Posted in Film, Writing

How to Update a Classic Story in a Fresh and Original Way

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — The Sword in the Stone (1963)

“Since I was a child, I’ve always loved The Sword in the Stone. Although most critics think that this film is one of Disney’s weakest animated features, I find it one of the best. The film is very entertaining with sequences that are very fun to watch, even now. The best sequence in the film is the duel between Merlin and Mad Madame Mim in which they turn in to numerous different animals. Other good scenes are when Arthur turns into different animals by Merlin. The best character turns out to be the owl who has one of the funniest laughs I’ve ever heard. The film proves that not all movies have to have guns and missiles for entertainment.”

— my review of Sword in the Stone for a medieval school project in sixth grade, circa 1996

It’s been a joy to re-visit a lot of the older Disney films. These movies really bring me back to being a kid and falling in love with the dreams that are movies. Walt Disney put emphasis on making truly quality films, and he never condescended to children when it came to storytelling. That’s what makes The Sword in the Stone baffling from a story stand-point. It’s surprisingly childish in many respects, and it’s one of the lesser stories of the Golden Age Disney era.

The majority of the film centers on the teachings of magic to young picked-on Wart by the magician Merlin. Wart gets changed into a fish, a squirrel, and a bird, and then there are crazy adventures where Wart must use his newfound abilities to get himself out of nasty situations. It all culminates in a rousing battle of wits between the calm Merlin and the eccentric Madame Mim, and a revealing of the true King of the land… in a rather anticlimax….

The movie overall is still a joy to watch from a purely eye-candy point-of-view. It’s never boring, and there are a lot of fun scenes. The song-and-dance number in which Merlin packs up all of his things so that they can go about their first adventure is particularly fun, and all the characters, including a clumsy wolf that brings to mind Wile E. Coyote, keep things moving along. The villain Madame Mim, who astonishingly doesn’t even appear until the last twenty minutes of the movie, still resonates to this day as a memorable Disney character, despite her small amount of screen-time. The main pair are a very likable twosome, with Merlin having some particularly funny moments.

There is also a scene that still works as one of the saddest scenes of any Disney animated movie. A female squirrel finds Wart as a male squirrel and instantly falls in love. They share time together as Wart just tries to get away from her. After an extended scene involving chases and animal attacks, Wart finally gets turned into a human, The scene ends with the squirrel watching Wort and Merlin leave, and she sits up on top of a tree, crying, sad, and alone. Ever since I was a kid, this scene has stuck out for me as a particularly heart-wrenching Disney animated movie scene. It doesn’t come close to the deaths of Mufasa and Bambi’s mom, as it shouldn’t, but it has resonated after all these years for inexplicable reasons. Is it the fear of being abandoned by a loved one? Is it the confusion that we all experience when somebody decides to pack up and move on? Or is it just the sight of a squirrel being left to fend for herself? There are many possibilities.

On a story level, however, the movie is kind of a mess, and well into the second half of the movie, I became a little bored. This film, compared to most of the other early Disney animated movies, doesn’t rely so much on plot but on fun-filled comedic antics, aimed mostly at kids. These made the movie a lot of fun to watch as a kid, but not so much now. There’s not enough conflict and just not enough happening to warrant full participation from the audience. Also, the end, in which Wort pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king of the land, works almost like an afterthought, as if it should be a part of a different movie.

The Sword in the Stone is a good movie, just not great like most other Disney animated films of the time. Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty are classics; The Sword in the Stone is a forgettable entertaining romp. Aside from the big battle with Madame Mim, and the oddly memorable scene with the female squirrel, there is little to take away from the movie as an older adult today. It’s worth checking out for fans of Disney but it’s definitely a lesser effort of the time.

Watching Like a Writer

Thinking about the Disney version of the King Arthur legend makes me think about how you can take a familiar tale everybody knows and put your own spin on it, whatever it may be. You can make it more geared toward children, like Disney did in this version, or you can make it more action-packed for contemporary audiences, like the 2004 and 2017 versions did. I tackled a modern day re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz a few years back and had a total blast with it, and I’ve been thinking about writing a contemporary version of a classic story again in the coming year or two. The question is, how do you make a story everyone knows something fresh and original? Something that people will respond to, those who know the legend well and those who have only vague memories of it?

Exercise!

Pick a classic story that you would put your own contemporary spin on. What story would it be? How would you update it?

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