The 90s On Netflix: The Swan Princess (1994)
Mark Harrison | On 27, May 2022
Director: Richard Rich
Cast: Michelle Nicastro, Howard McGillin, Jack Palance, John Cleese, Steven Wright, Steve Vinovich
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. Every month, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
The rise of animated family fare as a box office draw has been going on steadily since the late 1980s, when Disney’s The Little Mermaid kickstarted the studio’s renaissance. Coinciding with advances in computer animation and the emergence of new studios set up by Don Bluth and other disgruntled animators who left Disney in the previous decade, the 1990s was notable for studios getting in on a market dominated by the Mouse.
We haven’t covered a whole lot of animation in The 90s On Netflix, partly because a lot of them are on other streaming platforms, but Netflix does occasionally offer a mainstay of animated family viewing such as 1994’s The Swan Princess, a riff on Swan Lake dreamt up by director Richard Rich while he was still at Disney and eventually produced independently at his appropriately named Nest Entertainment.
Inevitably then, there’s still a ring of Disney to the approach that Rich and screenwriter Brian Nissen bring to Tchaikovsky’s tale. Princess Odette (Michelle Nicastro) and Prince Derek (Howard McGillin) are from neighbouring kingdoms but they grow up together when their respective parents hatch a matchmaking scheme. However, when the time comes to propose, Derek offends Odette by suggesting her beauty is all that matters to him.
Her storming-off is rudely interrupted by the sorcerer Rothbart (Jack Palance), who holds a grudge against her father. Though Odette is presumed dead after the ensuing attack, she’s actually magically transformed into a swan during the day, only reverting to human form by the light of the moon. With the help of animal friends Jean-Bob the frog (John Cleese), Speed the turtle (Steven Wright) and Lieutenant Puffin (Steve Vinovich), she searches for a way to break the spell and find everlasting love.
Everything’s present and correct – snarky royal romance, check, wacky animal sidekicks, check, soppy ballad theme song (the Golden Globe-nominated Far Longer Than Forever) – but as brisk and likeable as it is, there’s something lacking in the magic department.
The characters are lively and memorable, which sadly only goes to show that the quality of the animation isn’t up to snuff. Notable for not using CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) to complement its hand-drawn cel animation, the film took four years to animate on about half the budget of most films like it.
One of the main things that could have set this apart turns out to be a mere whisper of progressiveness – after Odette rejects Derek for his superficial approach (“Is beauty all that matters to you?” “What else is there?”), the film becomes far less even-handed and focuses more on the immature prince coming around.
Elsewhere, the villainous Rothbart is a fun character for Palance to voice (and there’s even a visual nod to his famous Oscar night display of one-armed press-ups during the number “No More Mr Nice Guy”) even if the magical antagonism of our heroes is more random than fiendish. But the Best Supporting Frog goes to Jean-Bob, whose delusional main-character syndrome is the film’s funniest running gag.
It invites comparisons to the better-looking films in its story too – there are shades of The Little Mermaid, which was a huge hit right before production started on this, and the finale goes even further back into the Disney vault by recalling the showdown between Prince Phillip and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. In truth, though, the trouble is less that the story is Disneyfied, but more broadly Hollywoodised, with little of the universal appeal that made the biggest hits in the House of Mouse’s renaissance era.
Amid the avalanche of off-Disney animated films, there was an observable trend of studio bigwigs Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner spiking their rivals’ films. The Swan Princess was already up against lots and lots of big films when it opened in US cinemas in November 1994, but it definitely didn’t help that a reissue of The Lion King was scheduled the very same weekend.
Still, that didn’t stop the film becoming a favourite on video for kids of the right age, and Rich and Nissen have parlayed the film into a franchise. There were two more direct-to-video Swan Princess movies before the decade was out, followed by a string of sequels released from 2012 to 2020.
The Swan Princess is a featherweight favourite next to some of the beloved titles of the 1990s, but it does have its charms. It’s an obvious labour of love next to the more expensive, digitally polished cartoons of the same era – you might say its characters are well drawn, just not brilliantly animated.
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