In the past month I saw two Disney movies, The Sword in the Stone (1963) and Treasure Planet (2002). Treasure Planet has always been my favorite Disney movie. I had seen bits of The Sword in the Stone before, and probably saw it when very young, but I had never seen and remembered enough of it to form an opinion of it. I still prefer Treasure Planet but I realize that a lot of the reasons I like it are idiosyncratic. I like the setting and the language and the overall environment and feel of it. I also realize that Treasure Planet benefits from four decades of improvement in the technology of animation. So I will not talk about those things much. My main analysis here is philosophical, not artistic.
There are a lot of things we can learn from society by looking at the differences between these two movies. Both of them are coming of age movies, showing how a boy grows up and experiences life. But the things that happen, and the lessons learned, are very different.
The protagonist of The Sword in the Stone, Wart, is an amazingly passive character. He never actually does anything except blunder around, get into accidents, and try not to get eaten by predators. I had no sympathy for him; he was a non-entity.* Everything good that happens to him happens as a result of a mistake or the actions of others. He has greatness thrust onto him and is utterly incapable of dealing with it without help.
By contrast, the protagonist of Treasure Planet, Jim, makes things happen. He is a well-developed character, with a history and motivation for his actions. He masters the technology of his world, reacts intelligently to various crises and obstacles, and uses his skills to save the day at the end of the movie. And at the end, he does not get any unearned money or glory; he has simply restored what was lost and put himself on track for a better future.
Part of this is due to the age differences; Wart was 12 and Jim was 15. Treasure Planet is clearly intended for an older audience and is therefore more mature. But I also think that some of the differences are due to a change in what society expects of its young people.
Merlin is presented as the ideal tutor for Wart. Yet his training consists entirely of encouraging Wart to read books, teaching him songs with meaningless homilies, and turning him into various small prey animals and putting him in situations where his life is at risk. Merlin never teaches Wart any useful skills, and he never does anything that would teach Wart anything about responsibility or the wise use of power. Merlin does not know at the start that Wart will be a king, but he knows that he will be someone important. Yet all of the object lessons are experiences in powerlessness that match the reality of his daily life as an orphan and page. They teach him to use his wits to run away from problems, and then beg the wizard to help him out, which is not how you want a king to act.
The overall lesson in The Sword in the Stone is that you should simply do what you are told, keep your head down, and wait for something good to happen. It is a lesson in passivity and resignation, just like the Cinderella story. Good things just happen to the characters; they do nothing to alter their fate or take care of themselves. Someone else makes all the magic happen.
Jim, on the other hand, learns a lot of lessons about hard work, responsibility, and the complexity of life. He learns how to advance his natural ability to manipulate and master the technology that makes his world function. He learns about how to deal with people and how to advance his own goals in the face of determined opposition. Most importantly, he learns that he has to take the initiative if he wants good things to happen. He does get lucky in the sense that an opportunity is presented to him at random, but turning that opportunity into good things requires time, effort, determined activity, and ingenuity.
The overall lesson in Treasure Planet is that you are responsible for your own fate. Your actions have consequences, you have to take care of yourself, and you have to understand how the world works. You are the one who makes the magic happen.
Jim really is the magician in Treasure Planet. He is the master of the arcane technology, the one who pulls a miracle out of his mind to save the day. In The Sword in the Stone, there is never a hint that Wart can, will, or should learn how to work magic for himself.
This assumption is common to all old stuff, so pervasive and ingrained that you do not even question it. Merlin never teaches Arthur or any knights how to do magic. Gandalf never teaches the hobbits how to do magic. Aslan never teaches the children how to do magic, or even defend against it. Magic, the mastery of the fundamental forces of the world, is never something done by the protagonists. Magic is something that happens to you, not something that you do. Heroism and initiative are always portrayed as the ability to run around and beat other people with heavy things or poke them with sharp things.
This is a slight exaggeration, but most old fantasy basically follows the mindset of primitive savages who cannot hope to master the forces of their world. People are caught in the grip of incomprehensible forces that they cannot hope to master, and their only hope is to do what the shaman says while attacking the enemies of the tribe.
It was only recently that the protagonists of fantasy started to be the magicians. It started sometime in the 60s with a few random books, and then slowly spread along with the role-playing games and video games that put people in the shoes of magicians.
I think that the first mainstream entertainment that had magic-wielding protagonists was the Harry Potter series, and I think that this fact explains a lot of the popularity of the books. Here was a story about children mastering the forces that control the world, and slowly learning how to beat the adults at their own game. Magic became something you do, not just something that happens to you. And more importantly, you become something that happens to life, rather than life being something that happens to you. You may start off by taking advice and direction from a mentor, but by the end you are the equal or even the better of the mentor, just as qualified to direct things, and certainly more qualified to direct your own life.
I certainly applaud this trend. Jim, and Harry Potter and his friends, are far better role models for young adults than the heroes of previous generations of fantasy. We need to show children that they have the right and responsibility to be the magicians, the ones who understand and shape the world and its future.
* In fact, the only character in the movie that I felt any sympathy for was the young female squirrel. She risks her life to save him from a wolf and then he just walks off and abandons her.