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


Anonymous said...

Great write-up of an overlooked film!

Anonymous said...

Great write-up of an overlooked film!

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