Thoughts On: The Sword In The Stone
With help from the all-powerful Merlin, young Arthur stumbles toward greatness.
I’ve always liked The Sword In The Stone, it holds a simple yet wondrous story expressed with a tone somewhere between that of Alice In Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty – though, with a much stronger sense of character. And it’s the characters in this film that really sell the simple plot. From Arthur, to Ector to Mim to Merlin, each character holds perfectly embellished traits that, whilst lacking nuance and great depth, work concisely with the simple narrative not made up of much more than a few meandering magical lessons. In such, we see the compartmentalised set-pieces of the film working with the loud character work to produce a great story with a plethora of memorable beats. This is not much of a surprise though as this is a Disney film. Almost all of the classics are no more than 80 minutes long, but manage to pack as much of an adventurous punch as a Lawrence Of Arabia, Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings. To clarify, the comparison here isn’t of the quality of the films – isn’t to suggest Lawrence Of Arabia can really be judged with much objectivity against The Sword In The Stone. The comparison is there to suggest that the major beats of a sprawling adventure as captivated by the likes of 3 hour pictures are tantamount to those captured by an 80 minute animated feature. What this says about Disney films speaks for itself. There is a masterful abbreviation of what could easily be narratives hours and hours long. How do Disney manage this? In short, there is a sacrifice of narrative verisimilitude for complete narrative responsibility. What these two terms I just made up suggest is that verisimilitude, things seeming real, provide a lot of your story as given. To clarify, let’s take these films as examples…
(We’ve covered all of these on the blog, so click the images if you’re interested). What links these three films is that they’re all loosely based on true stories. Whether its the life of infamous gangsters of prisoners or the Vietnam war, each film has a pre-decided context. This context provides the screenwriter parameters they have to stick to – or at least nearby. In such, we see a class of narrative verisimilitude in these films. Screenwriters must present these events/characters as if they’re real happenings or people – as is they’re obligation. I chose these three films, however, to make clear that narrative verisimilitude doesn’t mean you have to make boring movies that stick true to a premise or context. Without going full-blown Inglourious Basterds, these films create cinematic stories from what could have been documentaries. That means these films are a great representative of this concept of narrative verisimilitude as they fit nicely between the two extremes. On one end are films such as Fruitvale Station.
There is a clear attempt in this film and those alike to give you a grounded and realist story, one that uses verisimilitude, things seeming as real as possible, to hit you with the emotional crux of and purpose of the movie. Moving away from films such as this you come to movies such as Jason Bourne or District 9.
There is an explicit attempt in these film to sell the fantastical stories and characters with verisimilitude. We see this in the way things are shot in a handheld, documentary-esque style and how they’re thematically linked to real life situations. Moreover, these films are tied down in terms of their realism through the implied confines of physical law. District 9 is a far-reaching example of this because of… aliens… but, the way the concept of an alien contact is handled grounds the plot, sinking you into a cinematic space whereby you can ease into a mind-set whereby the unfolding events make a lot of sense. In this, we see that these films seem real because they appeal to our biases of what can and cannot happen, of what can be considered real and what can be dismissed as fantasy. Most crucially, few rules of physical law or human behavior are explicitly broken in films such as District 9 and Jason Bourne despite the obvious fact that they’re just films. We see this kind of verisimilitude sweeping through cinematic fantasy more and more through comic book blockbusters. Because this is something we’ve picked up on before, I won’t dwell. However, grounding fantasy is an approach, with merits and downfalls, to telling poignant stories – ones reliant on realism and the subtly contorted everyday.
Having touched on examples of films with varying narrative verisimilitude, we can begin to look the other way. This is where we come to Disney…
As is obvious, these films aren’t trying to ground things, to make them seem real, to imbue their narratives with all of the aforementioned verisimilitude. To understand the profound beauty in all of this, I think its best to break cinema and story telling down to a ridiculously fundamental level.
Stories are things happening, are a movement through space and time, from an A to a B. Why do we tell stories? I’m sure there’s no singular reason, but one that makes most sense is that there is a perception in all of us of space and time. Because we are alive, because we’re all conscious with eyes in the front of our heads, because we live our lives through our own little stories, we like to tell them. This communication of our own personal perception (a.k.a story telling) is not only a way to relate to others, but a way to convey in the most existential sense the idea that we exist. If stories are a projection of the fact that we can perceive, then having to tell them to others is a means of proving this, of saying to others that we can perceive, that we do exist. In such, we see through a wonderfully pretentious looking glass at the inherent poetry of making up stories. However, there’s more to stories than telling the people you live with what happened today at work. Stories have evolved beyond the past, the slots of spacetime we have experience. Because stories are a projection of our mind’s perceptual eye, they are attached to concepts of not just memory, but foresight, wishes, dreams, imaginings. That is why the majority of stories we like to hear aren’t about everybody’s last 24 hours. We not only tell each other of the things we feel, the things we hope will happen in the future with a plethora of what ifs and maybes, but we make up completely tangential things. Great stories tellers branch away into true stories of other people, stories like that in Fruitvale Station, and continue to move further away from this, taking context and changing it slightly, giving the likes of Full Metal Jacket, further, Jason Bourne, further, District 9, further, Dumbo, The Little Mermaid, The Sword In The Stone. Now recognising this paradigm, there’s two things we have to understand aren’t happening. The first is that there’s not an evolution from the likes of Friuitvale Station to The Sword In The Stone. These are two different forms of story telling, no one is better than the other – it’s all about story, rarely just form. The second point of conjecture is that this movement from the realist to the fantastical isn’t a true movement. In my saying, ‘we make up completely tangential things’ I wasn’t being all to expressive. In truth, these stories, the Full Metal Jackets, Hercules, Lawrence of Arbias, are no different from hearing about someone’s day.
This is a key point to remember about story telling. No matter how much nonsense you make up, you can never express more than what happened to you yesterday, ten years ago, two months ago. Moreover, you can never tell someone more than what happened to them yesterday, ten years ago, two months ago. This is a scary concept as it turns the idea of story telling being an existential communication of us existing on its elbow. This concept implies that when we speak of mermaids, spies and aliens, we are merely talking about our simple recognition of the world around us. We can only personify memory, fantasy, the world we see; we turn our fears and dreams of being trained in combat, weaponry, being able to fight the world into Jason Bourne. We turn fish into projections of teenage angst. We turn worries of societal interaction on a macrocosmic level into aliens landing in South Africa only to be forced into slums. In such, we are seeing the manipulation of the world around us into what we already know, into our everyday – all through themes. To further clarify with District 9, the film doesn’t just refer to apartheid through its plot, but refers to themes of family, isolation, loss and depression through its characters and wider narrative. In this we are seeing the translation of fantastical sci-fi into events we see on the news into things we experience in our everyday; it’s aliens, to apartheid, to the people we’re watching the film with, those we couldn’t bare see subject to the themes presented to us. What this movement from fantasy to the everyday suggests is not only a parallel between the human imagination and mundane perception of the everyday, but our inability to comprehend true fantasy. This is where the existential themes come back in. With Fruitvale Station, District 9 and Dumbo, we’re essentially telling ourselves the same stories we’ve heard a million times with different words printed on the sheet. These films talk to us in emotion, in themes; they only resonate because we already have glimpses at these ‘realities’ and the presented emotions. This conceptually darkens the world around us, entrapping our perceptual gaze to what’s 4 feet in front of us and 2 hours behind. Furthermore, when we’re telling people these stories, we’re not only talking in a language of emotions already experience, but emotions they already know. We are pushing the same 5 or so buttons in our brains as an attempt to tell other people that we also have those buttons. And it’s this that convolutes the idea of communication through story telling. Are we simply shouting into a void, pretending we are heard and can hear what reverberates in the vacuous nothingness we try not to perceive when we tell these fundamentally identical stories all about ourselves as no different from anyone else?
Casting aside the existentially rhetorical aspects of story telling, let’s hold onto the bare roots. Story telling is an attempt toward communication that is all about ourselves – an emotional projection centred on our experiences. If, for reasons tied to confounding existential isolation, stories make us feel good – feel some sense of security – why do things seemingly tangential to all we know (fantasy films) work so well when grounded, realist films are so much more direct in their communication? It’s here where we focus in on The Sword In The Stone.
With this film being so poignant, so fantastical, we essentially come back to the initial question of how Disney create such impactful, but abundantly abbreviated stories. To answer a question of why a film about becoming a bird, fish and squirrel before a king works, we need this question as it brings us back to narrative verisimilitude. As mentioned, Disney films do not have a focus on making things seem real – this has never been where they have found success. They’re success is in magic, is in their approach to narrative responsibility. This idea is somewhat opposed to narrative verisimilitude. Whereas realism is in large part a way of giving your film structure and rules, narrative responsibility is about creating those rules yourself. There is an abandonment of realism for a cinematic space that you must control and present as a new shade of reality – one suitable enough to communicate a story utterly dependent on human emotion. This is what Disney do so well, they create they’re own cinematic rules. All filmmakers do this to a certain degree, they balance verisimilitude with their own ideas of what can work. There is a plethora of varying examples by which filmmakers do this, the most fundamental example is simply how films are shot; they never appeal strictly to how we view the world otherwise all films would be continuous POVs with no cutting and very little happening. More complex variations on this creation of a cinematic space comes into realisation with animation, drawing characters; birds, that can speak, that were boys just a second ago – fictional-ish ones subject to legend, myth and then a plethora of fantastical contortion. Despite the myriad of convoluting revolutions the story of King Arthur had to take to become The Sword In The Stone, it doesn’t take a genius to watch this film – we give it to our children to keep them quiet for a while. Without delving into how this is kind of crazy when you look at things from a philosophical perspective abstract of humanity, this says a lot.
This crazy story works because the rules broken, the rules made up, have a thematic point to their construction and likewise destruction. In other words, we readily accept the nonsense that this film is on paper because of an inherent comprehension of subtext that even children get. And its in this idea that we’ll see why Disney films are so poignant, are filled to the brim with as many memorable moments as films two or three times their length. To get into why we’re going to have to appeal to a slightly more confusing film…
In truth, Inception is a film thousands of times simpler than The Sword In The Stone. The reason why it seems so complex, however, is that we think we have to understand it all – moreover, it wants us to. In such, I mean to say that the film wants us to understand its rules of dreams, levels subconsciousness, such and so on. The Sword In The Stone has much more complex premises than Inception though. For example, talking fish, transformation, shrinking cutlery, dragons, swords that decide kings… the list goes on and on and on. However, despite the plethora of confusing elements in this film that would be unfairly subject to an ass-ripping by a cinematic nit-picker who watches too much CinemaSins, there’s an understanding of it – we all get this film. Why? Because it doesn’t explain itself. It implies magic and allows us to all go along with the movie. Inception is simpler yet more confusing because it won’t say magic. (Neither approach is better than the other, it must be noted). What this says about Sword In The Stone and fantastical films in general, is that they talk in subtext that is emotional. We see the point in the crazy sequences like the magic battle through themes, through character, through implied ideas that Mim is malicious and Merlin, whilst easily roused up, is intelligent. Such is the point of the film. It’s all about brains, not brawn, making the world a better place. Each sequence echos this point and so we don’t need explanations of how magic works, of fate, wizards, medieval society, such and so on.
It’s because of this silent undercurrent in the story that it has structure that is both comprehensible and poignant despite the overlying veneer of craziness. In other words, it’s the rules established by the film, through a taking of cinematic responsibility, that it can be so simple. Instead of searching for verisimilitude, the film speaks to us in ill-defined but transparent ideas. It’s this juxtaposition of the simple rules, the basic themes and story, with the vastly imaginative sequences and plot that compound the 80 minutes of The Sword In The Stone, that have it be as vast and sprawling as an adventure that relies on true stories, verisimilitude and someone elses rules to tell its story. What Sword In The Stone says about animation and fantastical cinema of this kind is that its tantamount to slang. Proper speech patterns much like stories leaning further towards reality, verisimilitude, have rules: they are usually longer form and more complex despite their ultimate transparency. Such is Inception. It’s longer than The Sword In The Stone, it’s more complex, but when you understand the rules it becomes very transparent. Slang on the other hand, like more fantastical films, is of shorter form, is reliant on the audience bringing a certain amount of understanding tothem – and for this can be more complex despite its transparency. Once seeing the two kind of films in this respect you can contextualise them with archetypes of story telling. With Inception you essentially have something tantamount a good physics class. You are dealing with abstract concepts that you’re supposed to accept as apart of reality told with very technical details that can be incredibly hard to comprehend. With The Sword In The Stone you have something tantamount to a good joke or comical story. This is a highly emotional A to B, heavily reliant on reflex (laughter), but ia often nonsensical, almost always functioning with an understanding that ‘this is comedy, it’s not real life’.
Such a dichotomy speaks expressively to the construction of stories through our approach to the rules of its world. The Sword In The Stone is a great example of cinematic fantasy and how to construct it. Moreover, it is a lesson in the fact that the rules you make up must be tied to a theme or a point. Just as this is a film about brains vs. brawn, so is each scene and sequence. This is why they work, this is why rules can be broken; they are there to glaze the familiar, the same stories we bellow into empty existential voids, with an illusion of the new, of something we haven’t seen or heard before.
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