No one can survive in the jungle of animation that is Mr. Disney's Neighborhood, but the makers of "The Swan Princess" make an admirable, if doomed, attempt.
Clearly, producer-director Richard Rich has sat down with cassettes of "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," a batch of yellow note pads and No. 3 pencils, and taken copious notes. Thus "The Swan Princess" makes an earnest, even relentless, attempt to replicate the pleasures of the Disney canon.
Alas, it bears the resemblance to the former that a sophisticated copy might bear to a Great Master: somewhat vivid in evocation but at the same time dead. It's as if the lines have been traced rather than created spontaneously. The whole thing, though picturesque, lacks the sparkle of life.
You feel the Disney formula stuffed and mounted under the thrust of the narrative: a main story with tragic, almost dark, vibrations, a few scenes of vivid violence, a milieu of pre-adolescent sexuality, a lot of pert, upturned little noses and, finally, a subsidiary cast of "comic relief" characters boasting attributes that have no justification within the story but the interjection of show-biz values.
The story is derived -- loosely, I would guess -- from the ballet "Swan Lake." There was no Jack Palance character in "Swan Lake," right? Two happily neighboring Mitteleuropean principalities happen to have sired progeny appropriate, at a later date, for marriage and political unification. Thus, it is the master plan of the parents that Prince Derek and Princess Odette are forced to spend summer vacations together. They quickly grow to detest each other, which in boy-girl lingo means they're deeply in love.
Meanwhile, an evil magician -- here's the Jack Palance part, with Jack himself reading the lines in that hammy metallic tone of his -- is expelled from the kingdom and plots his return. Eventually, he kidnaps the princess and turns her into a swan that takes on human form only in the moonlight.
Since she's given up for lost, the prince's mother determines to hold a ball for him to meet all the available women in the kingdoms and chose a new bride. The evil magician reasons that if he can put a fake princess in front of the young guy, he'll be able to take over the kingdom.
None of this is particularly convincing, and it's clear that Rich's animators haven't the technical fluency of the Disney crew. The artists, for example, have trouble giving the main characters any texture: Princess Odette looks like Laura Dern as drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch, and Prince Derek resembles Kato Kaelin after a bad day dissing O.J. on the stand. Frequently the characters are lost in the huge background paintings against which they play out the action. And if you look carefully, you'll note that only a few of them actually move, as opposed to the Disney canvas, which shimmers with movement.
The film also boasts musical ambitions, a la Disney, but none of the songs by David Zippel and Lex de Azevedo will linger in your memory beyond the walk to the car. Here, also, Rich is at his most derivative: He even includes a frog with a French accent who imitates the Maurice Chevalier analogue that Jerry Orbach sang so vividly in "Beauty in the Beast." Poor John Cleese draws this duty, but his accent renders him happily unrecognizeable.
The backgrounds, it must be said, are the most impressive features in the picture: Vibrant with color and often deeply evocative, they make you wish something a bit more lively was happening in front of them.
"The Swan Princess"
Animated feature with the voices of Jack Palance and John Cleese
Directed by Richard Rich
Released by New Line