The Swan Princess (1994)

The Swan Princess, a minor animated film released at the height of the Disney Renaissance, gets off to a sleepy start. Two monarchs decide to seal their friendship and kingdoms by promising their infant children in marriage. But rather than go about this the old fashioned way and force their issue to wed, they decide to arrange yearly playdates so that the young princess and prince can fall in love, naturally. When Odette (Michelle Nicastro, singing by Liz Callaway) and Derek (Howard McGillin) come of age and do start making eyes at one another, everyone is delighted, until Derek opens his big male mouth and proposes. Awestruck by Odette’s beauty, he stares blankly when she wonders what other attributes of hers he admires. The wedding is promptly cancelled. Odette escapes into a forest where she is confronted by the banished sorcerer Rothbart (Jack Palance) and turned into a swan.

That’s when things start to pick up. The story retains many plot points of its source, the ballet Swan Lake. Odette transforms back into human form at night, when the moonlight hits the lake, but has little hope of returning to her old life. Creepy old Rothbart isn’t going to let her fly away so easily and proposes every night in hopes that he can rule the kingdom as her consort. The guy is not at all coy about his plans, because men. Odette’s only chance at freedom is for Derek to vow his everlasting love to her. Kind of mixed messages on the feminism front; girls, demand to be respected for your whole person, but when in trouble, you gotta wait for the dude to come to your rescue.

Directed by Disney alum Richard Rich, The Swan Princess sits squarely in the average range when it comes to quality. (I spotted at least two Sleeping Beauty Easter eggs for those keeping track.) The characters look like they just dashed off the set of a Saturday morning cartoon and the dialogue suggests they took the scripts with them. There is the usual motley crew of talking animals, in this case French frog Jean-Bob (John Cleese), casual tortoise Speed (Steven Wright), and a puffin. They provide some daffy moments, especially Jean-Bob, that kids will enjoy, but they aren’t memorable characters.

Some of the animation has an ethereal quality, which I liked. The forest and lake suggest a dreamy, far-off place where all sorts of magic can happen. But it also seemed like the artists focused their talents on a few set pieces and ignored other details. You might recognize the special effects, when Rothbart casts his spells for example, as something from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television show.

Inconsistency is the key, but it also turns out to be a wonderful thing if you like your old Hollywood studio musicals. Out of nowhere bursts some showy MGM numbers, with titles like “Princesses on Parade” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. The brassy sound, the synchronized high kicks, the endless staircases – none of it matches the fairy tale tone of the rest of the movie. But for a few short minutes, those song and dance numbers add charge to the delicate storytelling. McGillin, who famously holds the record for most performances in the title role of Phantom of the Opera, also lends his considerable vocal power.

“No More Mr. Nice Guy”:

“Princesses on Parade”:

Released: 1994
Prod: Jared F. Brown, Richard Rich
Dir: Richard Rich
Writer: Brian Nissen
Cast: Howard McGillin, Michelle Nicastro, Jack Palance, Sandy Duncan, James Arrington, John Cleese, Steven Wright, Steve Vinovich, Liz Callaway
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

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