The Films of Dreamworks: “Antz” (1998)

antz_ver3_xlgDreamworks must be one of the most successful companies to be the result of a feud.

Jeffrey Katzenberg had been at Walt Disney Animation, there during its 1980s lull and the start of the “Disney Renaissance.” After a fight with Michael Eisner, he left Disney and started Dreamworks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.  The first film announced to be released by the animation division would be “The Prince of Egypt,” an animated musical telling the story of Moses. While some people view it as a massive “Fuck you” to Disney, it came at a time where every movie studio was desperately trying to emulate Disney and either succeeding (“Anastasia,” “The Prince of Egypt”) or failing massively (“Quest for Camelot,” “The King and I”).

In the midst of the Disney Renaissance was the release of “Toy Story,” which proved to be a big hit for the brand new Pixar. While Pixar proceeded to work on a sequel on “Toy Story,” they also announced a project called “Bugs,” which would focus on a neurotic ant who ends up being a hero, while also falling in love with the princess of the colony. The same year of the release of what was retitled “A Bugs Life,” Dreamworks released what ended up being its first film, “Antz,” a movie about a neurotic ant who ends up being a hero, while also falling in love with the princess of the colony. I will firmly argue “The Prince of Egypt” is not a giant middle finger to Disney, but if this film isn’t, I don’t know what is.

“Antz” does follow the barebones narrative description of “A Bugs Life,” but it also could be described as an animated Woody Allen film. It is a movie with a distinctly mature sense of humor that deals a lot with our place in the world. It’s also a movie in which Woody Allen plays an overbearing creep who kidnaps the female lead, whom he’s obsessed with.

Allen voices Z, a neurotic worker ant who struggles with his day-to-day life in the colony. While he gets along well with fellow worker Azteca (Jennifer Lopez) and Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), a soldier ant, he still finds himself depressed. After Princess Bala (Sharon Stone) decides to visit the bar the colony congregates at, Z becomes infatuated and poses as a warrior ant. After surviving a battle with termites, he is welcomed home as a war hero, but decides to kidnap Princess Bala, who is currently engaged to the fascist leader of the army, General Mandible (Gene Hackman).

When writing about “Despicable Me,” I addressed the idea of what is adult humor in animated films. Animation can result in movies strictly for adults, such as “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” or it can result in family movies that have incredibly mature jokes that are clever and sophisticated, such as in quite a few Disney films, “Despicable Me,” and “The Peanuts Movie*”.

Then there is the type of bawdy, gross out humor you find in Dreamworks movies, which I’ll refer to as “Dreamworks Humor.” Dreamworks Humor is often associated with all computer-animated Dreamworks films post-“Shrek” and tend to deal in double entendres that kids won’t understand, gross out humor kids will find funny, and sometimes implied or outright sexual discussions. Dreamworks Humor is found throughout “Antz,” which between that and how dark the film is, I am tempted to suggest it’s not actually a family film and is instead an animated film that managed to get a PG rating. I stopped keeping track of all of the jokes and lines in this film that surprised me, but I did count a comment about drinking from the anus of an aphid, a joke about inbreeding, a scene with bugs eating poop–which, to be fair, is realistic–and a line where Z says Bala had a chance to be in his “erotic fantasies.”

None of these lines make you go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they went there,” like some lines in “Shrek.” It feels more like you’re watching a comedian who thinks they’re edgy saying a bunch of things in an attempt to shock you and make you laugh like Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, or Ali Wong, but they instead just make you have a really uncomfortable night at a club. This is Dreamworks Humor taken to an extreme, which might be the result of it being the studio’s first film and it ultimately being a film to answer the question of, “What if Woody Allen were an ant?”

The film also has the distinct feeling of being rushed. The animation looks awful, although you have to credit Dreamworks on getting the anatomy of bugs right. It doesn’t have the eye-searing shoddiness you find in “Delgo” or “Foodfight,” but there is a very rough feel to every single detail in this film. What particularly hurts it is the fact it was released the same year as both “A Bug’s Life” and “The Prince of Egypt,” which show us you can have very unique and beautiful animated details of grass, water, and leaves and that Dreamworks did have the technology to have richly detailed CGI in animation, even though “The Prince of Egypt” is a traditionally animated film. The timing of this just feels unfortunate, but when would have been a good time to release a movie that is little more than the equivalent of sending a bag of dicks to Michael Eisner and telling him to eat it? A movie doesn’t have to match the level of artistry found with Pixar movies, but even “Despicable Me,” which was made on a smaller budget, had a unique and even whimsical look to it. The film also has an annoying feeling of several frames looking like they were all put through a tilt shift lens, which feels weird since this is animated, but most of the film has a very clear area that is focused in the middle, and the rest looks very blurry. Maybe this was because I was watching it on Netflix on my laptop, but it added to the film feeling like it had a rushed production.

What’s worse is Dreamworks’ first outing is incredibly boring, even if it briefly addresses totalitarianism and fascism. Not every animated film needs to be filled with bright colors, but the script is needlessly tedious. It wasn’t until 19 minutes into the movie I laughed, and that was at a good sight gag. There can even be very serious animated films–minus three massive flaws, I would argue “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is darker and more adult than this–but this is just dull and feels like a first-draft of a movie.

There are some situations where beating a competitor can pay off, but this shows it doesn’t help when there’s a subpar product. Thankfully, there were two better films released that year, one of which was made by the same studio that made “Antz.”

*It’s very Schultz-ian, but I will never stop laughing at every joke about “War and Peace” in “The Peanuts Movie,” even if I now find myself singing songs from “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.”
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The Great ’90s Animated Film Project: “The King and I” (1999)

Previously:
Mulan,
The Swan Princess,
Pocahontas,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
Hercules,
The Prince of Egypt,
Anastasia,
Quest for Camelot,
Tarzan,
The Iron Giant

Shall I tell you what I think of you, The King and I?

The animated film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical might be one of the most pandering, offensive and boring animated films ever made in the past two decades. The film’s director, Richard Rich, took a story about the clash of cultures and made it cute, lowering the stakes for the characters and adding a bumbling sidekick and some animal characters.

The King and I, a Warner Brothers release, came at the end of the ’90s when motion picture companies were starting to be bolder with the stories told and how they were being told. In 1999, Tarzan, The Iron Giant and Toy Story 2 were released, moving away from the traditional musical format of animated films in that decade. The King and I feels like a very poor attempt to clutch to the old format.

The King and I focuses on Anna Leonowens (Miranda Richardson speaking, Christiane Noll singing), a widowed schoolteacher who has arrived in Bangkok with her son Louis (Adam Wylie) to tutor King Mongkut’s (Martin Vidnovic) children. The King hopes that Anna’s schooling of his children will help with progress for Thailand, but the king’s evil prime minister, the Kralahome (Ian Richardson), who is assisted with his Asian Stereotype sidekick, Master Little (Darrell Hammond). Meanwhile, servant Tuptim (Armi Arabe speaking, Tracy Venner Warren singing) falls in love with the crown prince, Chulalongkorn (Allen D. Hong speaking, David Burnham singing), which is forbidden because of tradition.

That is the plot of the animated film. In the musical, the Kralahome isn’t an evil Rasputin-esque sorcerer and Master Little is absent. In the musical, Tuptim is one of King Mongkut’s many concubines and falls in love with Lun Tha, the man who presents her as a gift to the king. This of course means Tuptim’s faces higher stakes in the musical because she is in love with someone other than the king. Additionally, Lady Thiang, the king’s chief wife, is absent from this film. And all of the animals in the film are absent in the musical.

Even when Disney takes a story and makes it a feel good film at the end, there are still risks for the characters. Take The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is a far departure from the source material but still is a fascinating and dark film that manages to be kid friendly. The King and I seems like Richard Rich looked at Anastasia and decided to have the writing team copy the element of evil advisor, cute animals and slapstick comedy for the sidekick. The problem is that Anastasia handled this perfectly by having a terrifying antagonist that went to extremes to get what he wanted, Bartok wasn’t an offensive stereotypes of Russians or albino bats and the cute animal was just there, not being obnoxious or confusing as to why they are placed there.

This brings me to the worst aspect of The King and I: Master Little. The character is a short stout man with almond shaped eyes—I don’t think he had pupils—and perpetually falling teeth. The character speaks with an exaggerated East Asian accent while none of the other characters do so, although Tuptim sounds a bit like she’s Burmese Barbie. It is absolutely astounding that an animated film made in my lifetime features such an offensive stereotype.

But with the focus on the plotting of the Kralahome there isn’t much time for the audience to care about the other characters, which in a way is fine since the only real danger arrives at the end when King Mongkut becomes Action Hero Mongkut. Oh, and if you were curious, Mongkut lives in this version. In fact, everyone lives, including the Kralahome, which is a strange occurrence for a children’s film because usually even the antagonist dies or someone gets separated from the protagonist at the end.

There is only one good aspect of this film and that is the film has very nice bright colors used, but it isn’t important since the film is dull and has the weakest dramatic conflict committed to film. In some ways, it feels like the film is like an unsuccessful parody of animated films with the multitude of unnecessary animals and sidekicks. But if the film hadn’t used a classic musical as its source material, it might have felt less painful to watch.

The problem is that there are ultimately no virtues to be found in this film. It would still be awful if there wasn’t the classic Yul Brynner film or the non-singing live-action film Anna and the King that was released later in 1999. While it is no shock that the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization decided against ever having another animated film made using the musicals as a source material, it is truly astounding that someone decided this would be a good idea to make.

The Films of Pixar: “Cars 2” (2011)

At the beginning of Cars 2, the audience is treated to a spy and espionage opening where Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) comes onto a cargo ship in search of one of his operatives, Leland Turbo (Jason Isaac), who has gone AWOL. While there, he finds a glimpse into the devious plan of Professor Zundzapp (Thomas Kretschmann) before going away into a thrilling chase that is accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s exciting score.

Unfortunately, the remaining 90 minutes of the film involves a Larry the Cable Guy vehicle that feels as if it is Pixar as written by the writers of a Shrek or Madagascar film. For a Pixar film, Cars 2 is crass and crude, lacking the sophistication of its predecessors. It is filled with bodily function humor that is mostly provided by Larry the Cable Guy and weird double entendres that are also mostly provided by Larry the Cable Guy, although anything about removing your fenders is now my new favorite euphemism.

This would be completely fine if Cars 2 wasn’t also boring. One of the benefits of the first Cars film is that it wasn’t built around chase and racing scenes, like Cars 2 seems to be. With the previous film, the racing scenes were basically at the beginning and the end, save for one during Lightning’s time in Radiator Springs. Here, we have constant racing scenes that are followed by chases, then some down time, then some more action.

The whole premise of the film is that Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) decides to compete in the first ever World Grand Prix, which is a huge publicity stunt for a new renewable fuel, Allinol. He decides to take his friend, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), with him even though this seems like a terrible idea since Mater is absurdly annoying. Sure enough, Mater embarrasses McQueen in Tokyo and is sent off to the bathroom, only to end up being caught up in espionage after meeting Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Hijinks ensue.

A huge problem with this film is that it tries to be too much. It wants to be an espionage thriller for the whole family, but it also wants to be a feel-good buddy film and a film about cars and racing. Ultimately, the spy plot only works out with the plot about the World Grand Prix, so there is only one solution for how to fix the film: Get rid of Mater.

The film seems to be more of a way of putting the maddening tow-truck in the spotlight while selling millions of dollars in merchandise. Mater was annoying in the first film, but he wasn’t as prominent in the film as Doc Hudson or Sally Carrera. Here, he seems to overshadow McQueen, which shouldn’t happen. Mater is possibly the most annoying sidekick ever created in a Disney film not because of his folksy ways, but because of how those folksy ways are portrayed by Larry the Cable Guy. He is the stupid redneck impressed by everything he sees. It’s a schtick that becomes tiresome quickly and his accent that sounds like a hyperactive Cletus Spuckler from The Simpsons. Throughout the film, you might find yourself hoping someone T-bones Mater simply because it would mean less screen-time for the character.

But the film does have some redeeming factors since it is made by Pixar. It’s very pretty to look at, especially during the scenes where the characters are in Tokyo and Giacchino’s score is excellent, evoking the right classic spy sound. Unfortunately, that seems to be it.

It would be nice if every Pixar film was wonderful, but this has proven to not be the case with Cars 2. The convoluted film shows that Pixar’s failure is caused by a film that is like so much out there. It is possible to create a great film with merchandising potential, as was seen with Toy Story 3, but that was not heeded with this film. At the very least, they probably sold plenty of merchandise tied into the film.

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Quest for Camelot” (1998)

Previously:
Mulan,
The Swan Princess,
Pocahontas,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
Hercules,
The Prince of Egypt,
Anastasia

When the film Quest for Camelot starts out, you think that it will be a great, exciting film with knights, lots of Celtic music, and a girl whose father dies early in the film. Quest for Camelot is a film with knights, lots of Celtic music, and a girl whose father dies early in the film, but it is rather dull.

Quest for Camelot is a Warner Brothers’ film directed by Frederick Du Chau that was released after their success with Space Jam, which is a really fun, clever film. This film is very loosely based off of the novel The King’s Damosel and features such changes as the protagonist being named Kayley instead of Lynette, the protagonist having a seemingly perfect childhood (although the thing that would make it imperfect would have definitely resulted in it not getting a G rating), two characters being combined into one, and the addition of the characters of Ruber, Bladebeak, and Devon and Cornwall.

Kayley (Sarah Freeman) has a perfect life with her mother, Juliana (Jane Seymour), and father, Sir Lionel (Gabriel Byrne), a Knight of the Round Table. But one day, while Lionel is at Camelot, he is killed by Ruber (Gary Oldman), another knight, who is trying to attack King Arthur. Kayley is saddened and ten years later has grown up, taking care of the farm with her mother.

It’s a lovely day in Camelot until a griffin (Bronson Pinchot) steals Excalibur. Back at the ranch, Ruber comes and he’s hot for Juliana and wants Camelot, nay, he wants it all. He has an entire song about how he wants it all. But wanting it all starts with getting Camelot, so he kidnaps Juliana while Kayley (Jessalyn Gilsig) escapes. Ruber then causes his minions to fuse with their weapons and one of Juliana and Kayely’s chickens to fuse with an axe, creating Bladebeak (Jaleel White). Kayley decides that while fleeing Ruber she will retrieve Excalibur and go to Camelot. While in the Forbidden Forest, she meets the blind hermit Garrett (Cary Elwes), who does an excellent job fighting bad guys. (Like Toph Bei Fong, but without the awesome earthbending) Her and Garrett then end up in Dragon Country, where they meet the two-headed/conjoined dragons Devon (Eric Idle) and Cornwall (Don Rickles), who bicker and cannot fly or breathe fire. The three/four then leave the Dragon Country and go towards a rock ogre that had Excalibur. They retrieve it and head towards Camelot, but Garrett leaves because he feels as though he doesn’t belong there. But then Ruber catches up with them and he wants it all.

This really does feel like a well intentioned film that was meant to steal Disney’s thunder. (A film released later that year by Dreamworks, actually succeeded.) But the characters lack dimension and the fight scenes aren’t thrilling to watch. Kayley is a spunky heroine and that’s it. And the dialogue in the screenplay by Du Chau, Kirk De Micco, William Schifrin, Jacqueline Feather, and David Seidler? Terrible. The film features such lines as “What is a damsel?” and “I stand alone too!”, which is said after the one memorable song in the film “I Stand Alone.” Although, Eric Idle gets the best line in the film when, while explaining why Devon and Cornwall are conjoined, says “Frankly, we’re the reason cousins shouldn’t marry.” But by the end of the film, it starts to rely on anachronisms in the form of pop culture references, such as Bladebeak referencing Dirty Harry, airline references, and Devon and Cornwall saying, “Houston, we have a problem.” It feels like the writers got lazy.

And with the characters not having much depth, that’s a huge problem with Ruber being a menacing or even mildly terrifying villain. Sure, he looks scary and has chipped fingernails, but he just wants it all. That character even has a song just about how he wants it all. He’s not a corrupt human or a villainous sorcerer; he’s a caricature that Oldman tries hard to make him seem terrifying. Except I kept thinking “It’s Joe Orton!” and that helps nothing.

This might also be the only film that has a completely interesting score and uninteresting music. Even Tarzan has one memorable song. Patrick Doyle’s score utilizes traditional Celtic music to set the tone and setting for the film, except that the anachronisms at the end that make it feel more like a lot of animated films churned out now. Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster’s songs are rather unmemorable, just because they’re furthering the plot, but its nothing I will be humming later. I also have to note that the film used bands and celebrities for the singing voices of the characters, such as Celine Dion being the singing voice of Juliana and Bryan White doing the singing voice of Garrett. However, when Garrett has a song, it is painfully obvious that Bryan White sounds nothing like (Cary Elwes). Bryan White has one of the better songs in the film, but he starts singing and all I could think of was, “It’s country musician Bryan White!”

And the main Cute Little Animal Character(s) are Devon and Cornwall, whom the film could function quite well without. In fact, it feels like a waste of Eric Idle and in a film where every character speaks with a British accent, Don Rickles speaking with an American Accent doesn’t make much sense. It feels very much that Devon and Cornwall are put in to satisfy the “formula” of adapting some novel or legend, adding in musical numbers, and having a Cute Little Animal Character that cracks jokes.

But Quest for Camelot does have good animation. It’s not breathtaking animation, but it’s good quality animation, even if the characters aren’t that expressive.

Quest for Camelot is definitely a film that could have possibly been good. But it’s not interesting and lacks action, considering its about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s clear that there were a lot of resources put into this film, it just doesn’t show until you get to the credits.

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Pocahontas” (1995)

Can YOU paint with all the colors of the wind?

Previously:
The Swan Princess
,
Mulan

Technically, I should have watched The Lion King, but Netflix doesn’t have it. Period. So, if you want to watch people humping trash on instant or watch The Lion King, you are out of luck.

Pocahontas is Disney’s very politically correct, preachy 1995 release directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg that asks who is a savage and what makes a man a savage.

The film heavily fictionalizes the story of Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was a nickname given to her that means “the naughty one.” In this film, Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) comes to the New World with the Virginia Company, which was specifically the London Company, on a ship with Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Steirs), who might be a fictionalization of John Ratcliffe, a captain of a ship that sailed to Jamestown to find a colony. As the crew members set sail for gold (and tobacco, but that’s never mentioned), we see the prosperous Powahatan people, led by Chief Powahatan (Russel Means). His daughter, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) is intended to marry the brave warrior Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall). Pocahontas does not want to marry Kocoum because “he’s so serious.” In the mean time, the settlers land and begin to dig up the earth in search of gold. Smith, while out looking for “savages” meets Pocahontas and almost shoots her, but he finds her beautiful. She then teaches him about her culture and he teaches her about his. When he mentions “savages” and “uncivilized people,” Pocahontas questions him, by way of the song “Colors of the Wind,” about his beliefs about what makes a person a person and whether or not he can paint with all the colors of the wind.

Meanwhile, back at the fort settlement, the Powahatan warriors go to the camp to see what the white men, warned to be dangerous, are up to. Ratcliffe sees the warriors and everyone starts shooting, which results in a warrior being injured. The Powahatans, having physical evidence of the destruction of the settlers, forbid the people from going near the settlers. In the mean time, Pocahontas and John Smith are still seen going around, being taught about their different cultures. They decide to meet later that day at Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt), which requires Smith sneaking out of the camp. Ratcliffe sees him sneaking out and sends Thomas (Christian Bale) after him. In the meantime, Pocahontas’ friend, Nakoma (Michelle St. John), tells Kocoum, who cares about Pocahontas’ safety, about the danger the titular character is in. At Grandmother WIllow, Pocahontas and John decide that he should meet her father to convince her that the settlers aren’t evil. Excited, the two kiss, but Kocoum attacks Smith. Thomas, seeing the 1). a native and 2). a native attacking a kinsman, shoots Kocoum, killing him. Smith sends him away and the other Powahatans see the dead Kocoum and capture Smith because Pocahontas doesn’t say, “Hey, it was this red head, not this guy” and the warriors have no reason to think that Smith didn’t kill Kocoum. Thomas reveals that Smith has been captured, but not that he shot a native. THIS MEANS WAR. Also, John Smith gets to be clubbed to death at sunrise for his crimes. Pocahontas saves him from the clubbing because she loves him. The people decide to not fight and Ratcliffe shoots Smith, injures him, and is arrested and to be tried for treason. Smith goes back to England because his chances of surviving a gunshot wound are so much better on a ship in the 1600s than if he says in the New World. Pocahontas, on the other hand, stays, but she still loves him.

In the real version of the story of Pocahontas, she would have been ten when she would have saved John Smith from a clubbing, which might have taken place. It’s debatable. (For more info, please see this information from the Powahatan Nation, written by Chief Roy Crazy Horse.) When Pocahontas was a young woman, which is how old she is in the film, she was captured by the settlers and later married to John Rolfe, who baptized her as Rebecca. She died in 1617 from either smallpox or tuberculosis. More importantly, there was no romance between her and John Smith. John Ratcliffe was not the greedy man that we see in Governor Ratcliffe. A majority of the key plot elements are invented and those key plot elements make Pocahontas a ridiculous movie.

Okay, maybe Pocahontas is ridiculous to me because I’m an adult and I paid attention in school, which does ruin the film for me. But the film is ridiculous on the same level I find Romeo and Juliet to be ridiculous. Two star-crossed lovers meet and within the course of a few days, they’re madly in love and willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. Except Romeo and Juliet covers more time and shows the tragedy of young infatuation. In Pocahontas, the only consequence carried out for the two characters’ constant disobedience of the instructions they are given is that Kocoum is killed, which is indirect. My biggest problem with Pocahontas as a film itself is that Pocahontas declares that she loves John Smith and is willing to die to protect him after knowing him for less than a week.

The villain in this film, Governor Ratcliffe, is slightly more terrifying than Rothbart in The Swan Princess. Ratcliffe is fueled by greed and just wants some gold. He will have the other settlers keep digging until they find gold and if any natives get in his way, he’ll kill them. That’s really his sole mindset for the entire film and the most he does is bellow directions and orders to his men. Yes, he shoots John Smith, but he was aiming to shoot Chief Powahatan. Ratcliffe gets the shaft in this film because he’s going back to England to be tried for treason, but Ratcliffe doesn’t do anything in this film that seems like treason.

(Oh, and by the way, King James I would have just been King James. They would have not said “King James the First.”)

The reason why I didn’t mention the Cute Little Animal Characters was because they only provide a subplot in this film that is completely unnecessary. Meeko, Pocahontas’ pet raccoon, runs into Ratcliffe’s pug Percy when he gets onto the ship because the ship has food and Meeko loves eating. This results in Percy chasing Meeko around while Flit, a hummingbird, is very serious like Kocoum. The film could still easily function without the Cute Little Animal Characters. In fact, the Cute Little Animal Characters in Pocahontas don’t even help in key plot situations, like the Cute Little Animal Characters in other films I’ve looked at. They’re just there to serve as sidekicks and have some fun animal creature in the film. But, honestly, watching Percy chase Meeko is a lot more interesting than pretty much anything else that happens in the film.

As for Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s songs, they have mostly unmemorable lyrics. I can remember the melodies for the songs, but try singing all of “Just Around the Riverbend” or “Colors of the Wind.” And the song “Savages” tries to convey a point that I think is better made in these lyrics of “The Mob Song” by Menken and Howard Ashman in Beauty and the Beast:

“We don’t like
What we don’t
Understand, in fact it scares us,
And this monster is mysterious at least.”

As for the question of what makes a person a savage, the film has us side with the Powahatans for not being the savages. They retaliate after being attacked and their violence is justified. They’re the only people in this film that have any soldiers killed. They have every reason for doing what they do. Even when Kocoum attacks John Smith, it is justifiable. He has no clue what John Smith might be doing to Pocahontas and he’s seen John Smith’s people severely wound one of his men.

But Disney, in an attempt to be politically correct, has characters lacking depth to try to get us to learn that maybe we’d be better off if we just learned to understand our differences. But this point is best conveyed not by the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, but by Percy and Meeko stopping their pursuit after being yelled at by Grandmother Willow and, at the end of the film, being dressed in each other’s “native” garb, having reconciled their differences. Pocahontas proves that a well-meaning film can be a mess (MCBAIN) when it lacks depth or has ridiculous situations*.

*See also: McBain

The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “The Swan Princess” (1994)

Previously: Mulan

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”