Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Sword in the Stone isn't that good, but I love it anyway (and a few thoughts on Brave)

I saw Brave last week.

I was really excited about seeing Brave. It’s Pixar’s first movie with a female main character. It takes place in Scotland. The heroine has the most awesome hair I’ve ever seen (even prettier than Ariel’s). Also Disney blah blah blah…I’m a fan.

But I didn’t love Brave. In fact, if I’m being honest, I didn’t like it all that much. Especially not when you factor in my expectations. Usually, when I see a Disney or Pixar movie, I want to see it again as soon as it’s over. I saw Up in the theater THREE TIMES. I saw Tangled in 3-D, ridiculous price be damned. When Brave ended, it ended. I don’t have any desire to see it again. It had a lot of good qualities. It was visually stunning, occasionally funny, occasionally moving, the voice work was excellent, and again the HAIR, but it just didn’t grab me.

With the exception of one scene.

About halfway through the movie, the heroine Merida stumbles upon a witch. This witch lives in a cottage in the middle of the woods, is obsessed with wood-carving, and has a pet raven. She’s a crazy old lady with a crooked back and wild hair who makes vague references to the “Wicker Man festival.” She and Merida have an exchange, deals are made, et cetera. I don’t want to spoil anything so I won’t get too detailed, but I LOVED this character. I would have happily watched a whole movie about her, and when Merida first arrived at her house I got really excited because I thought I knew what was coming.

As a writer, I have a bad habit of making up the whole movie in my head before I see it or as I’m seeing it. Then when the movie doesn’t turn out to be the one I wrote, I get mad. When Merida met the witch, I wrote the rest of Brave in about 30 seconds. This was easy because it was “The Sword in the Stone with girls!” Imagine that shrieked in a voice only dogs can hear and you’ll be close to the sounds I made in my head.

I love The Sword in the Stone. I was obsessed with it as a kid, more so than any other Disney movie at the time. It’s one of those movies that indirectly rerouted the course of my life.

It’s a pretty well-known story, but I like summarizing things so…

The movie opens by telling us that long ago “when England was young” the king died without leaving an heir. Consequently, a sword stuck into a stone literally fell out of the sky with an inscription saying whoever can pull out the sword will be king. Nobody could, and England fell into chaos. Years later, a lonely abused orphan named Arthur stumbles into the cottage of the wizard Merlin who becomes his mentor. Thanks to Merlin’s guidance, Arthur manages to pull out the sword and becomes King Arthur.

Naturally, I knew Merida wasn’t going to pull a sword out of a stone (it is, after all, NO basis for a system of government), but I thought/hoped the witch would become her mentor, maybe teach her some witchcraft or a little Latin. But no. That wasn’t the movie I got, so I had to go home and watch The Sword in the Stone again. And then it occurred to me why Brave didn’t want to steal its plot.

The Sword in the Stone is not that good.  

It’s not the first time I’ve come to this conclusion. I come to it pretty much every time I watch it, but still. It always makes me sad because I used to love it SO MUCH.  I’m going to list the reasons why it’s not good because you care (obviously) and because it’s healthy.

-Most of the animators were on autopilot and it shows. The animation is terrible. Well, maybe not terrible, but it’s dull and sloppy. Hold it up next to Sleeping Beauty and you will feel physical pain.

- It barely follows the excellent book that inspired it.

- It has no plot. It just rambles along at a sluggish pace from one scene to the next.

- Arthur’s voice. The kid who played Arthur went through puberty while the movie was being made and his voice changed. Rather than rerecord the whole movie with a different actor, the director had his TWO sons fill in gaps here and there. It did not help at all. Three boys—all at various stages of puberty—voiced one character. And it’s really obvious.

-The ending is way too abrupt and…

-At the end of the day, it’s just kind of boring.


And yet, there are a lot of things about it I love: the Sherman Brothers songs, Archimedes the talking owl, the villain Madam Mim and her subsequent duel with Merlin. Oh, I love Madam Mim so much. Especially when you consider that in book, Madam Mim is 30, beautiful and basically a pedophile, but in the movie she’s a gleefully sadistic old hag. If the movie’s Madam Mim and Merlin had a baby, she would grow up to be the witch in Brave.  

Also two scenes in The Sword in the Stone give me chills literally every time I watch them. The opening song, which has no title and tells the story of the king’s death and how the sword appeared, is beautiful. It’s one of my favorite moments of any movie, especially at “IN LONDON TOWN.” I’ve cried just listening to it. The other is at the end when Arthur has to prove to everyone that he pulled out the sword by pulling it out again. He walks confidently to the stone, and as soon as he touches the sword, a light surrounds him and celestial music starts playing. He looks up and pulls out the sword with no trouble. Because HE’S the chosen one. There’s a reason that moment shows up in a lot of “Best of Disney” montages, even though the rest of the movie is lackluster. There’s something very satisfying about it.

Conveniently, some lovely person posted these two scenes together on YouTube.

The Sword in the Stone is my go-to example for why labels like “boys’ movies” and “girls’ movies” don’t mean a thing. There are four female characters and half of them are squirrels, but I didn’t care. It moved me in a very real way. I related to Arthur and when he becomes king at the end, his victory felt like possible. If fantasy is metaphor then the sword in the stone represents finding the inner strength you need to overcome whatever’s holding you back. That’s actually one way the movie improves on the book and even the legend itself. In the legend, Arthur is able to pull the sword out of the stone because (unbeknownst to him) he is the late king’s son, raised in secret by a foster family. In the movie, we never know why he’s the chosen one. He just is.
If you tell me The Sword in the Stone is dull and sloppily made, I won’t disagree, but I will be quick to say it still had a major positive impact on me. It got me into the Arthurian legend, which I eventually studied in college. I might not have read T. H. White without it and I definitely wouldn’t have read Le Morte d’Arthur. I might never have met my fairy godmother, Morgan le Fay (she’s so badass, she picked up witchcraft in a nunnery. How does that even HAPPEN?) It inspired most of what I wrote as a kid and still inspires my writing now. Even during other movies obviously. There are Disney films I LOVED as a kid that I can’t stand now (including one I’ll be writing about soon), but The Sword in the Stone is not one of them.

I’m sure there are a lot of kids who saw Brave and loved it. These kids were no doubt perfectly happy they saw the movie Pixar made and not some slapped-together ripoff about the witch and Merida and all their wacky adventures. Maybe some of these kids will continue to watch Brave as they grow up and eventually notice the weak story and undeveloped characters. However, they probably won’t care. Maybe, poisoned by nostalgia, they’ll love Brave unapologetically all their lives. I certainly wouldn’t blame them.