Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Swan Princess: 90s Feature Animation At Its Most "OK"

As the 1990s began, Disney's feature animation department was back on top with hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The other major Hollywood studios noticed this, and thought that maybe they could get a piece of this action as well. Much like today where nearly every studio in town is competing with Disney and Pixar in the CGI animation game, so it was for traditional animation in the 90s. Usually, this meant trying to copy the Disney "formula" of heroes, heroines, villains, comedy sidekicks and songs. Granted, you would sometimes get great off-the-beaten-path films like Cats Don't Dance or The Iron Giant (both of which will be covered in this blog), but that was the exception rather than the rule. And some of these films, like DreamWorks' first animated film The Prince of Egypt (which I will also cover), managed to transcend any formula borrowing through sheer quality.

Some of these attempts were even headed up by ex-Disney employees, such as Don Bluth (though he had been in competition with Disney since his first films in the 1980s) or the director of today's film, Richard Rich. Rich worked at Disney from the early 1970s to 1986, serving as director or co-director on projects such as Pete's Dragon, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. After Cauldron flopped big time (it very nearly killed the feature animation department altogether!), Rich left to found his own animation studio, which proceeded to make direct-to-video educational programs like Animated Stories from the Bible or Animated Hero Classics for churches and schools within the next several years. Then production began on The Swan Princess (I can't find an exact date, but my guess is around 1991 or 1992), and it opened in theaters on November 18, 1994. It flopped at the box office, but did well enough on video that it spawned two very, VERY bad direct-to-video sequels, also directed by Rich.

Very, very loosely based on Tchaikovsky's classic ballet "Swan Lake", The Swan Princess is perhaps the very definition of "OK". It's not a bad movie by any means, but nor is it particularly inspired or exceptional. It simply copies the Disney formula and does a fairly decent job at it. At least Don Bluth's films, even when they're bad, have a sort of weird fascination about them. Still, it's an interesting film to examine if only because it's fun to examine what almost any film does right and does wrong.

My problems unfortunately begin with the opening minutes of the film, where the backstory is set up by a boring narrator as the animated footage plays underneath, occasionally stopping to let the actual characters say something. We have seen narrated backstory before in animation, particularly in Disney films, but those usually do something interesting with it. Take Beauty and the Beast, where the warm, dulcet tones of David Ogden Stiers set up the Beast's major conflict over a series of beautiful stained-glass window images and then it's off to meet Belle. Or Aladdin, where the goofy merchant narrator established the film's comic style and tone by talking directly to the audience and interacting with the "camera".

Here, the backstory could have just as easily played out in real-time with no narration and given more breathing room. Instead, we end up rushing through things so quickly that the first song ("This Isn't My Idea") catches us off guard. And it's not even a BAD set-up for an animated movie. The elderly King William (voice of Dakin Matthews) has recently borne a daughter named Odette (no mention is made of the mother, and we are presumably meant to assume she died in childbirth); with Queen Uberta (voice of Sandy Duncan), a friend and ruler of a neighboring kingdom, they decide to try and matchmake to bring her son Derek and Odette together to unite their kingdoms.

This holds some promise, especially since the first song I mentioned covers how Derek and Odette initially can't stand each other, playing pranks and making mischief as children. There's also the introduction of the villainous sorcerer Rothbart (voice of Jack Palance), who promises to return and conquer William's kingdom after he is banished in the beginning of the movie. As "This Is My Idea" concludes, Derek and Odette are now grown up and respectively voiced by Howard McGillin and the late Michelle Nicastro.

Derek then manages to completely bungle things. When Odette asks him if there is anything else besides her beauty that he loves about her, he stammers out "What else is there?" Cue everyone in the audience AND the movie facepalming. Again, this idea holds a lot of promise since while Odette clearly likes Derek, she's obviously none too pleased with his answer, and it's neat to have such a flawed prince in a movie like this. In the aftermath scene where Derek is bemoaning his idiotic move, his servant Lord Rogers (Mark Harelik) gets the best line in the movie: "You should write a book: How To Offend Women in Five Syllables or Less!"

Unfortunately, that all gets thrown out the window in pretty short order. After William and Odette leave, their carriage is attacked by a "Great Animal" (a phrase that just sounds silly after about the fifth time someone says it), William dies and Odette is missing. Derek vows to find her, and starts practicing hunting in a time-killing musical number. Meanwhile, Uberta decides to try and find another princess for her son to marry since the whole "unite the kingdoms" idea has pretty much gone to pot.

Elsewhere, we learn that Odette has been captured by-surprise, surprise!-Rothbart, who has returned and regained his powers of dark magic. His castle lair is on Swan Lake, a tip of the hat to the film's inspiration. I suppose I should talk about him as a character for a bit. I'll give the movie some real credit: Rothbart is a pretty standard villain, but he's still quite a bit of fun. His plan is actually pretty smart in that he casts the "turn into a swan" spell on Odette so that he can try and woo her to marry him so he can take over the kingdom legitimately, and then the vow of everlasting love will break the spell. Kind of convoluted, sure, but I like Rothbart's reasoning when Odette asks him point-blank why he doesn't just take the kingdom by force with his magic: "Once you steal something, you spend your whole life fighting to keep it." Jack Palance is having a ball dining on the scenery with that great, gravely voice of his, although I have to confess there were a few moments where I was unintentionally reminded of his similar evil wizard adviser in the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 outing Outlaw (of Gor). His song "No More Mr. Nice Guy" (no, it's not an Alice Cooper cover) is the best in the film, a smooth jazzy number that doesn't overstay its welcome, and composer Lex de Avezedo does a nice job covering for Palance on the singing end.

Anyway, Odette unsurprisingly refuses to marry Rothbart, so he continues to keep her prisoner, and she meets her talking animal sidekicks for the movie pretty shortly afterwards. There's Jean-Bob (voice of John Cleese), an egotistical frog who believes that he is a human trapped under a spell and that only a kiss from a princess will break it; Speedy (voice of the eternally deadpan Steven Wright), a semi-ironically named turtle who is the voice of reason; and Puffin (voice of Steve Vinovich), a weirdly Scottish... puffin who acts like a military man. They're amusing enough, with Cleese and Wright providing most of the real laughs, and they do help the plot along once they discover Odette's plight and decide to help her, but otherwise they're pretty stock characters. Their song "No Fear" is also probably the worst in the movie; it's bland, annoying, repetitive and forgettable.

The animals end up helping Odette flee into the forest, where Derek and company are hunting for the Great Animal. While Derek mistakenly shoots at her, he does end up following her back to the lake where she transforms back into a human as the moon rises. They briefly reunite (Odette apparently having forgiven Derek for his bonehead comment), but Rothbart comes a callin', and they promise to meet the next night at a ball Uberta has arranged to try and hook Derek up with one of many visiting princesses. Unfortunately, Rothbart discovers Derek's bow and rather wisely locks Odette in the dungeon as a result. He then comes up with his plan (through the aforementioned song) to magically disguise his hag servant (yeah, he has one) as Odette so that Derek will make his vow of everlasting love to the wrong woman. This will, for some reason, cause Rothbart's spell to kill Odette. OK, remember what I said about Rothbart being a fairly smart villain? Yeah, that goes out the window here. What happened to taking over the kingdom legitimately so you wouldn't HAVE to fight off people? You're just being a dick now!

On the next night, the ball begins as a fairly enjoyable Busby Berkeley-style number called "Princesses on Parade"; it's catchy and fun, and moves us along rather nicely. Derek makes his vow to the wrong woman like the dolt he is after Odette (in swan form thanks to there being no moon) fails to warn him in time. Rothbart reveals the deception to Derek for... some reason, and he races back to Swan Lake to try and save Odette, who's back in human form. She sadly seems to die, and a furious Derek demands that Rothbart save her since he's the only one who can. "Only if you can defeat... me!" cackles the sorcerer, and he transforms into-gasp!-the Great Animal.

Now, I'm of two minds about this final battle. On the one hand, it's a very well-done action scene of its kind (it's no Maleficent dragon fight or Giant Ursula, but it's pretty exciting nonetheless), with good animation/direction, and I like that Derek doesn't fight fair at all. On the other hand, the Great Animal ends up looking like a giant, demonic fruit bat, and that just makes me laugh when I probably shouldn't be. Anyhoo, Derek kills Rothbart by shooting him with an arrow passed to him by his sidekick, and this breaks the spell, returning Odette to life... somehow. The movie ends with happiness and marriages all around in typical Disney-esque fashion.

You've probably figured out my main problem with this movie by now. It has a lot of really good set-up material, but fails to pay most of it off in interesting or unique ways. I'll give Odette some credit for having a backbone to stand up to Rothbart and taking proactive steps in her own rescues, but otherwise there's really not much to her aside from her desire for Derek to love her for being herself rather than anything on the outside. Derek starts off as interesting and flawed, and I suppose his actions do show that he DOES truly love Odette, but he's not really put through the wringer aside from the Odette death fake-out. The supporting cast provides comic relief but is otherwise fairly generic, and even Rothbart is let down by the narrative.

The Swan Princess admittedly does look and sound rather nice. The animation obviously isn't on the level of the stuff that Disney, Warner Bros., Universal's Amblimation or Don Bluth were doing around the same time, but it still looks like an actual FILM rather than a trumped-up direct-to-video project. There's a lot of good character animation, the effects work on Odette's transformations is very nicely done, the colors are not too bright or garish, and the backgrounds are quite lovely. The voice acting is solid all around, although I have to wonder why Nicastro doesn't get to do her own singing since she was already a Broadway vet by this point. Nothing against the equally lovely and talented Liz Callaway, but it is a tad odd. McGillin makes the most of his disjointed character, Duncan has some nice comedy bits, Cleese and Wright steal their scenes, and I already mentioned my enjoyment of Palance's work.

The songs are.... eh. When they're not enjoyably silly like "No More Mr. Nice Guy" or "Princesses on Parade", they're bland and boring, especially the unintentionally goofy love song "Far Longer Than Forever". I really wish that the songs and even the score had taken more inspiration from Tchaikovsky; it would have been a really interesting sound for an animated film, especially since Fantasia had done such a great job with his "Nutcracker Suite" several decades earlier.

Really, The Swan Princess isn't bad; it's certainly a more agreeable viewing experience than Bluth's two 1994 animated Disney rip-offs (Thumbelina and A Troll in Central Park). But it's disappointing that it settles for routine when it could have been so much more.

As I noted before, other animated films like Cats Don't Dance, The Iron Giant and The Prince of Egypt are on my radar, and I'll probably end up covering other Disney and non-Disney films as well. See you next time!

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