The Swan Princess is one of the films released in the 90’s that was a sort of competition to Disney, because up until the release of Toy Story, which was distributed by Disney and made by a company later bought by Disney, and The Prince of Egypt, Disney really seemed like the only king in animated films.
The Swan Princess is directed by Richard Rich, who once worked for Disney, his final project being the incredibly dark and unsuccessful The Black Cauldron. Richard Rich is also responsible for bringing us the terrible animated version of The King and I, which failed to really make a connection to me as a child, while the epic 2+ hour-long Anna and the King did.
The Swan Princess is based off of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which means that the name of Princess Odette comes from the character in the Ballet, not Odette in Remembrance of Things Past. In The Swan Princess, we see Odette (Michelle Nicastro) and Prince Derek (Howard McGillan) growing up together due to a scheme their parents, King William (Dakin Matthews) and Queen Uberta (Sandy Duncan) respectively, have come up with. The two despise each other, but later grow closer. But after Derek announces his intention to marry Odette for her beauty, he is questioned on why he doesn’t want to marry her for deeper reasons. Odette and William leave, only to be ambushed by a Great Animal, who is really the evil sorcerer Rothbart (Jack Palance), who kidnaps Odette and apparently kills King William. This is really only ever implied because we see no blood but hear a lot of gasping for air and when Derek arrives, he is too busy wondering where Odette is to clarify to us if William just died. He’s also never seen again in the film, so I’m assuming he died.
Rothbart’s “evil plan” is that he will marry Odette to have control of the kingdom. So even though he just killed the king, he would rather try to get Odette to marry him than just assume control. In the meantime, Odette is stuck as a swan on a lake, but transforms into a human while she is on the lake and the moon hits the water. She is joined by Jean-Bob (John Cleese), a delusional frog that thinks he’s a frog prince; Lorenzo Trudge-Along (Steven Wright), an Eeyore-esque turtle; and Puffin (Steve Vinovich), a Scottish puffin. While Odette is presumed to be able to speak because she’s an enchanted human, the other characters can just speak. In the meantime, Derek obsesses over the disappearance of Odette and what the Great Animal might be, although he almost shoots Odette in Swan Form multiple times because the Great Animal is a winged creature.
There are many differences between Swan Lake and The Swan Princess. Instead of Prince Siegfried, we have Prince Derek, and in this version, Derek and Odette are childhood friends, while in the ballet, Siegfried meets Odette when he goes to shoot a swan. The swan-maidens have been replaced by Jean-Bob, Lorenzo Trudge-Along, and Puffin. Instead of Odile, Rothbart’s daughter, being disguised as Odette, we have The Hag (Bess Hopper) being transformed into Odette. We have a Great Animal that’s a giant dragon-like creature instead of Rothbart just turning himself into an owl. Oh, and only the bad guy and possibly King William die in the film.
I’m not huge on ballet and prefer modern dance, but The Swan Princess is the most boring animated film I have watched in a long time and has the least terrifying animated villain I can think of.
The animation in The Swan Princess is not of the same caliber and beauty as that in a Disney film and seems too drawn out. The Swan Princess might have been a better film if wasn’t 89 minutes long because it has lengthy sequences involving Derek’s training to defeat the Great Animal, the entire ending seems too drawn out, and musical numbers by Lex de Azevedo and David Zippel that are unmemorable.
Rothbart fails to be a terrifying villain because he doesn’t have the “I will stop at nothing to get what I want” attitude of other cartoon villains. If Odette doesn’t want to marry him one night, he’ll come back again. Only does he really seem to take command when Derek shows up and he catches wind of the plot. And then it’s an “I’m going to transform The Hag into Odette.” Sure, he kidnaps Odette and kills the king’s guard in a way that reminds me of Oedipus the King, except that Oedipus didn’t have to transform himself into a giant animal for this to happen. But his plan for seizing control of the kingdom is just to have Odette marry him. It’s not like Rasputin in the animated version of Anastasia who sells his soul and incites the Russian Revolution and overthrow of Tzar Nicholas to get his revenge (more on that when I discuss Anastasia) or Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective, who kidnaps a toymaker and later the daughter of the toy maker to have a decoy of the Mouse Queen built to declare him the royal consort while the real Queen is about to be thrown to a cat.
The Swan Princess lacks momentum and dramatic tension; there’s no real danger for any of the characters until the last 20 minutes of the film. None of the characters are really that interesting, although Derek’s sudden change of heart for Odette and her desire to stay with Derek is interesting to me. As for the Cute Little Animal Characters in this film, Jean-Bob, Lorenzo, and Puffin, they serve the purpose of being Odette’s friends and helping out in some situations, but they feel completely unnecessary. (Sorry, John Cleese) We can best assume that Jean-Bob and Lorenzo are denizens of the lake and just never left. Puffin falls from the sky and Odette removes an arrow from his wing and he seems compelled to help Odette leave the clutches of Rothbart. That’s not to say that Jean-Bob* and Lorenzo aren’t compelled to help Odette; Puffin seems to have the motivation of “You saved my life, I must save yours.”
The strong divergence of The Swan Princess from its source material causes it to not be a good film. The ballet has higher stakes for the characters and had the film been more faithful to its source material, it might have been better.
*I honestly had no clue his name was “Jean-Bob” until the end credits. I thought it was “Jean-Claude”