Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Recent Watches: The Swan Princess (1994)

Animation was big business in the nineties, thanks to the overwhelming success and popularity of the Disney Renaissance. Many films would appear in the wake of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” seeking to cash in on the public’s apparent demand for beautifully animated fairy tales featuring hit soundtracks. Many of these copy-cat films bombed, even the few that had the professionalism of animation auteur Don Bluth behind them. One such film was “The Swan Princess,” the most blatant attempt to emulate Disney this side of Filmation’s “Happily Ever After.”

Inspired by the ballet “Swan Lake,” the film follows Princess Odette and Prince Derek. The children of different kingdoms, the two are arranged to be married through a ridiculous scheme that has them meeting every summer, in hopes the two will fall in love. Baffling, exactly this happens. Despite loving her, Derek’s shallow appreciation of Odette’s beauty drives her away. Meanwhile, an evil sorcerer named Rothbart with a bone to pick with Odette’s dad, kills the king and kidnaps Odette. He curses her to become a swan, only assuming human form under the light of the moon. Derek prepares to find his love, unaware that of what’s happened to her or who is responsible.

“The Swan Princess” was directed by Richard Rich, a former Disney animated who also made “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Black Cauldron.” Like Don Bluth before him, Rich left the Mouse Factory to start his own studio, attempting to create a glossy look on a fraction of the budget. (Another weird coincidence: Bluth and Rich are both Mormons.) At the time of its release, “The Swan Princess” received some faint praise for its animation. And I suppose the animation is fine. It’s about par with some of Don Bluth’s lesser films. However, there’s something unappealing about the way “The Swan Princess” looks. The character designs are dull. The animation is sometimes stiff. The colors are flat. More then once, the film resembles television-grade animation. It has the crisp lines and painted backgrounds of other cel-animated films but not of the life or energy.

While Rich and his team made some ambitious attempts to copy the Disney look on far less money, “The Swan Princess” is staggeringly unambitious in story and personality. Odette and Derek have one of the least appealing romances of any animated film. Despising each other as kids, they fall in love as young adults… Because they do. Rothbart wants to rule the kingdom… Because he does. Odette has a trio of comic relief animal sidekicks, most of which are incredibly annoying and bring little to the plot. Because that wasn’t enough, Derek has a comic relief sidekick to, in the form of Bromley, a portly guy with a stutter that hangs around him. An especially obnoxious scene has Derek trying to kill the swan, unaware that it's Odette, because of a staggeringly stupid series of coincidences. The movie maintains some of the original ballet’s plot, such as the business with the Black Swan and the prince accepting her nearly killing Odette. That a happy ending is added on isn’t shocking. How sloppy and half-assed that happy ending is… Well, it’s not shocking either. It just speaks to how lazy “The Swan Princess” is.

Somehow, Rich managed to wrangle a decent voice cast into appearing in this thing. I don’t mean Michelle Nicastro or Howard McGillin as Odette and Derek, both of whom are utterly generic. I mean the supporting parts. John Cleese sports a ludicrous French accent as Jean-Paul, a frog who has a ludicrous French accent for no particular reason. Not even a performer as energetic as Cleese, an expert at getting the best out of shitty material, can bring any life to this. Famously dry Steven Wright brings some of his dry charm to Speed the turtle. Wright is one of the film’s saving grace. The script never allows him to be funny but he actually seems to be putting some sort of energy or wit into the part. Most odd of all is Jack Palance, slumming as hard as possible as the villain Rothbart. Just two years after winning an Oscar, Palance brings his famously gravelly voice to the part. Though the character is as thin as can be, Palance at least has a little bit of fun. He is, after all, playing some kind of friggin’ wizard.

Of course, “The Swan Princess” is a musical. The crappy attempt to rip off Disney wouldn’t be complete without some half-assed songs. Hoo boy, are these songs half-assed! The songs frequently feature multiple singers, in a truly odious Broadway style with many characters chirping in. “This is My Idea” is sickeningly long, seeming to stretch on for the entire opening portion of the film. “Practice, Practice, Practice” brings whatever pacing the film has to a total and complete halt, as it moves the plot forward in no way at all. “No Fear” searches hopelessly for a melody. The same could be said of “Far Longer than Forever,” the film’s attempt at a love theme, which also features no memorable lyrics. “Princesses on Parade” is the worst kind of pseudo-Disney shit I’ve ever heard, an achingly lame bit of music. Lastly, the movie makes no attempt to match up its talking voice actors with its singing voice actors. The guy who sings the villain’s song, the utterly embarrassing “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” does not even attempt a Jack Palance impersonation. The songs are bad. The movie is bad.

Like a lot of other attempts to copy the Disney formula, “The Swan Princess” bombed at theaters, only grossing 9 million dollars. Despite this, the film would still spawn a franchise of crappy direct-to-video sequels. (This is in addition to the many other crappy straight-to-video cartoons Rich would make, like the terrible “The King and I” adaptation, some fucking thing called “The Scarecrow,” and the string of sequels to “Alpha and Omega.”) “The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain” followed in 1997, with “The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom” coming in ’98. The series made the move to ultra-cheap CGI with the late “The Swan Princess Christmas” in 2012. Baffingly, the series continues to this very day with “The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale” being released just last year. Jesus Christ! Who’s watching these things? Not me, I can tell you that. I can’t speak to the quality of the sequels but of the original, I can say this: “The Swan Princess” is swan shit. [3/10]

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