animated movie review

The Swan Princess: The Secret of the Castle (1997)

The Swan Princess: The Secret of the Castle is wild. This movie is a serious trip, like if you were high and thought, Swan Lake, but animated soap opera. I mean, these are the characters – Uberta, actual queen but really drama queen, Clavius, jealous sorcerer; Knuckles, oversized underling; Jean-Bob, delusional frog prince; Bridget, recovering henchwoman. And then there’s the dialogue, which here’s a sample – “You’ll always be a third rate villain inside,” “I warned you not to yak so much, but no, yak yak yak,” and “What are you, Miss Suzy Homemaker?” It could be the fact that I’m taking a truckload of flu meds right now, but this movie is bonkers.

It’s the second in a series of mostly direct to video releases. The original 1994 feature film, The Swan Princess, was a mildly faithful retelling of Swan Lake, and though it was no match for its Disney competitors, the movie had some standout song and dance numbers. Secret of the Castle sets out with an entirely new plot and pretty much discards Odette. After all she’s been through, what turning into a swan and all, she’s cast aside in favor of…her husband?

That’s right, Derek is the main protagonist. After defeating evil sorcerer Rothbart, he’s asserting his power, taking over castles, and totally forgetting about his first wedding anniversary. Ugh, men. But he apologizes by telling his wife, “I’m gonna do better, Odette. From now on, you come first. Everything else will just have to wait.” Girl. Odette still gets her moment of heroism and saves everyone’s ass, but she is more of a sidekick than the story’s raison d’être. Instead, Derek is tasked with the important duties. He has to prepare for an upcoming visit from the king of Lincolnshire, throw a big bash for his mother, Uberta’s, birthday, and make sure Rothbart’s disgruntled sorcery partner doesn’t destroy the kingdom. No biggie.

With such a noble to-do list, Derek doesn’t have much time for fun, which is why there’s a parade of nutty characters to fill the void. His mother is top nut, a sexagenarian monarch who wails about her birthday like she’s a six year old who wants all the cake. It’s no wonder that Clavius, disguised as a clown, kidnaps her, locks her in a dungeon, and turns her into a yak (see above). As for him, now that Rothbart is dead, Clavius wants to prove that he’s the better sorcerer by stealing the Forbidden Arts, which in this case is a magical orb and not a class at Hogwarts. The guy is petty AF though, even if he can rock a mean hot pink semi-air guitar. He has poor management skills and is easily baited by his nemesis, Uberta.

I will at least concede that Secret of the Castle is entertaining, even if it is objectively bad. Unlike other entries in this series, this one is keeps things moving. If there’s not a fire, there’s a rock slide, or a sand pit, or a lava pit to deal with. The talking animals are also amusing though not memorable.

Alt Title: The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain
Released: 1997
Prod: Jared F. Brown, Richard Rich
Dir: Richard Rich
Writer: Brian Nissen
Cast: Michelle Nicastro, Douglas Sills, Jake Williamson, Christy Landers, Donald Sage-MacKay, Doug Stone, Steve Vinovich
Time: 71 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

The Swan Princess Christmas (2012)

The original Swan Princess movie barely mustered a thumbs up rating on my Netflix, thanks mostly to its set of snappy showtunes. The Swan Princess Christmas, however, gets a hard thumbs down, several if that were possible. I would be more forgiving if it clocked in at 45 minutes, but at an hour and a half, this full length feature drains all the princess and Christmas spirit out of me.

Rothbart, the evil sorcerer killed in the first movie, is back with a vengeance, even if he doesn’t have a body to go with. He has it out for Derek, sorcerer slayer and prince hero to Odette, the erstwhile swan. The royal couple are blissfully in love and spending their first Christmas together, but all will not be merry if Rothbart gets his way. As he tells his hench-cat, the only thing more powerful than the dark arts is Christmas, so he’s going to destroy the happy holiday and…presumably get his body back?

The end game is not clear, and neither is the magic. Rothbart’s visible spirit is kept in a chest in the cellar where, it turns out, royalty also keep their Christmas decorations. Somehow his voice can still follow around Number 9, his cat, instructing the feline on the finer details of mischief-making. Only Derek can open the chest and unleash Rothbart’s spirit because dem’s the rules. Homeboy tries to make up for his mistake by rigging wind chime traps because wind chimes are like garlic and silver bullets to dead sorcerers.

While all this is brewing, folks are getting hyped about the holidays. Since Christmas Day is not celebration enough, this nameless kingdom also gets Ornament Day, essentially a glorified tree lighting ceremony. Queen Umberta is super wound up though; she’s whatever the Christmas version of a bridezilla is, and Rothbart does his best to exploit her fondness for tinsel and micromanagement.

For a movie called Swan Princess Christmas, you’d expect a little more Swan Princess for your buck. Odette supports her man, but it really seems to be Derek’s show this time around. He gets to sneak around the castle and do important stuff that will directly lead to the downfall of Rothbart while Odette gets to choreograph a song and dance number for the Christmas variety show. I mean, at least let her snowboard with her husband.

Once again the music saves the day, or at least it tries really hard to do so. Certainly the music is the best part of the movie. The songs have a teen pop quality about them, but I mean this in a complimentary Britney-Christina kind of way. The animation doesn’t serve the songs well though. The set design is done with minimal imagination, and the characters, or rather their hair, always look one step behind.

“Season of Love” (not to be confused with “Seasons of Love”:

“Season of Love” by Anna Graceman:

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:

“Christmas is the Reason”:

Released: 2012
Prod: Jared F. Brown, Richard Rich
Dir: Richard Rich
Writer: Yuri Lowenthal
Cast: Laura Bailey, Summer Eguchi, Yuri Lowenthal, Michaelangelo, Jennifer Miller, Joseph Medrano, Sean Wright, David Lodge, Catherine Lavine, James Arrington
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

I acknowledge there are serious gaps in my movie education, and it’s taken me a quarter century to finally watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. I also acknowledge that Tim Burton’s world is not one I regularly inhabit. As a dippy preteen in 1993 when this movie was released, I opted, and still do, for the babes in bonnets of Austenland. But like Jack Skellington discovering Christmas for the first time, I was overcome with a childish awe by the creativity of the story and animation, both of which hold up after twenty-five years. The movie enchants in a way few holiday films do – The Polar Express is one similar exception. Nightmare approaches Christmas with an absolute childlike wonder that has you seeing the holidays anew.

The magic of Christmas comes via Halloween and trees that act as portals to various holiday realms. Jack (Chris Sarandon), having spooked his way through yet another Halloween, laments his humdrum existence as scarer-in-chief. Life has become too predictable, and in a fit of melancholy, he takes a long walk through the woods to find himself. In doing so, he also finds the tree portals, which allow him to slip into Christmas Town.

It’s a whole new world, and Jack is overcome by the brightness of it all. With a spring in his step, he marvels that the “children [are] throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads,” that kids are sleeping snug as a bug with nothing lurking under their beds. And when he’s not referencing his own experiences, he just takes in the simple stuff – chestnuts roasting on an open fire, kissing underneath the mistletoe. His enthusiasm and sheer wonderment is contagious, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his excitement, even for the commonplace and cliché.

The movie leverages its high concept for real emotion, and it’s easy to see why it has become required viewing, except for me apparently. It has a grand time deconstructing holiday traditions and includes delightful scenes of deadpan levity, all to a soundtrack that mixes strains of menace with a touch of Broadway pizzazz. When Jack returns to Halloween Town bringing great tidings of this mysterious Christmas celebration, he hopes that the residents, which include vampires, werewolves, and various ghouls, will help him stage a well-intentioned takeover come late December. Jack diligently studies up, going so far as to distill the meaning of Christmas on a chemical level. He doesn’t quite get it, nor do his fellow residents. His explanation about stockings prompts a devilish trick-or-treater to wonder if there’s a foot still inside, and they seem most confused by the lobster king, Sandy Claws. Nevertheless, Jack is determined to shake the town and himself out of this ennui.

Creeping in the shadows is Sally (Catherine O’Hara), the monster in a Frankenstein-inspired subplot. She is the creature and captive of Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey) and has an eye for Jack. It’s disturbing to watch her character in the #MeToo era, though I imagine the sexism and abuse were always disturbing. Sally tries repeatedly to poison Dr. Finklestein, who wastes no opportunity to exert his power over her and to remind her that she literally owes her life to him. While Jack is trying to break free of his tedious existence, Sally is just trying to break free.

“This is Halloween”:

“Jack’s Lament”:

Jack discovers Christmas in “What’s This”:

“Kidnap Sandy Claws”:

“Making Christmas”:

“Oogie Boogie’s Song”:

“Sally’s Song”:

“Finale/Reprise”:

Released: 1993
Prod: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Dir: Henry Selick
Writer: Caroline Thompson
Cast: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glen Shadix
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Trolls Holiday (2017)

I’m not embarrassed by my sixth grade Trolls collection, but I also wasn’t nostalgic for the fad’s return in movie form a couple years ago. So it caught me off guard when those ugly, naked, neon-haired dolls sang and danced their way into my heart. Now they’re back for a bite-size holiday special, though holiday is a loose term.

Basically the trolls will celebrate anything – socks, party foam, getting slapped in the face – and they want to spread the holiday cheer. Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is especially eager to show her neighbors in Bergen Town how to live it up. You see, ever since the Bergens gave up Trollstice, their troll-eating festival, they haven’t had much to look forward to. Sure, they’re no longer blood thirsty murderers, but what’s to fill that void?

In parachutes Poppy and her gang with some ideas. No one is near as excited as she is about, well, anything in life, but the Trolls are a happy species (?) and they agree that they could teach the Bergens a thing or two about joy and sparkle, lots of sparkle. They mount a literal in-your-face song and dance for now Queen Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) and King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), hoping the royal couple will adopt one of the Trolls’ many holidays as their own.

It turns out that the Bergens aren’t really into all that though. Mosh-a-shan-a, in which everyone jumps around, is not their thing. Neither is Tickle Day, a chance to get tickle-attacked by furry green spiders. Balloon Squeal Day gets a definite thumbs down. There’s a lot more there, about a kajillion by Poppy’s count, and kids and adults with a kid’s enthusiasm will appreciate the bonkers creativity on display. It gets to be a bit of an overwhelming pile-on though, which is exactly the point.

It becomes too much for Bridget and she kicks out her best friend, but in the nicest way possible because she’s super sweet. Poppy, smarting from the rejection and not quite seeing why her good intentions aren’t universally loved and accepted, goes into another funk. Once again, it’s up to her perceptive pal, Branch (Justin Timberlake), to sing her back to her good senses, and when he does, oh, the celebration!

There is so much fun and heart in this tiny special, and I love every second of it. I mean, a caterpillar bus driven by a cloud man that spits out rainbow exhaust? Yes. A neon paneled outdoor skating rink? Check. Glitter everywhere? Definitely. (Though maybe the environmentally friendly kind.) Sure, it helps that the Trolls world also matches my color aesthetic, but you have to have a cold Trollstice-era Bergen heart if you don’t want to jump up and sing and dance with these guys. Kendrick and Timberlake lead the way again, and the pair are perfectly zany; she’s hyperactive and he’s still a little neurotic, because Branch is getting used to this happiness thing and hasn’t mastered the smile. Deschanel is also the dearest, purest ex-scullery maid ever.

My only issue is abbreviated song list. There are three main numbers that will get you moving, the finale “Holiday” in particular, but I’m greedy and I want more. Timberlake launches into an appealing friend-themed medley that could have lasted for a few more hours if I had my way. Even without a full soundtrack though, since this is only a twenty-odd minute special, the holiday feelings are all there. You wouldn’t even classify this as a Christmas movie; aside from a snowy Bergen Town and some ugly Christmas sweaters, you can play this any time of the year and still get the fuzzies. Ultimately, it’s about friendship, about listening to one another and loving the love we share, and this should be celebrated all the damn time.

Soundtrack sampler platter:

“Love Train” by all the Trolls:

Songs about friends by Justin Timberlake, sadly not my friend:

“Holiday” by Trolls and Bergens:

Released: 2017
Dir: Joel Crawford
Writer: Josh Bycel, Jonathan Fener
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, James Corden, Ron Funches, Kunal Nayyar, Icona Pop, Walt Dohrn, Kevin Michael Richardson
Time: 25 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: NBC
Reviewed: 2017

Joseph: King of Dreams (2000)

This small film will never be as popular as its cousins, Prince of Egypt and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which share the same animation studio and source material, respectively. But if we’re ranking Biblical entertainment, or things I can show my Catholic school students to kill time, then this would be one of my favorites. Short and sweet and with some great music to boot, even sans Whitney and Mariah, Joseph: King of Dreams does exactly what you want it to do.

It recounts the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis, favored son of Jacob and his wife Rachel and, of course, king of dreams. His parents lavish attention and resources on him, much to the envy of Joseph’s many brothers. Instead of working in the fields or herding sheep all day as they do, he gets to laze about, and that’s when he’s not also getting the benefit of an education. In addition, Mom sews him a fab coat, which is just too much for his brothers. They chuck him into a well and then sell him off to slavery.

In Egypt, Joseph’s intelligence earns him a place in a captain’s household. While Potiphar admires his industrious servant, his wife has other designs on the young, mostly barechested lad, and her advances land him in prison. Word of Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams reaches Pharaoh though, which is great because he’s been having some wild nightmares about crushed cows and zombie corn. Joseph prophesizes that famine is on its way, and he is elevated to one of the most powerful positions in the land in order to manage the coming crisis. When his long lost brothers come to Egypt looking for food, he has revenge in mind.

It’s a lot of story to tell, but there’s a lot of momentum and power in this compact plot. It packs a great emotional punch, much more so than Prince of Egypt or Technicolor Dreamcoat. I credit the music and its St. Louis Jesuits vibe. I doubt that’s what writer John Bucchino had in mind, but it will appeal to those who like 1970s-90s Catholic mass songs.

The movie opens with an exuberant number, “Miracle Child.” Joseph and his parents bang on about how he’s the best thing ever, making it easy to see why his brothers kind of hate him. But blame doesn’t settle easily on any one person. There is a lot of tenderness, mercy, and wonder too, and the song “Better Than I” demonstrates this beautifully. Joseph’s at his lowest point, figuratively and literally, and can do nothing but will his life to God. It’s a moving contrast from what he sings when he first arrives in Egypt. In “Whatever Road’s at Your Feet,” he also tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which is slavery. The buoyant lyrics and melody speak to his self-reliance though and much less to a higher power.

There are only a few things that diminish this production. One is the unfortunate casting of Ben Affleck as Joseph. I can’t tell if he’s congested or bored or if mopey is just an acting choice. I also didn’t care for the cheap and hasty hit job on Pharaoh’s dream sequence. There was an earlier Van Gogh-inspired one that pointed to the potential of the animation, which is still strong overall. These are minor grumbles though in a movie I’ve rewatched many times, and not even as a time filler for religion class. It’s moving, rewarding storytelling and one rich in love and forgiveness.

“Miracle Child”:

“Bloom”:

“Marketplace”:

“Whatever Road’s at Your Feet”:

“You Know Better Than I”:

“More Than You Take”:

Released: 2000
Prod: Ken Tsumura, Jeffrey Katzenberg
Dir: Rob LaDuca, Robert C. Ramirez
Writer: Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Joe Stillman, Marshall Goldberg
Cast: Ben Affleck, David Campbell, Mark Hamill, Richard Herd, Maureen McGovern, Jodi Benson, Judith Light, James Eckhouse, Richard McGonagle
Time: 75 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017