There’s a Simpsons episode where Homer gets a job voicing the cartoon dog Poochie, who is being added to the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon to make the veteran duo’s show more hip for the kids. In Poochie’s first appearance, the cat and mouse are heading towards a fireworks factory where surely they will get into some explosive violence (as is their wont). Instead, the cat and mouse stop to hang out with Poochie, who proceeds to spend so much time slam-dunking basketballs and rapping about how kids need to stay in school that all of them run out of time to go to the fireworks factory.
I loved the Sword in the Stone as a child, but watching it again as an adult I was shocked at how Poochie-ish this movie is. Theoretically this is a movie about how a young Arthur turned into King Arthur. It is established in the very beginning that Merlin has to train the scrawny child, then the child has to go pull Excalibur out of the anvil where it resides, and then he shall become a great leader. Okay, that sounds like the plot of a movie.
You know what actually happens in this movie? In the first ten minutes Merlin meets Arthur. Then he begins to train him by turning him into a fish. Then by turning him into a squirrel. Then by turning him into a bird. In the last ten minutes they actually go to where the sword is, which is completely unguarded, and Arthur pulls out of the stone on accident. Then he’s just king, and everybody is super stoked about it, the end. While some movies treat the rising action like a thick steak to be enjoyed, this movie treats it like a pickle on top of a cheeseburger. (In this metaphor getting turned into a squirrel is the meat.)
Now, I get that Merlin is going to train his pupil in unconventional ways, but what I don’t get is how learning how to swim (while a fish), learning about love (while you are a rodent), and learning how to fly (while you are a sparrow) is going to prepare the young man to tamp down the intense civil wars that England was embroiled in while the Kingship lay vacant, much less learn how to properly mete out justice once the kingdom is united. I’m not expecting that a children’s film would go deep into the mechanics of governance, but it does strike me as completely insane that the only lessons Arthur learns are seemingly to prepare him for running a forest, as if he was going to be the Moses of small woodland creatures, rather than an immortal leader of men that has to unite a bunch of lawless tribes under one banner.
That said, I totally get why I liked this film as a child. I didn’t give a damn if Poochie ever made it to the fireworks factory. I was totally cool with him dunking basketballs, cause dunking basketballs is cool. Who cares if there isn’t much about England in the film as long as the squirrel hijinks are pretty funny, and the magic battle between Merlin and Nim features purple dragons? That stuff’s just as cool as explosions, right?