Merlin the wizard (voiced by Karl Swenson) has been to the future and laments that the medieval times he hails from, and now makes his home in, do not have electricity and plumbing which would make his life far easier, especially when he has to draw water from the well by his forest cottage. He needs the water for his teapot, which in turn is to be used by his guest only Merlin has no idea of who he might be, simply that he has had a vision that today, in half an hour, he will be visited by someone significant. Meanwhile, on the edge of the forest, young Arthur (Rickie Sorenson, Richard Reitherman and Robert Reitherman) is trailing after his knight in training stepbrother...
The notion of Walt Disney tackling the King Arthur myth was a promising one, but as adapted from the novel by T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone did not concern itself too heavily with the elements of the venerable tale. Instead, the plotline attempts to place the value of learning into its audience's heads with lengthy sequences where little Arthur is taught about life and the world by wise but bumbling Merlin, here as the father figure, or grandfather figure, that the boy never really had. As far as that goes it is fine, but the lack of a gripping narrative means it's never anything more than pleasant, in spite of the efforts towards slapstick that punctuate every scene.
All that slapstick is more reminsicent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon rather than something like Disney's classic Sorcerer's Apprentice section of Fantasia, only not the classic cat and mouse adventures, more the later, contemporary to this sixties ones where Chuck Jones was ruining the characters with tone deaf approaches. Therefore there's not much to have you rolling about when Merlin bungles for the hundredth time, or his huffy pet owl Archimedes is drenched yet again. There is, however, one classic sequence, but it turns up too late in the production to look like anything other than a little oasis of creativity in the otherwise worthy but uninspired.
After he literally drops in on Merlin - through his roof - the wizard tells him that under his tutelage the boy is destined for great things, and the notion that this is the future most famous King of all British legend we're dealing with doesn't appear to have inspired director Wolfgang Reitherman or his writers as they keep things steadily juvenile throughout. In a way it's a relief that their Arthur doesn't act noble and composed throughout in a Kingly, or even Princely, fashion, because that would have worn out its welcome long before the halfway mark, but on the other hand you never get the impression that the hero has the character necessary to fill his regal role.
Arthur is naturally undervalued by his foster family, who are lining him up to be the squire to his stepbrother Kay, and they call him Wart and foist the menial tasks upon him, to make sure we know that when he does ascend the throne he understands some level of humility. It's only Merlin who has faith in him, and puts him the through his paces as he uses magic to turn him into a fish, a squirrel and a bird to allow him to grasp the significance of the world. Oddly, when Arthur becomes a squirrel a girl squirrel falls for him, which ends on a note of heartbreak when the boy is returned to human shape: the girl squirrel collapses in tears, out of keeping with the lighter tone of the rest of the film. If the Sword in the Stone is recalled for anything, of course, it's nothing to do with the title weapon, it's the duel between Meriln and wily witch Madame Mim, an irrelevant but truly marvelous bit of whimsy with the duelists transforming into various animals to outwit each other - good for clip shows, that bit. Music by George Bruns.