Friday, April 13, 2007

Movie Review: The Swan Princess (1994)

Seeing as I've watched pretty much all the animated musical Disney films of the 90s lately, I've moved on to the animated musicals that other companies made in a bid to cash in on the Golden Age of Animation Disney briefly revived. One of those was The Swan Princess, based on the story of Swan Lake, naturally.

Now, I could complain about the visuals, and how the facial expressions on the human characters looked kind of weird or they moved oddly, but let's face it, I've watched a lot of animated films and the only ones who've managed to make humans move realistically are Disney, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers (with The Iron Giant - the only animated movie they made), and Don Bluth (and Don Bluth is borderline). Also - in a film whose hand-drawn water- and light- animation effects were actually fairly decent, the Swan Princess folk inexplicably switched to CG to portray the rippling of the lake, but only for the last five minutes of the film. ANYWAY...

There's no question of Prince Derek and Princess Odette being made for each other - the movie explains how they've been forced to spend every summer together because their ambitious parents hope to unite their two kingdoms through matrimony. Of course, the parents aren't quite ambitious enough to force them to marry if they don't want to, which seems a bit wishy washy. "What if Odette's not for the merger?" her dad asks in the catchy opening tune "This Is My Idea." Derek's suspiciously elderly-looking mother replies, "URGE HER!"

For most of these enforced summers, Derek and Odette have not gotten along, and the accompanying musical number accords the bad feeling to Derek's childhood fear of cooties and adolescent discomfort with losing at cards to a girl. Magically enough, on the last summer, when they are both (presumably) of age, they take one look at each other, the hormones (belatedly) kick in, and Derek says, "You're hot, let's hook up," and Odette says, "Like, yeah, okay." Sadly, Odette realizes that Derek, for all his hotness, still possesses one fatal flaw: he is as DUMB AS A POST. She asks, "Yes, I'm beautiful - but what else?" and Derek, with royal aplomb, replies (and I'm accurately quoting here), "Well, what else is there?" Which makes sense in a way - since they've probably spent more than ten summers determinedly avoiding each other, it stands to reason the only thing that made Derek perk up this year was the fact that Odette grew boobs and blond hair during the interim.

As one might expect, the wedding is promptly called off and Odette leaves in a huff. It is at this point that the film's villain, an evil sorcerer named Rothbart (played with whispery camp by Jack Palance), whose previous attempt at a coup on Odette's kingdom was foiled, swoops down on Odette's carriage, whisks her off, and puts her under a spell that changes her into a swan by sunlight and a human by moonlight in order to persuade her to marry him. Yes, that's right - he wants to marry her because he's too lazy to try to take the kingdom by force. Anyway, since he used magic to do the kidnapping, all Odette's father can say under questioning was that Odette was attacked "by a great animal" (Rothbart in disguise, natch).

Naturally, Derek hears the cryptic witness statements "great animal," "not what it seems," and "Odette gone," and is determined to use all of his intellectual powers, however woefully limited, to get Odette back and thus prove that he doesn't only love her boobs, he loves the heart underneath her boobs, which he bet he would have been able to say if Odette hadn't interrupted him with that unlady-like snit-fit. He and his friend Bromley (a chap with an interchangeably British-Australian accent who's a dead-ringer for Beauty and the Beast's evil sidekick Lafou) spend a few humorous slapstick scenes practicing archery, before Derek comes up with the lamebrained idea that a "great animal" that is "not what it seems" can only be a transforming animal, so his entire plan is to head off into the forest and literally shoot anything that moves. Bromley agrees. Their friendship seems primarily based on the fact that Bromley is the only character who's more of an idiot than Derek is, so this isn't surprising.

Guess who he almost shoots? That's right - Odette, in swan-form. Odette, having had a few days (weeks?) to get accustomed to her spell (and its cure: kiss a dude and have him make an everlasting vow of love and prove it to the world), comes to the conclusion that Derek is a dude, and seems to like her, so she might as well call him her soulmate and have a whole drippy song number about how they're meant to be ("Longer than Forever") despite the fact that she already established that she really didn't want anything to do with him only a few days (weeks?) before. But seeing as how the spell is really crimping her style, I guess she figures Derek'll do.

And let's not forget her new talking-animal friends: being stuck on a lake, naturally her new buds are all aquatic creatures - Speedy the turtle, Jean-Bob the frog (played by John Cleese in a hilarious French accent), and some kind of Scottish puffin with a penchant for military catchphrases - they are present for the requisite song-and-dance numbers and comic relief, but aren't all that memorable past the silly but rather sweet subplot that Jean-Bob believes he's really a prince who needs a kiss to break his own spell.

Well, these creatures help Odette lure Derek to her lake, where she turns back into a girl in time for Derek to NOT shoot her. She relays the whole story to Derek, who comes up with an idea: the next night his mother's planned a "There's Plenty More Fish In the Sea" ball for Derek to find a new wife, so if Odette shows up then, he can make the vow in front of a crowd of people, which should meet the "prove to the world" condition as well. Unfortunately, they forget about the new moon the next night, which means she's stuck as a swan, so Rothbart (not handling Odette's constant rejection very well) uses a spell to change his maid into Odette's doppelganger to go in her place, adding a not-before-mentioned plot point that if Derek swears his love to another girl, Odette will die. How convenient...

Derek, having evidently been hit on the head as a child, is easily fooled. Odette collapses, Derek screams a few Darth-Vader style "NOOOOOOO"s, kills Rothbart with his manly prince fighting powers, and that, apparently, breaks the spell and revives Odette. Happy endings are had by all.

Not quite. Twitchy visuals aside, the movie's not all that bad (and certainly better than Quest for Camelot), partially because on many levels it knows it's silly, so it just runs with it for the most part. The setting is quasi-medieval and vaguely European, and no real names or time periods are mentioned, so they can have an excuse to have arrows and horsies and ball gowns everyday. The comic setpiece where Derek hunts the musicians is pretty funny, as well as the "This is My Idea" musical number, and the character of Rogers, as Derek's sarcastic valet, brightens up the pace considerably.

But...The main characters are borderline unbearable. Odette's nice, but we don't get to know her very well - she spends much of the movie giggling, giving cheering advice, or crying her eyes out because Rothbart's a meanie. I mean, at the end, when Derek tries to revive her, he says "It wasn't just your beauty, it was your kindness and your courage," etc. etc. - I kept wondering: "Derek, you are mentally challenged - how could you realize something that even I didn't get?" To describe Derek, I'll have to quote Disney villain Scar, in that "the lights are not all on upstairs." Dude is stupid, man. Really - and he's going to end up as KING of TWO kingdoms - how's that going to work out?

And as for the songs, there's one catchy number ("This is My Idea"), a silly-but-pleasant one ("No More Mister Nice Guy" - Rothbart's jazzy explanation of how he's going to go apeshit on Odette's kingdom once he takes over), one song that is annoying in how memorable it is ("Longer than Forever" - I keep humming the refrain, dammit, despite not remembering anything else) and a few that are simply awful in their tackiness (like "No Fear" - the one song they stuck with in the lame sequels).

I think one of reasons I didn't like the songs much in this film is because they didn't seem to segue smoothly into the narrative. In most animated musicals, the song arises out of, or is inspired by something the characters are already doing. But in Swan Princess, it's the other way around - it's like they wrote the songs first and had to write the story around THEM, so what happens is that the characters will suddenly suggest a half-assed special event (let's steal a map! Let's have a beauty pageant! Let's hunt musicians for sport!) that really isn't relevant to the story at all, that then transforms into a cheesy number ("No Fear," "Princesses on Parade," and "Practice," respectively). Interestingly enough, the lyricist for the tunes was Dave Zippel, who if memory serves went on to pen the lyrics for Disney's Hercules, which were pretty good.

Still, despite some good-natured humour, the songs are cheesy, the main characters unsympathetic, and the animation is distracting. Really, it's not that bad (even stupid people deserve to fall in love), but it's not that good either.

Crush du Jour Rating:
Ron is reasonably amused. (Translation: "M'eh.")

1 comment:

  1. I don't think the movie captured much of anything but it is a great concept and can be the launching pad for fun conversations about bromances.