Judge Erich Asperschlager is a pretty, pretty princess.
"Scullion! I will roast you slowly."
There's plenty of money in kids' franchises with memorable characters and deep mythologies. Just ask J.K. Rowling. Hook them young, keep them coming back and watch the cash pour in. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. I've bailed on enough young adult novels to know that there's a fine line between world-building and obtuse nonsense. Rowling was a master at combining the new and the familiar to create a singular universe with real world touchstones. That's hard enough to do for an author with artistic integrity. When the goal is to milk profit from unsuspecting parents, it's almost impossible.
1994's The Swan Princess was a poorly received animated adaptation of Swan Lake with an impressive cast—including John Cleese, Sandy Duncan, and Jack Palance. The theatrical release was followed by Escape from Castle Mountain and a string of direct-to-video sequels: The Mystery of the Enchanted Treasure, The Swan Princess Christmas, and the latest entry The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale. This new movie adds a little girl to the castle in a sweet, family friendly story that's almost completely buried under a needlessly complex narrative.
Facts of the Case
Princess Odette and Prince Derek are being pressured by his queen mother to have a child. Lucky for them a local peasant cottage burns down, orphaning a young girl named Alise. The royal pair adopt the child and make her part of the family. Meanwhile, a race of killer flying squirrels called Scullions is trying to kill the princess because of a stone tablet prophecy falsified by an ancient evil called the Forbidden Arts, who fears Odette will be his undoing. Also, there are songs.
The cover art for The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale makes it look like brainless family entertainment—the kind of cheap DVD you put on for the kids while you do the dishes or take a nap. Do that with this movie at your own peril. If your children make it past the Lord of the Rings style intro montage without bothering you to explain what the heck a "Forbidden Arts" or "Scullion" is, they will before long.
Let's leave all that aside for a moment and focus on the most accessible storyline in the movie: Odette and Derek's accidental adoption of Alise. This is preceded by humorous nagging by Derek's queen mother's demands to "Show me the baby!" (a joke for Jerry Maguireâ€˜s under-10 fanbase). The royal couple delivers the goods by rescuing the girl and her mortally wounded father from their burning cottage. Before the man dies (in front of his daughter), the woodcutter asks Odette and Derek to take care of Alise. They bring her to the palace, where she cries all of one time for her dead dad before giving in to her gilded surroundings and embracing a life of luxury. Because what little girl wouldn't consider a parent's fiery demise fair trade to become a princess?
Clunky as it is, this straightforward "Family Tale" might have made for an inoffensive flick. Instead, it's swallowed up by a larger Tolkien-esque plot, set in motion by the evil (and stupidly named) Forbidden Arts—equal parts Voldemort, Sauron, Darth Vader, and the smoke monster from Lost. As the story goes, this noncorporeal baddie long ago happened upon a stone tablet that prophesied a Swan Princess who would usher in an age of goodness. Fearing this princess, the Forbidden Arts rewrote the prophecy to make her the villain. This tablet was randomly found by the squirrely Scullions, who vow to destroy the Swan Princess, and become the Forbidden Arts' unwitting army. All of this—plus a summary of the previous films—happens before the opening credits.
I appreciate the narrative effort series director Richard Rich and screenwriter Brian Nissen put into making the movie more than direct-to-video kid bait. This latest Swan Princess movie could just have been a simple, G-rated story about non-traditional families and the general awesomeness of princess dresses. Instead, they try to build a complicated PG fantasy epic on par with a Peter Jackson trilogy. It's the wrong call. A Royal Family Tale doesn't have the budget, art direction, or quality of writing to attract the grand fantasy crowd; and it's way too complex for kids. I don't know who this movie is for. I know who Sony expects will buy it from the glittery pink foam crown glued to the slipcover, but I can't imagine those tots will care a jot for talk of "master trap makers" or the "Great Stone."
The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale doesn't have a great story, and and the animation isn't much better. The 1.78:1 1080p CGI courtesy of Crest Animation is dated, with clunky characters and stiff animation. I don't expect Pixar quality from direct-to-video, but nothing about this demands the clarity of Blu-ray. The front-heavy 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is better—crisp, with a punchy score. It's not enough to salvage the hi-def package, but it's something.
The only bonus features included on the disc are Sing-Alongs for "We Wanna Hear From You" (3:00), and "RIght Where I Belong" (2:59). It's telling that the best extra in the set is a coupon for a free 8 x 8" photobook from Shutterfly.com (a $29.99 value according to the packaging). If you look at it as a cheap photo book with a free movie—well, I still wouldn't recommend buying this set, but at least you won't be losing money.
Since The Swan Princess series apparently has enough fans to justify a fifth entry, chances are A Royal Family Tale will appeal to somebody. But it won't be the kids it's marketed to, or the parents who get suckered into buying it. I usually want more out of family movies—especially the direct-to-video kind—but A Royal Family Tale would benefit from being a lot less. Less backstory, less mythology, fewer obscure details, and a clearer narrative. If this movie had been about introducing new character Princess Alise, it might have injected life into this two-decade old franchise. Instead, it goes for broke and falls apart.
S'wan bad movie. Guilty!
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