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Blu-Ray Review: Disney’s “Sword In The Stone”, “Robin Hood” and “Oliver”

Blu-Ray Review: Disney's "Sword In The Stone", "Robin Hood" and "Oliver"

New Blu-rays of three more Disney animated features have just been released, bringing you three important (but not necessarily “classic”) films with crisp, clear imagery. All three are entertaining, feature top-notch animation by master artists and have a key place in the journey of Disney animation along its bold but bumpy road.

THE SWORD IN THE STONE 50th Anniversary Blu-ray & DVD

I’m guessing that, in the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, we might get a glimpse of what Walt Disney’s circumstances were when The Sword in the Stone was being made. In the early ’60s, Disneyland was firing on all cylinders and the studio was producing TV shows, movies and tons of merchandise.

There were some truly great movies and shows during this period, the biggest hits were potboiler comedies starting with The Shaggy Dog, which was a box office smash in 1959 – the same year Sleeping Beauty underperformed. 1961 megahit 101 Dalmatians surely influenced the lighter direction and more modest scope of Disney animated features for the next decade.

This is where The Sword in the Stone comes along. At first glance, you might have expected the film to be a grand epic with some comedy. Instead, it’s largely a comedy with some serious moments. This is the first feature completely scored by the Sherman Brothers, but they were new to the staff and were not as much a part of the story process as they later became. Their songs are delightful but they’re not “book musical” songs.

Sword is the last Disney animated feature in which the voice actors were not well-known celebrities (though Alice in Wonderland had a few). Even Sebastian Cabot, who appeared in lots of TV shows in the late ’50s/early ‘60s, had not yet become the popular “Mr. French” on TV’s Family Affair. Radio comedy and drama still offered Disney a sufficient number of capable character actors to do voices.

The odd thing about The Sword in the Stone is that it doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. I love a lot of things about this movie, including the songs, the “Higitus Figitus” sequence, the way Merlin blasts off and of course, the wizard’s duel. I even noticed how much Wart, as a fish, looks like Nemo.

It’s easy to armchair quarterback, so why not? I might have made Madam Mim a more constant presence in the story, rather than just stealing the film in one sequence.  She could have sent the Wile E. Coyote-like wolf after Wart and the wizard’s duel could have come after Wart became king. As the story stands now, there is no real villain when Mim is out of the picture and Wart’s triumph doesn’t seem very triumphant. In fact, I can’t think of many Walt Disney films in which the resolution was shown to be kind of a drag.

But I quibble. The film pops on Blu-ray, the Xerox lines have a wonderful vibrancy to them, the color design and art direction is magnificent. The Sword in the Stone has also taken on a life beyond the film, through Merlin’s Disney Parks appearances and lots of cool merchandise that came out with each re-release (including the first Disney StoryRama vinyl LP with a pop-up diorama book). Even Madam Mim became a viable villain in Disney books and comics.

Note on Bonus Features

“Disney Song Selection” allows you to choose specific places in the disc where songs are located, playing them with lyrics. “Sing Along With the Movie” is a setting that plays the entire film but adds lyrics when the songs occur (you have to go to “settings” to make the words go away). “Disney Sing-Along Songs” are isolated songs with lyrics upon which a Mickey shape bounces on the words (these are from the VHS Sing-Along Series).

Bonus Features

THE SWORD IN THE STONE 50th Anniversary Blu-ray (2013)

Alternate Opening: Where Wart Meets Merlin

Sing Along with the Movie

“All About Magic”” (EXCERPT from Walt Disney Presents TV episode) (7:00)The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook

Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers

Bonus Shorts – Goofy in A Knight for a Day (1946), Mickey Mouse in The Brave Little Tailor (1938)

THE SWORD IN THE STONE 40th Anniversary DVD (2008) & 50th Anniversary DVD (2013) (identical)

Game: Merlin’s Magic Academy

“All About Magic” (EXCERPT from Walt Disney Presents TV episode) (7:00)

Disney Song Selection: “Higitus Figitus,” “That’s What Makes the World Go ‘Round,” “The Legend of the Sword in the Stone,” “A Most Befuddling Thing”

The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook

Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers

Film Facts

Bonus Shorts – Goofy in A Knight for a Day (1946), Mickey Mouse in The Brave Little Tailor (1938)

THE SWORD IN THE STONE Gold Classic Collection DVD (2001)

“All About Magic” (COMPLETE “Walt Disney Presents” TV episode) (38:00)

Disney Song Selection: “Higitus Figitus,” “That’s What Makes the World Go ‘Round”

The Sword in the Stone Scrapbook

Music Magic: The Sherman Brothers

Film Facts

Bonus Shorts – Goofy in A Knight for a Day (1946), Mickey Mouse in The Brave Little Tailor (1938)

ROBIN HOOD 2013 Blu-ray

Robin Hood gets more than its share of flack for its use of recycled animation (most famously Maid Marian’s Snow White dancing), sitcom storyline and episodic nature. Oh, and casting Phil Harris again, this time as Baloo in forest green (I always wait for the part in which he yells “Hey-yo!” like Ed MacMahon on the Johnny CarsonTonight Show.

But like The Sword in the StoneRobin Hood’s issues spring primarily from the period in which it was produced. Walt had been gone for over five years, the studio was starting to repeat itself in live action as well as animation. The Vietnam war had not ended and escapism was still bringing in audiences. The energy crisis was on the rise and it was starting to affect attendance at Disneyland and the recently opened Walt Disney World Resort.

Clearly risk was not a consideration for the major investment in an animation feature, so Robin Hood built on what worked in The Jungle Book – a huge hit, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks – not so much of a hit but with an extremely strong animated sequence. It had to have influenced quite a bit of Robin Hood’s look and character design.

Another influence on Robin Hood (and The Aristocats) was the surreal TV sitcom, Green Acres. Apparently feudal England was populated with several former Hooterville residents, as was 1910 France. But Robin Hood isn’t a history lesson, it’s a jaunty, beautifully animated series of very funny set pieces that remain effective, perhaps more so to younger audiences unfamiliar with the strong personalities doing the voices.

Chief among the voices is Peter Ustinov, a true renaissance man who could take a line and maximize every syllable. Hearing him say “Squeeeeeeeeze” alone makes Robin Hood worth checking out.

Okay, Robin Hood presents virtually the same wedding scene as Cinderella and George Bruns’s music for the fire scene sounds a lot like the Prince battling Maleficent as a dragon in Sleeping Beauty (you can hear it in The Sword in the Stone too, when a fire occurs in that film). But it works as a home video, its sequential quality making it something you or the kids can start and stop without losing story momentum.

Robin Hood also has “Love,” an Academy Award-nominated song that was performed on the Oscar telecast by Johnny Whitaker and Jodie Foster. The winner that year was “The Way We Were,” which of course, was “like buttah.”

Bonus Features

ROBIN HOOD 2013 Blu-ray

Deleted storyline: Love Letter


Alternate Ending

Disney Song Selection: “Oo-De-Lally,” “Love,” “The Phony King of England”

Art Gallery

Sing Along with the Movie

“Oo-De-Lally” Disney Sing-Along Song (from Sing-Along VHS video series)

Bonus Short: Mickey Mouse in Ye Olden Days (1933)

ROBIN HOOD DVD (2013) & Most Wanted Edition DVD (2006) (identical)

Alternate Ending

Disney Song Selection: “Oo-De-Lally,” “Love,” “The Phony King of England”

Art Gallery

Sing Along with the Movie

Oo-De-Lally Disney Sing-Along Song (from Sing-Along VHS video series)

Bonus Short: Mickey Mouse in Ye Olden Days (1933)

OLIVER AND COMPANY 25th Anniversary Blu-ray & DVD

It’s fascinating to watch Oliver & Company knowing about the animation history that came after it. In the mid-’80s, both Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as freshly minted Disney executives, had been wondering if animation was even an viable option for where they felt the Walt Disney Company was going. Fortunately Oliver & Company was a substantial enough success in its initial release to generate a reissue – and more animated features.

Oliver & Company was the first Disney animated feature with a pop-radio-ready musical score that is almost entirely of its time period (unless we go back to the package features of the ’40’s like Make Mine Music). The soundtrack album was also the very last vinyl LP record in wide release on the Disney label.  

The exceptions in style are the lovely “Good Company” and the campy “Perfect Isn’t Easy,” a Broadway style number co-authored by Barry Manilow. It is performed by his old friend Bette Midler as the “Sharpay/Veronica Lodge/Snoopy’s girlfriend”-like poodle, Georgette (though I somehow felt that character could have been even broader considering the comic talent behind it).

There are also several instances where the emerging computer technology was used as a technical boost to the animation. The lines are solid black, resembling neither the toned inks of the classic days nor the “stretchy lines” of early Xerox cels. And there’s even some product placement – including Ryder Trucks and USA Today—perhaps another first for a Disney animated feature.

With voice talents like Midler, Joel, Ruth Pointer, Cheech Marin and Huey Lewis, it was clear that this was the “new” Disney, with a cast largely from the Touchstone stable (including a young Joey Lawrence as Oliver, who would “whoa” his way to hunkdom on Blossom and subsequent TV series). Oliver & Company plays out like a Disney/DreamWorks hybrid before there was a DreamWorks, right down to the characters rocking out together in the finale.

You can also spot differences in the animation, as if some of the masters and the best apprentices did some, and some of the newer artists were just getting their feet wet. There is some truly outstanding character animation here, yet the film is not widely recognized for it, nor is it acknowledged for its role in bridging and sustaining Disney feature animation before The Little Mermaid initiated the second “Golden Age.” The credits are overflowing with artists who have gone on to many other amazing projects.

What is apparent, though, is that Oliver & Company holds up nicely, especially for today’s kids and young parents. There are tinges of ‘80s style in the songs, but they still work. The overall look, slightly edgy tone and brisk pace fits right in with much current animation, whether cel or CG.

Bonus Features

OLIVER AND COMPANY 25th Anniversary Blu-ray (2013)

Sing Along With the Movie

The Making of Oliver & Company

Disney’s Animated Animals

Bonus Shorts: Pluto in “Lend a Paw” (1941) (Best Animated Short Film Oscar Winner); Pluto in “Puss Cafe” (1950)

Publicity Materials

OLIVER AND COMPANY 20th Anniversary DVD (2009)

& 25th Anniversary DVD (2013) (Identical)

Disney Song Selection: “Why Should I Worry?” “Streets of Gold”

Game: Oliver’s Big-City Challenge

Disney’s Animated Animals

Oliver & Company Scrapbook “Lend a Paw” (1941) (Best Animated Short Film Oscar Winner); Pluto in “Puss Cafe” 

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