Warner Bros. joins the battle against Disney dominance in the realm of animated features with “Quest for Camelot,” a lightweight but likable fantasy that offers a playfully feminist twist to Arthurian legends. Set to arrive a full month before Disney’s “Mulan” thunders into theaters and with no other high-profile kid-oriented fare on the playing field, the handsomely mounted pic should score respectably mid-range B.O. before hitting the jackpot as a sell-through video title.
Billed as the first fully animated feature produced by Warners, this “Camelot” reduces King Arthur (voiced by Pierce Brosnan, sung by Steve Perry) and Merlin (John Gielgud) to the level of supporting players in order to focus on Kayley (Jessalyn Gilsig/Andrea Corr), a plucky girl who dreams of following her late father as a Knight of the Round Table.
During the prologue, Sir Lionel (Gabriel Byrne), Kayley’s brave father, is killed while defending his king against an attack by a would-be usurper, the wicked Ruber (Gary Oldman). The animation is less than fluid dur-ing these opening scenes, and the pace may try the patience of moppets with short attention spans. But the pace picks up — and the animation becomes more, well, animated — as “Camelot” flash-forwards a few years to show Ruber once again making a bid for King Arthur’s throne.
With the help of a fearsome Griffin (Bronson Pinchot), Ruber manages to snatch Excalibur, Arthur’s legendary magical sword. Griffin accidentally drops the sword in a dark and foreboding forest, but that’s not enough to keep Ruber from launching his plan for an invasion of Camelot. Part of that plan involves the kidnapping of Sir Lionel’s widow, Lady Juliana (Jane Seymour/Celine Dion), and Kayley. Ruber wants to use the pair as a cover for his invading army. But Kayley slips away from her captors and vows to find Excalibur before Camelot is overrun.
Far more substantial than a mere damsel in distress, Kayley is persuasively presented as a heroic and resourceful adventurer who should appeal to both boys and girls in the audience. Gilsig winningly expresses the charac-ter’s fortitude in dialogue, while Corr sells Kayley’s major power-ballad, “On My Father’s Wings,” for all it’s worth.
As she journeys through the haunted forest — a habitat for man-eating plants and fire-breathing dragons — Kayley finds a reluctant ally in Garrett (Cary Elwes/Bryan White), a young man who, despite being blind, knows the lay of the land. (He gets a little help from a seeing-eye hawk.) At first, Garrett grumpily demands to be left alone. But when he discovers that Kayley is the daughter of Sir Lionel, the knight who trained him to fight years earlier, Garrett agrees to help her find Excalibur and avoid Ruber.
For much of “Camelot,” Elwes eloquently conveys the bitterness and self-pitying moodiness of a young man who, before being blinded in a fire, had dreamed of becoming a knight. Elwes is equally convincing as, inevitability, Garrett breaks free of his funk to fall in love with Kayley. As Garrett’s singing voice, White artfully under-scores the character’s emotional extremes with two markedly different renditions of the tune “I Stand All Alone.”
As Ruber, Oldman sounds every bit as menacing as a first-rate cartoon villain should, whether he’s barking orders to his unreliable Griffin (nicely played by Pinchot) or bellowing a melodic ode to his own nastiness. Dion gives a full-throttle rendition of Lady Juliana’s big number, “The Prayer,” that will do a lot to boost CD sound-track sales.
But the most memorable show-stopper and scene-stealer in all of “Camelot” is a two-headed dragon — scaly Siamese twins known as Devon (Eric Idle) and Cornwall (Don Rickles). The duo brings out the best in the screenwriters, who provide the bickering couple with genuinely witty wisecracks that grown-ups may appreciate more than children will. (The dragon dialogue is chock-full of clever allusions to such classic movies as “Taxi Driver” and “Dirty Harry.”) Not to be outdone, songwriters David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager give Devon and Cornwall the pic’s very best tune, the hilarious “If I Didn’t Have You.” Idle and Rickles are smashingly funny; they may have a future together in a possible TV series spin-off.
Ably directed by Frederick Du Chan, “Camelot” doesn’t stray very far from the Disney formula for predictable but crowd-pleasing animated fare. The chief bad guy has a horde of stumbling assistants, most of whom are transformed into mutant warriors by a magical potion. (In homage to the Warner Bros. cartoons of yesteryear, the potion is called — yes, you guessed it — Acme.) There is a colorful supporting character — Bladebeak (Jaleel White), a sort of chicken-hatchet hybrid — who will doubtless claim shelf space alongside mutant-warrior action figures at toy stores everywhere.
Overall, “Quest for Camelot” is a pleasant diversion that should delight pre-teens and amuse their parents. The animation, though not quite up to Disney standards, is impressive enough on its own terms to dazzle the eye and serve the story. Of particular note is a sequence that integrates CGI wizardry with more traditional painted-cel artistry to create a huge stone ogre that likely will haunt the dreams of more impressionable youngsters.