Personal Overview: I have only vague memories that I saw this. I think my parents took I and my older cousin to see it on the one of the rereleases at the drive in.
I’ve always been a fan of King Arthur and the legends. I got hooked by reading one of the retellings specially geared towards younger readers and have read quite a number of retellings since and seen a few of the movies, none of which seem to get it right.
Disney’s version is based loosely on the first book of T.H White’s The Once and Future King trilogy. I expected to like it, because of the subject matter. I didn’t. Part of it possibly stems from the fact that T.H White’s work ranks a close second for me to Parke Godwin’s excellent Firelord as an Arthurian retelling.
I see this one as marking a downturn in the studio’s animated features. They did still release some good ones, but didn’t truly recover their mojo until The Little Mermaid in 1989.
I don’t know why it didn’t work. It was the last film Walt helmed and for some reason they got a lot wrong. They focused on the wrong things, far too much screen time was given to the magical battle between Merlin and Mim. Kay as a dense thug didn’t really work and Merlin’s attempts at comedy often fell flat. Having actors with identifiable US accents portray Wart or Arthur is jarring and an odd decision. The animation was strangely flat as well.
Hero/es: Wart, as Arthur is known for most of this film until he removes the sword from the stone near the end, is the hero, but he’s strangely passive and not at all appealing, it’s also a huge stretch to see this kid without any seeming personal initiative turn into the legendary Arthur. The secondary hero is Merlin, who tries to provide guidance to the young Arthur while also trying to provide comic relief as the bumbling old wizard stereotype.
Villain/s: there isn’t really one in this. The closest I can come is Arthur’s older foster brother, the brutish and stupid Kay. I’m not sure what book they read at Disney, because Kay was older and stronger than Arthur and yes he ordered him around as older brothers tend to do with younger siblings, but this film version is a budding Gregor Clegane (that makes me wonder if George R.R Martin ever saw this cartoon?) and at odds with the Kay in the book. The other possible villain is Mim, but she’s really only in the film so that Merlin can have a magical duel with her and the animators can do what they’re known for.
Cuteness Factor: this is one of the few Disney cartoon features that doesn’t have an abundance of this. The closest I can come is Archimedes; Merlin’s bad tempered, sharp tongued owl, who acts as kind of a second mentor to Arthur.
Animation: really nothing to talk about here. The battle is the greatest height it reaches, other than that it’s a fair effort at best and lacks a lot of the Disney magic. The battle was done by the most experienced team and it shows.
Final Words: as I said earlier this film for me marks a downturn in the quality of the product as Disney seemed to start doing this stuff by the numbers. They were fortunate that they didn’t have much competition, because I doubt they would have survived with work of this quality if anyone else had been able to produce more engaging material.