, T. natrix the snake, Giant Galapas, Robin Wood or King Pellinore’s Questing Beast, Glatisant. But it is those characters that make the book what it is, and their absence – or, at least, the absence of what they represent of the book’s philosophy – that leaves the film with a strangely hollow ring to it.
Writing of his struggle to adapt The Wind in the Willows, A.A. Milne said: “There are both beauty and comedy in the book, but the beauty must be left to blossom there, for I, anyhow, shall not attempt to transplant it.” Whether or not you attempt such a transplantation, it seems, you face problems – not least of which is the totally groundless expectation that a great book must, of necessity, make a great movie.
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Printed in Animator Issue 18 (Spring 1987)