THE SWAN PRINCESS (1994)


Several acclaimed and popular movies turned twenty this year, and each bears significance to at least one person in this world.  While I am thankful for 1994 movies like Pulp Fiction, The Lion King, and Ed Wood, one less-than-acclaimed film, whose anniversary is today, has been on my mind quite a lot recently.  It’s Richard Rich’s The Swan Princess, a film whose appeal somehow stayed with me despite two decades of maturation and a much more expansive view of animation’s capabilities.

I first saw The Swan Princess upon its home video release in 1995, back when anything animated (especially anything by or similar to Disney) immediately got my attention.  It’s one of the first feature-length videos I remember getting without having seen the movie, which likely contributed to my longstanding impulse to buy movies blindly.  I think even at the age of five I recognized it was closer to the Disney level of quality than fellow competitors like Thumbelina.  Nowadays I can easily name the ways it comes up short both on its own and in comparison to other fairy tale films, but there are still a few factors that keep me watching this movie other than nostalgia.

In this liberal adaptation of Swan Lake, Princess Odette (spoken by Michelle Nicastro, sung by Liz Callaway) and Prince Derek (Howard McGillin) are betrothed to each other, but the banished sorcerer Rothbart (Jack Palance) spirits Odette away and enchants her so she is a swan by day and a human by night.  Derek goes off in search of her while she tries to contact him with the help of her animal friends.  Once they reunite, Derek must vanquish Rothbart and prove his love for Odette in order to break the spell.


That the movie is even halfway good is surprising considering the director’s other credits.  Richard Rich's films, both at Disney and at his own Rich Animation Studios, have ranged from cloying (The Fox and the Hound) to overcooked (The Black Cauldron) to outright bizarre (The King and I).  Indeed, The Swan Princess is the only Rich movie I feel has both a decent enough story and a pleasing visual style.

Admittedly, this plot is nothing if not padded.  It moves at a fairly brisk pace for the first eighteen minutes, but then it slows down and spends three lengthy sequences introducing extra characters and enacting slightly extraneous comedy.  The momentum does not entirely recover after that, but I actually don’t consider that a serious problem.  The relative lack of urgency gives the film a calm and leisurely energy, and while that does not lend itself to exciting storytelling, it makes this movie an easygoing experience, especially compared to some of the loud and overstuffed animated features of today.

The best aspects of the story are the broad changes it makes to Swan Lake.  In the ballet, the prince first meets the princess when he sees her transform from swan into human, and he instantly falls in love.  Here, Odette and Derek have known each other their whole lives and are already in love, which magnifies the stakes and adds something of an adventurous rescue element.  Changes like these suggest Rich (briefly) had a better understanding of how to adapt fairy tales than other non-Disney productions.  (Compare the measures in Swan Princess to those in Thumbelina, which tries to update the characters while forgetting to change the ickier parts of the original story.)


For the most part, the characters are a pleasant bunch.  Some of them are performed better than they are written (particularly Derek and Rothbart), while others are matched pretty evenly (I never fail to chuckle at Mark Harelik as Lord Rogers, Derek’s haughty advisor).  The animal sidekicks have plenty of comedic moments, but they are subdued enough that they fit within the film’s sprightly yet laid-back tone, and there is a nice balance between the animals that are just there to support the heroine (Speed the turtle and Puffin, played by Steven Wright and Steve Vinovich, respectively) and those with their own subplots (Jean-Bob the frog, played by John Cleese).

The only grey area among the characters is Odette herself.  She’s likable, but the movie cannot decide what kind of heroine she should be.  She starts the film as a fairly assertive woman who breaks off her engagement when it appears Derek only appreciates her beauty.  After she is kidnapped, she flip-flops between being defiant and being a damsel in distress.  (Almost every scene she shares with Rothbart has her refusing his advances and then breaking into tears when she’s reminded of the spell.)  Plus the disagreement that split her and Derek apart is never addressed again, calling into question why she’s still in love with the pig.  These issues are not necessarily enough to override her genial if wan presence, but it is one of the areas in which this movie misses the mark.

The film’s animation aims higher than the cheapness of Rich's Disney tenure but lower than the elaborate films of either Disney's renaissance or Don Bluth.  The Fox and the Hound exemplifies the shortcuts Disney took in the late 1970s and early 1980s: blandly designed characters, flat backgrounds, and minimal effects.  The Swan Princess continues some of these flaws (Derek has some dumb-looking expressions, and there is a distinct lack of shadows), but there are also some strides in the right direction (there are occasional moments of environmental depth, and I love the airborne dust particles when Derek is hunting in the forest).  Based on the recollection of Steven E. Gordon, who was the Character Designer, the Animation Director, and the Supervising Animator for several characters, the staff had to be stretched thinly, so it’s easy to understand why they could not go very far, but that makes how far they could go more impressive.

Music, in terms of both quality and use within the story, is one department in which Rich consistently has had the wrong instinct.  (In The King and I, he found a way to make Rodgers & Hammerstein songs feel like filler.)  This is not greatly improved in The Swan Princess, where two songs keep the story moving and the remaining four prolong the comedy and romance.  Lex de Azevedo’s melodies are agreeable, but David Zippel comes up with some truly awkward rhymes (“This plan if applied’ll/Be simply suicidal”).  Thankfully, only one song feels misguided, and that’s Rothbart’s jazzy and colorful number about how he’s going to kill the leading couple.  Most of the others are diverting but nonessential.

The best song, and the one sequence that even some of the film’s detractors enjoy, is the opening number, “This is My Idea.”  It follows Odette and Derek from hating each other as children to falling for each other as adults.  Even though the melody sounds like it’s emulating “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, the song aids the story immensely by condensing a large part of it and introducing us to the characters.  The number is also, to my knowledge, the first passage-of-time song in an animated musical.  That’s the kind of song where, instead of just playing a song over a montage, each verse shows the character(s) a little later in life and we learn how much they have changed.  (Think of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Frozen.)  While it is certainly far from the ambition or talent of similar songs like “A Bowler Hat” from the Broadway show Pacific Overtures, it is the film’s boldest attempt to do something new in an animated feature, and it works charmingly.

In some ways The Swan Princess is just another imitation of Disney’s greatest hits, but in other ways it is a cute and solid family movie, and I’m not the only person who thinks so.  I’ve had the opportunity to speak with four of the actors at autograph sessions (Liz Callaway, Mark Harelik, Steve Vinovich, and John Cleese), and each person seemed appreciative of my remembrance and enjoyment of the film.  That the people involved are glad they did the movie shows it must be doing something right despite its lack of success.  As one of the select few it has entertained for twenty years, I can say it has always been a fun little movie, and I will continue to enjoy it flaws and all.

P.S. About the sequels…

The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain a.k.a. The Secret of the Castle – A guilty pleasure, partly for how it makes Odette a more consistently strong character
The Swan Princess III and the Mystery of the Enchanted Treasure (I am dead serious about that title) – Blisteringly annoying
The Swan Princess Christmas – Numbingly insipid

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2011



I wish I could say I saw all of the movies featured in that trailer. School, alas, prevented me from doing so, but at least I did squeeze some good ones into my schedule. Here, in order of when I saw them, are the movies I watched at the 49th New York Film Festival.

Melancholia – R
Lars von Trier writes and directs this eerie story about the end of two worlds. The first collapse is an intangible one, of a bride (a moving Kirsten Dunst) losing her mind over the course of a disastrous wedding reception. The second and better half shows the bride, her sister (a wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law (a potent Kiefer Sutherland) witnessing the imminent collision of Earth with the planet Melancholia, brought to life through simple yet entrancing special effects. The uniformly superb cast successfully maintains von Trier’s sad and gloomy tone even in the film’s more jovial moments. From its artful opening montage to its beautifully terrifying final shot, Melancholia works very well as both science fiction and as a personal drama.
This review was originally published by The Fordham Observer.

A Separation – PG-13
When an Iranian couple (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) divorces, the husband hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is stricken with Alzheimer’s. A terrible incident sparks an endless parade of accusations and revelations that turns employee against employer, spouses against spouses and children against parents. Asghar Farhadi’s deeply involving drama withholds many details in this affair to let each viewer debate the facts long after the movie ends. This film is subtly tense, deftly puzzling and tenderly human, creating an impartial mystery in which even characters who do not appear deserving of sympathy earn it.

Miss Bala – R
Gerado Naranjo has fashioned a genuinely exciting action film about a beauty pageant contestant who is forced into the world of Mexican drug trafficking. Every single scene is told from her perspective, which works thanks to Stephanie Sigman’s appealing performance. Naranjo uses long takes throughout the film to build an impressive amount of suspense. One major shortcoming is the escalating sexual advances the gang leader (Miguel Couturier) makes on the girl. These scenes are distracting and somewhat plodding, adding little to her already humiliating situation. The film is much more stirring when it focuses on the girl acting alone as hostage and forced accomplice.

My Week with Marilyn – R
Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn is a biopic whose adoration for its subject, Marilyn Monroe, is so strong it renders the film a little insufferable. Set during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), it has so many moments that exclaim, “Wow, what a beautiful and tragic star she was” that there are too few introspective scenes. Michelle Williams gives a fine performance as Monroe, but the real treat is Kenneth Branagh’s highly entertaining take on Sir Lawrence Olivier. The actors are good enough to warrant a slight recommendation, but if you want a real tribute to Monroe’s talents, just watch Some Like It Hot (1959) if you haven’t seen it before (or lately).

Goodbye First Love – NR
Mia Hansen-Løve’s story of a young French girl’s loss of her first love and how she moves on with a new one is the only movie I saw this year that I would unreservedly say is bad. It is full of dull, mopey characters whose self-centered demeanors failed to earn any of my sympathy; I suppose it may have been Hansen-Løve’s point to paint a picture of how childish first love can be, but painting a picture so thoroughly sullen does not build solid interest. As I watched the movie, there were times when I would much rather have followed the horses in the background than spend any more energy focusing on the drab humans.

The Descendants – R
In Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways (2004), George Clooney plays a father who must reconcile with his family after his wife goes comatose in a boating accident. This is Clooney’s best performance since Michael Clayton (2007), mixing frustration and heartbreak with a despairing hope that things will get better. The rest of the movie does not match up, for it fails to integrate drama and comedy into a cohesive whole. While the comedy in Sideways is an extension of the drama, the jokes in The Descendants feel more like bald, inorganic relief from the surrounding sadness. The overall film is competent yet uneven, but Clooney makes it absolutely worth seeing.

THE MILL AND THE CROSS - Not Rated



Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross is a good movie that falls aggravatingly short of excellence. The film, which opens at Film Forum on Sept. 14, shows us riveting visuals as it ponders the source of artistic inspiration. Two recurring and vexing flaws spoil the atmosphere and ultimately hinder what should have been a lovely piece of work.

THE LION KING Rereleased in 3-D: One Dimension Too Many?



This weekend, Disney’s The Lion King returned to theaters for a two-week 3-D engagement. This release is the latest in a small trend of 3-D reissues that began five years ago with Disney’s reissue of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Beloved films that have not been seen in theaters for years are being converted into 3-D prints for theatrical exhibition. While this is still an evolving practice, one should consider whether it should be happening at all. Are 3-D reissues spoiling classic movies, or are they a modern outlet for seeing notable older films in theaters again?

SUMMER 2011 IN REVIEW

Now that the summer movie season is in its last week, I'm going to reflect a bit on the highs and lows of this year's crop. Since I was not writing for a newspaper this summer, I did not see as many summer movies as I have previously. This list marks selected movies I did see (in current order of preference) with annotations of their particular achievements. The only movie I excluded, Crazy, Stupid, Love., was not bad, but it did not have anything too distinctive.

THE TREE OF LIFE - PG-13



Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life has been by far the most difficult movie for me to review. I did not have much trouble understanding it, but it has taken tremendous effort for me to describe and interpret the film. Even now, I’m unsure if I am properly relaying the sheer artistry of Malik’s latest endeavor. I can only suggest in broad strokes what I hope you will discover yourself and say the film’s mysterious images, meditative pace and celestial themes make it one of the most enthralling motion picture experiences in recent years.

WINNIE THE POOH - G



Disney’s Winnie the Pooh is one of the most altogether pleasing family films in some while. For very young children, its straightforward narrative is bright and friendly without the adult sensibility of Rango, the violence of Kung Fu Panda 2 or the potentially overwhelming scariness of Toy Story 3. For parents, it is a diverting reminder of things they enjoyed as children. For Disney aficionados, it is an affectionate revitalization of the style initiated in the 60s and 70s Pooh cartoons. For anyone, the whole film is simply smashing.