Monday, October 12, 2009

Lost Animation - The Swan Princess


For a good chunk of the 1990s, Disney was the undisputed king of the American animated feature film. With huge hits like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the studio seemed to have a lock on its audience that no other animation studio could break. But that doesn’t mean that no one tried.

Animator Richard Rich worked at the Disney Studios from the late 1970s into the mid-80s. After serving as co-director on The Fox and the Hound and the infamous The Black Cauldron, Rich left Disney to strike out on his own. He founded Rich Animation Studios and began producing a series of animated videos based on Bible stories. In 1994, when Disney was enjoying huge success with features based on classic tales, Rich Animation Studios released The Swan Princess, a feature film based on the ballet “Swan Lake.”

The studio’s first movie was not a financial success. Disney asserted its dominance once again, bringing its enormous blockbuster The Lion King back into theaters the weekend that The Swan Princess debuted. Swan Princess grossed just under $10 million domestically. Rich Animation Studios went on to produce a few more animated features and two direct-to-video sequels to The Swan Princess. They were eventually taken over by Crest Animation Studios of India after going bankrupt. The Swan Princess became little more than a footnote in the history of American animated films. But does it deserve to be more?

Visually, The Swan Princess is not a bad film, though it isn’t stunning either. There are good moments, but also parts where the characters’ movements feel stiff and the drawings are weak. The overall style feels very much like “Disney Lite,” lacking the level of craft and polish you would find in a Disney feature. The animation seldom rises above the level of merely okay, but it never gets distractingly bad either. The story, unfortunately, has bigger problems.

What’s really disappointing is that the plot actually gets off to a pretty good start. The monarchs of two neighboring kingdoms decide to fulfill their dream of uniting their realms by fostering a romance between their two children. (I don’t understood why the seemingly unattached King William and Queen Uberta can’t marry each other instead of messing around with their kids’ love lives.) The prince and princess are brought together every summer in the hopes that they will eventually fall in love. As young kids, they are both disgusted by this arrangement and each other. They spend more time tormenting each other than sowing the seeds of romance. Finally, the two of them go through puberty and when their annual meeting rolls around, they are each struck by the other’s beauty. Derek is so completely smitten that he wants to get married immediately. But Odette isn’t so sure. She asks Derek why he wants to get married to her and when he can’t come up with anything other than her appearance, she walks out on him.

Okay, so it isn’t the greatest premise in the world. But it does provide a twist on the standard fairy tale formula. It sets the audience up for a movie in which these two characters will learn to really love one another, not just appreciate one another’s outer beauty. If The Swan Princess is going to mimic the Disney films, at least it’s also going to copy the other studio’s formula for a more modern romance. Or so it would seem.

Shortly after leaving Derek’s castle, Odette’s carriage is attacked. Derek races to the rescue, but arrives too late. Odette’s father gives Derek a cryptic and unhelpful bit of information before dying. Odette herself is missing, and presumed dead by everyone but Derek. In reality, Odette has been abducted by the evil enchanter Rothbart, who plans to marry Odette in order to rule her kingdom. When Odette refuses him, he casts a spell on her into a swan except for when she’s on the lake where Rothbart is keeping her during a moonlit night.

For all of its initial good intentions, the movie seems to be punishing Odette for refusing Derek’s proposal. If she had decided to marry him and work on getting him to notice her other good qualities later, she would have been fine. But because she turned him down, she was returning home, which led to the attack on her carriage, her father getting killed, and Odette being imprisoned and turned into a swan. It’s a little unsettling and it only gets more so.

Some time passes. Derek is still convinced that Odette is alive and Odette is still stuck at the lake spending most of her time as a swan. Like most animated princesses, she has animal friends to tell her troubles to. She explains her predicament to Puffin, the new bird on the lake, simultaneously letting the audience in on the terms of her enchantment. The spell she’s under can only be broken by her one true love: Derek.

I was so surprised by this turn of events that I literally checked the DVD to make sure it hadn’t somehow skipped a scene. But no, Odette sees nothing wrong with singing a long distance duet with Derek about how their love will last “far longer than forever,” even though the last time she saw him she was refusing to marry him. It’s as if the movie started out with the idea of being about the process of these two people falling in love, then suddenly decided to just fall back on the traditional animated fairy tale plot, where the lovers are always in love and the drama comes from the outside forces that keep them apart. Odette’s insistence that Derek must love her for who she is – the most interesting thing about the film so far– seems to have been little more than a minor bump on the road to true love.

The movie goes on like this, dancing around the idea that its two protagonists have to learn what love is really about, but never actually having them learn anything. Odette is convinced that her suddenly beloved Derek will still recognize her in her swan form, which I guess make sense since they have known each other since childhood. Then she’s understandably miffed when he not only doesn’t recognize her, but tries to shoot her. Yet once they make it to the lake where Odette’s true identity is revealed, she seems nothing but happy to see her prince. I’m not sure whether she’s decided that she really does love him and the whole “love me for something other than my looks” thing was just bad judgment on her part or she’s so desperate to be permanently human again that her standards have dropped to the point where she’s not even mad at the guy for nearly killing her. The movie doesn’t seem to know either.

Derek isn’t doing much better. He does promise Odette that he will make “a vow of everlasting love” to her and “prove it to the world,” which will break the spell. Since Odette no longer cares why Derek is in love with her, she agrees to meet him at the palace the next night so he can announce his love during the ball being held there. But the evil Rothbart has overheard their plan and comes up with a scheme to transform his underling into an Odette look-alike and send her to the ball to trick Derek. This sounds like the perfect opportunity for Derek to prove that he’s no longer the shallow oaf who seemed shocked that Odette would want to be loved for anything other than her appearance by recognizing that the imposter is not his true love. But Derek hasn’t actually learned anything. He’s only spent something like five minutes with Odette since the two of them were reunited, which is not enough time for him to see all of the good qualities in her that he somehow missed previously. So when the imposter shows up in Odette’s place, Derek is stuck in the role of clueless victim. He has a vague inkling that there’s something different about Odette, but he goes ahead and makes his vow of love to the wrong woman. Only when the villains are openly gloating over the success of their plan does Derek realize his mistake. He still manages to break the spell, telling Odette that he loves her for her courage and her kindness. But even if it’s not too late to save Odette, it’s too late to believably show that Derek has grown and changed. The movie has apparently forgotten that while the audience has seen Odette acting courageous and kind, Derek wasn’t around for these scenes. He doesn’t know Odette any better than he did when he wanted to marry her solely for her beauty. He says the right thing in the end, but there’s no sense that the events of the movie have caused him to change and his declaration of love rings hollow.

The rest of the film does little to distract from the problems with the central love story. Rothbart is a decent enough villain, I guess. He is voiced by the late Jack Palance, which explains why he starts doing one-armed pushups partway through the movie. He gives a fine performance, but there’s not enough meat in the role for him to really create something memorable. Jean-Bob the frog who believes he is an enchanted prince is the only standout in the supporting cast and, despite being voiced by John Cleese, he is only mildly funny. The songs are mostly unmemorable and never come near Menken and Ashman’s best work. One or two of them manage to have pretty tunes or the occasional entertaining lyric, but they’re mostly just filler.

The Swan Princess is not a lost classic. It’s a movie that never really settles on what it wants to be. The film’s beginning promises the audience something fresh and new, but the movie never delivers on that promise. Instead it settles for old, tired clich├ęs that seemed woefully outdated even fifteen years ago. Without a strong story or clear central theme, it’s no surprise that this particular challenge to Disney’s supremacy ultimately failed.

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