Judge Amanda DeWees is glad to see an animated fairy tale that finally addresses the sensitive issue of class consciousness among waterfowl.
"This is really classy."—Rothbart (Jack Palance)
Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Animation, the omnipotent ruler, King Disney, was challenged by a rogue director named Sir Richard Rich. Once in the employ of Disney's empire, Rich had cast off the tyrant's shackles and set off to gather his own band of loyal followers. Aided by the scrivener Sir Brian Nissen, Rich deployed Disney's own powerful arsenal against him in an effort to unseat him from the throne—or, at least, to bring hope to the small but passionate band of rebels who had long chafed under the reign of Disney. However, like Lord Don Bluth before him, Rich was unable to break the iron grip of the king: The uprising, in the form of the 1994 animated feature The Swan Princess, did not succeed in seizing the animation crown. Nonetheless, it confronted the reigning monarch with a strong challenger and a worthy adversary. The legend of the rebel foray The Swan Princess lives on in song, legend, two sequels, and this new DVD release.
Facts of the Case
Princess Odette and Prince Derek have been betrothed since Odette was an infant. Her father, King William, and Derek's mother, flighty Queen Uberta, hope by uniting their children in marriage to unite their respective kingdoms. However, the course of parental machinations never did run smooth: Odette walks out on the planned marriage and falls victim to a coup staged by the evil sorcerer Rothbart, who is desirous of seizing William's kingdom. Rothbart ambushes Odette and her father, transforms her into a swan, and takes her captive.
Prince Derek, anxious to prove his love and avenge what he believes to be the death of Odette, embarks on a course of training and study in order to find and defeat the "Great Animal" that a witness blames for the attack. Although at first Derek believes that the swan Odette herself is this monster, he finally learns the nature of her enchantment: In order to break the spell that imprisons her in the shape of a swan during the daylight hours, he must make a vow of eternal love to her and prove it to the world. Derek urges Odette to join him at a royal ball, where he plans to make this vow before the gathering of princesses Queen Uberta has assembled in an effort to find Derek a bride.
Rothbart, however, will not be so easily thwarted of his desire to marry Odette and through her establish his claim on her father's kingdom. He transforms his hag sidekick into a likeness of Odette and plans to send her to the ball in Odette's place. Will Odette and her loyal animal friends—Jean-Bob, the snooty French frog; Speed, the laid-back turtle; and Puffin, the hot-tempered Irish bird—succeed in warning Derek of Rothbart's plot, or will Derek make his vow to this changeling? Unless Derek is able to defeat Rothbart and break his magical hold over Odette, the princess may soon be singing her swan song.
The Swan Princess immediately shows that director Richard Rich, a Disney veteran who directed The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound, learned a lot during his time with The Mouse. Here he demonstrates his familiarity with the formula elements that had brought about a renaissance in animation for Disney with films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast: a venerable source myth with magical elements; lots of slapstick and fast-paced humor; a hissable villain, spunky heroine, and hunky hero; lots of cute and comical sidekicks, both animal and human; singable songs that wittily reference different musical styles; and that all-important happy ending to the love story at the film's core. Rich and screenwriter Brian Nissen have absorbed the formula almost too well; sometimes the mixture of high emotion and low comedy seem to clash. This problem is not isolated to The Swan Princess, however; the same can be said of many, if not most, family animated features to emerge since The Little Mermaid. I suspect the aim is to offer something for kids of every age: underwear humor for the wee ones, swoony romance for the pre-adolescent girls, and a bit of robust action to keep the boys from growing bored. Of course, the technique of leavening serious drama with lowbrow humor goes back at least to Shakespeare's time, so it would probably be a fruitless endeavor to debate the merits of that formula here. More to the point is how well Rich and Nissen employ the familiar blueprint.
In fact, they do it with skill, intelligence, and panache. The first and probably most important decision in the making of the film—that of the source story—is almost brilliant in its aptness. The ballet Swan Lake, which premiered in 1877 with a musical score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is such a prominent and popular work that it has probably permeated the consciousness of most people, however dimly. Although the ballet was not based on a specific myth, it evokes universal mythic elements, particularly in its central figure, the woman transformed into bird. In this story we have romance, a struggle between good and evil, and magical transformations—the very elements that proved so successful for Disney's animated fairy tales. One of my cardinal requirements for the source story of an animated film is that it contain traits that lend themselves naturally to animation, such as visual stylization, magical content, transformation, or animal characters. The Swan Lake ballet contained all these. Additionally, the sketchy quality of the ballet plot permits screenwriter Brian Nissen to craft the story to suit the needs of an animated family feature: changing the tragic ending to a happy one, creating back story for the protagonists and motivation for the villain, and adding a variety of supporting characters to provide interest and humor. Nissen also cleverly retains elements from the ballet in his screen treatment, such as Rothbart's transformation into a creature (in the ballet, an owl; in the film, something far more dangerous) and Odette's plaintive beating of her wings against the ballroom windows in her efforts to communicate with Derek. For fans of the ballet, these touches add credibility and depth to the film; for those less familiar with the source work, they nevertheless represent effective and dramatic storytelling. The darker aspects of the story give the movie the feel of earlier animated classics; at times I was strongly, and pleasantly, reminded of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, especially during the final duel.
Interestingly, Nissen's script uses the motif of transformation and duality as a launching point for an overarching theme: the fact that appearances should not be relied upon too strongly. It's a familiar lesson, but it's developed here in a variety of sometimes perceptive ways. Most obvious, of course, is Odette's transformation into a swan, which initially confounds Derek. However, Odette's human appearance is also a sticking point between the two lovers. When she and Derek fall in love, she wants to know what he sees in her beyond her beauty. Derek's response reveals his shallowness at this point in the story: "What else is there?" Clearly he is going to have to learn to look beyond the surface, a skill Odette has already mastered. Whereas he responds to Odette's outward appearance, she reveals in song that "I see inside him." A smart cookie, Odette also sees through the pretty illusions Rothbart conjures up in his attempt to woo her. It's far less certain that Derek will have the depth of perception to recognize an imposter who wears the face of Odette.
Rothbart's shape-shifting is the other major story element that teaches Derek to understand that not everything is as it seems, but the significance of appearance also bobs up in humorous elements in the plot. In the "Princesses on Parade" musical number, which starts out as a spoof of beauty pageants as various princesses show themselves off for Derek, there's a sudden shift into hyperreality, and all at once the princesses are identically dressed and coiffed, looking like they've been mass produced; only their eye color distinguishes them. Perhaps unintentionally, it's a sly little commentary on the way the attempt to conform to conventional ideals of physical beauty obliterates individuality. Jean-Bob the frog also demonstrates an unhealthy preoccupation with physical appearance: His fervent desire is to get Odette to kiss him so that he'll be transformed into the (human) prince he claims to be. I won't spoil the resolution of this subplot, but it says a lot about the capacity of humans (or, I suppose, frogs) for self-delusion.
It's difficult for anyone working without the Disney resources to match that studio's famed visual polish, but Rich can be proud of his achievement here. The imagery of The Swan Princess evokes a world both beautiful and threatening; a misty, Impressionistic beauty pervades the lake where Odette spends her captivity as a swan, yet the drooping willows and grim stone towers that border her prison embody the hopelessness of her situation. The forest where Derek hunts the creature he believes has abducted her is full of gnarled, twisted branches that evoke the thorn hedges of Sleeping Beauty, yet dust motes drift gently in golden shafts of sunlight. Rich also offers deft visual touches as grace notes to this counterpoint, such as his use of split screen during duets to create a visual connection between Odette and Derek, separated though they are in space, and he uses a clever dissolve from a castle tower to a rook (the castle-shaped chess piece) on a chess board. He even foreshadows Odette's eventual transformation with the use of swan motifs in set design. "Camera" angles are creative, and characters are distinct and individual, such as the delightfully acerbic Lord Rogers and giddy but warmhearted Queen Uberta, with her great swoosh of gravity-defying hair. I even noticed a number of people of color among crowds of "extras," which may be a first in animated fairy tales.
The distinctive characterizations are aided greatly by smart voice casting, paramount among which is the choice of Jack Palance as villain Rothbart. Palance digs into this role with characteristic relish, breathily growling and rumbling, seeming to enjoy every moment of his performance. As we have come to expect from Palance, he also finds plenty of humor in his character, aided by some choice lines of dialogue. As the odd couple among the animal characters, John Cleese as Jean-Bob the frog and Steven Wright as Speed the turtle embody a fun contrast. I was originally taken aback at the decision to cast one of the great English comedians as a French character, but Cleese makes the perfect snooty Frenchman; you can practically hear him curling his lip in disdain. As Queen Uberta, Sandy Duncan is almost unrecognizable with a hint of an English accent and some royal airs, but she creates such a funny, sweet character that it makes me long for more mothers to appear in fairy tales. (The usual absence of mothers is reflected in the fact that we never see or even hear mention of Odette's mother; we are told by a narrator that "a daughter was born," and a woman in a nurse's uniform hands the king the little bundle. Perhaps Odette was brought by a stork, which would be quite appropriate.)
As our romantic leads, we have Michelle Nicastro as the speaking voice of Odette and Howard McGillin as Derek. Both are appealing, spirited, and entirely convincing. I was a bit surprised to hear Derek burst into song, a rarity among recent animated heroes, and some viewers may find this behavior a bit off-putting, preferring their princes to refrain from such girly stuff and stick to slaying monsters. Sentimentalist that I am, I truly enjoyed Derek's forays into song, and they offered welcome insight into the prince's character. Another bold choice regarding the prince was giving him a page boy or "Prince Valiant" haircut. (You'll observe that he has been restyled for the DVD cover, which was downright cowardly.) Again, I enjoyed this more traditional (and historically correct) decision, since for me it evoked the golden age of animated fairy tales, but I can readily imagine eight-year-old boys jeering at it. Never mind; they won't be jeering when they see Derek pull off the breathtaking "catch and fire" archery trick.
No animated fairy tale from the 1990s would be complete without a full roster of songs, of course, and here we come to another of the strengths of The Swan Princess. Over the 10 years since I saw this film in the theater, I never forgot the first musical number, "This Is My Idea." A tour de force of storytelling through music, this jaunty song takes us through the growing-up years of Odette and Derek, who are forced into each other's company every summer by their parents in order that they may fall in love. Of course, what actually happens is more realistic and far funnier, as we watch our two lead characters pass through all the awkward stages most movie princes and princesses bypass altogether. We get to see freckled tomboy Odette, dressed in men's tights, futilely trying to keep up with Derek, who shuns all girls as icky. Later, as Odette reaches the girly-girl stage, we see her flirting with a castle guard while Derek sulks in the background. Finally, of course, when the two are reunited at the right age, they recognize their love for each other, which by now seems less like a storytelling convenience (as love at first sight would have been) and more like a realistic development. These two, after all, have been fighting since they were toddlers; they've bonded. The sprightly tune becomes a love duet, then a wedding march. This single musical number takes us through an astonishing amount of exposition, while all we're aware of is enjoying the ride.
Among other standout songs, the influence of Broadway and early movie musicals can be felt in Rothbart's "No More Mr. Nice Guy," in which he replicates Palance's famous one-armed pushup, and particularly in the hilarious "Princesses on Parade." In a glitzy production number that would make Busby Berkeley proud, the princesses become dancing chorines, descending a double staircase like Ziegfeld girls while the royal chamberlain croons a la Dick Powell. Adult viewers will definitely appreciate the wit that went into these songs, while children will enjoy their energy and humor. The only liability in this area is the maudlin pop version of the main ballad, which inevitably plays over the end credits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One lesson to be learned from Disney's animated fairy tales is sadly disregarded here: that is, packaging the movie so that it has something to offer the parents as well as the children. This special edition is aimed squarely at the under-10 set, with nary a commentary or making-of special to be found. It's a genuine pity that Columbia didn't trust this film to truly be fun for the whole family; the dearth of grown-up extra content and the cruelly chopped full-frame picture show that, deep down, the studio thinks only kids will watch this film. This is a mistake that other studios besides Disney have avoided: Witness the handsome DVD treatment of Don Bluth's Anastasia and Titan A.E., artfully designed to appeal to older viewers as well as young ones. Not only does The Swan Princess suffer from flimsy extras and pan-and-scan cutting, but it looks as if the studio couldn't even be bothered to use a clean print of the film: There's a good deal of dirt, speckling, and grain. Shame on you, Columbia.
The extras that are offered, however, are considerably enhanced by the presence of the voices of the two main actors. "Odette's Book of Wonderful Friends" consists of three tales that fill in background information on the characters Jean-Bob, Speed, and Puffin; you have the choice of reading them yourself or hearing them read aloud by Odette. (Viewers may be understandably confused by the reference in one story to Rothbart as Odette's uncle, a detail that never emerged in the film. Parents should be prepared to answer awkward questions about his wish to marry his "niece.") There are two games: a very elementary counting game led by Derek, and a paper doll feature that allows fashion-minded viewers to choose which clumsily drawn gown Odette should wear for her wedding. A sing-along feature offers a choice of five songs from the movie, or you can select a nifty option that will allow you to watch the film in its entirety with song lyrics provided as subtitles. There are also half a dozen trailers for other kid-friendly fare.
The Swan Princess proves that Disney doesn't have a monopoly on telling magical tales well, and it stands in its own right as a charming, enjoyable tale well told. Only 10 years after its release it can't help but seem to be a relic of a bygone era in animation, but that makes it all the more valuable: They truly don't make 'em like this any more. Snap this one up, whether for the kids or for yourself.
Columbia TriStar is sentenced to spend at least three centuries in the form of a frog for serving up this winsome title with such shoddy DVD treatment. All other parties are free to dance off into the sunset.
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