Technically impressive but rather flat and languid storywise, Richard Rich’s first feature since leaving Disney only serves to reinforce the stranglehold his old studio still has on the animation market. While a perfectly serviceable confection for small fry, “The Swan Princess” will likely have its neck wrung commercially by all the high-profile competition aimed at the children’s/family market this holiday season, as well as Disney’s sabotage in reissuing “The Lion King.”
Based loosely on Swan Lake, “Princess” shows up wearing the same accoutrements as recent Disney fare, including a half-dozen original songs, a spunky female lead, elaborate production numbers and comic supporting characters.
Take another look, however, and the film’s blemishes begin to show, most notably a decided lack of humor (not for lack of trying), action sequences that are madcap but not especially clever, and songs that for the most part sound like something out of a Las Vegas revue.
The story has all the requisite fairy tale trappings, as a king and queen decide to unite their separate kingdoms through a royal marriage, bringing their reluctant kids together each summer hoping they’ll fall in love.
Just as the kids flower to adulthood, an evil sorcerer banished by the king, Rothbart (voiced by Jack Palance), slays the king and kidnaps his daughter. Until she agrees to marry him, Princess Odette must live under a curse that turns her into a swan — receiving help from a frog who believes himself to be a prince (John Cleese), a wisecracking turtle (Steven Wright) and a slightly overstuffed bird (Steve Vinovich).
Rich, a veteran animator whose Disney credits include the relatively undistinguished “The Fox and the Hound,” calls upon the same influences as Disney’s recent blockbusters, but with less impressive results.
On the plus side, the animation is fluid and fast, the layouts and backdrops lush and detailed. Lex de Azevedo’s score is also sumptuous and generates one memorable song, the ballad “Far Longer Than Forever.”
Still, an old adage says that such movies are only as good as their villain, and despite Palance’s sinister mutterings, Rothbart is largely a toothless absentee whose efforts at dark comedy consistently fall flat. That contributes to the lack of suspense, and even with the well-cast voices (particularly Cleese) the character design proves generally uninspired.
In the same vein, Rich and company have the physical elements of a big-budget animated feature down but can’t lift the material to that magical level that enthralls adults as well as children.