A review requested by James Miller, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There's nothing at all weird about a 1990s animated fairy tale/Disney knock-off with weak musical numbers and hardly any budget. In fact, this is one of the least-weird things imaginable: attempting to copy what works, cutting corners, and doing a poor job of it all is the very heart and soul of market-driven entertainment.

Still, The Swan Princess, from 1994, is hella weird. This isn't like those repulsive, direct-to-video Little Mermaids and Aladdins that sprung up like public domain weeds after a spring shower; it's not even like the increasingly miserable Don Bluth productions in the mid-'90s, which feel made out of a spiteful "I'm still here, and fuck you" attitude as much as anything else. Director Richard Rich, like Bluth, was a refugee from the dark ages of Walt Disney Feature Animation: he had a director credit on both The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, possibly the unhappiest imaginable CV to have left Disney with. Like Bluth, he also started his own studio, and here is where we stop: for while Bluth, at first, mounted a genuinely strong counter-attack to Disney's market hegemony, Rich Animation Studios spent the next several years making animated cartoons of Bible stories for Nest Family Entertainment. This, apparently, was exactly the training that Rich and Nest believed was needed to break into feature film production.

But not just any feature film! The Swan Princess is bafflingly ambitious, in ways it absolutely should not have been. It genuinely seems like Rich wanted to compete with Disney - not, like Bluth, to present his alternate universe vision of where Disney should have gone, but to compete with Disney, head-to-head, not just commercially but artistically. Despite having a fraction of the resources available to Disney, and a budget lower than any Disney animated feature since Rich's own The Fox and the Hound, an unimaginably distant generation earlier.

You can see it splashed across every bit of effects animation, every complicated layout and sweeping camera movement, and in the laboriously hand-drawn attempt to do a homebrew version of Disney's old multiplane camera. Just technologically, this was a lost battle from the moment it started: since 1990's The Rescuers Down Under, every one of Disney's features had been entirely inked and painted ("inked" and "painted", I should say) digitally, using the studio's proprietary CAPS software. Digital workflow practices had been partially adopted by the rest of the industry as well, but The Swan Princess was entirely inked and painted by hand, using physical ink and physical paint on physical celluloid (it was, apparently, the last theatrically-released American animated feature produced entirely without the aid of computers). Which is something that the traditionalist in me finds wholly delightful, but playing catch-up with something even as relatively primitive as The Little Mermaid was beyond what Rich Animation had the capacity for.

Does all this mean that The Swan Princess is somehow a bad and broken movie? No! Well actually, yes, but I find myself treasuring and cherishing it anyway: for something so derivative of Disney's fairy tale musicals in every way, it's unique among '90s animated features, not always for reasons that are good. Frequently not, in fact; it's probably easier to list things about the movie that simply don't work than things that unambiguously do, but the things that don't work are almost always because of how far above its weight the movie is punching.

What we have, to start with, is something close enough to the ballet Swan Lake that you can feel comfortable crediting it as an adaptation (which the film doesn't: Rich & Brian Nissen receive a story credit, Nissen a solo screenplay credit, and that's it). Once upon a time, a widowed king and queen decided to unite their kingdoms. They did not elect to do this by getting married themselves, because then we'd have no movie. Instead, they spend some 16 or eighteen years gently shoving their children together: King Williams's (Dakin Matthews) daughter Odette (Michelle Nicastro), and Queen Uberta's (Sandy Duncan) son Derek (Howard McGillin), slowly falling in love through the magic of parentally-enforced Stockholm Syndrome. When Derek finally proposes, he does so in a completely cack-handed way, unable to muster up any reason other than "because you're pretty", and irritating Odette fiercely. Notably, this situation never resolves. The entire rest of the plot ticks by without Derek ever needing to come up with one solitary positive characteristic otherwise; it's only because Odette is immediately kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and by the time Derek catches up with them, half the movie away, she's too concerned with being rescued to remember, or some such like that.

The sorcerer, Lord Rothbart (Jack Palance) has a grudge... see, that kind of weird. It's a 1994 kid's musical fantasy, with a shape-changing sorcerer villain named "Lord Rothbart". I'm on board with all of that. He's voiced by Jack Palance. How the hell does Jack Palance stumble his way into a Ruritanian fantasy about a sorcerer who turns a princess into a swan? He's not the only one, either. Once Odette has been captured and cursed to take the form of a swan, except when the moon rises over the lake where Rothbart has her held captive, she makes a few wacky talking animal friends: Jean-Bob the French frog (John Cleese, who apparently somehow thought this was a better bet than The Lion King), Puffin the Irish puffin (Steve Vinovich), and Speed the tortoise (Steven Wright). Now, you are the producer of a children's movie. You call up Steven Wright. What possesses you do to this? Or reverse it: you are Steven Wright, deadpan comedian noted for your dry anti-jokes. What possesses you to take the job? Or let's say that it's 1994, and you are a 9-year-old human child. Does the presence of Palance, Cleese, and Wright significantly impact your interest in seeing the film? Can it possibly impact your parents' interest?

It's not that any of these people give bad performances (Wright as the voice of a tortoise makes a considerable amount of sense, anyway). But they are odd choices (Cleese, it is true, has gone on to become quite a promiscuous voice actor in animation. But in 1994, this was only his second such role, after the villain in the 1991 An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. What a marvelous, merry-go-round world we live in). And that's really the whole matter of The Swan Princess right there: it's so close to being perfectly Disneyfied, but it has somewhere along the line taken a wrong swerve, and ended up at that place where Jack Palance is the voice of your fairy tale bad guy.

It's just that whispering sense of being quite incredibly, albeit subtly, wrong. Same thing with the film's songs, with music by Lex de Azevedo and lyrics by David Zippel: they're not really good, but they're not "bad" in the banal, generic way implied by "the bad songs from that cheap kids' movie". Cheap kids movies don't have entire musical numbers paying homage to those "gowns on parade" numbers from the Ziegfeld Follies and the like; and they don't have the enthusiastically convoluted rhyming schemes of fully half of the songs here, and they don't have showstopping gospel/soul numbers like the villain song (which is, I feel almost certain, what recommended Zippel for the job of writing the lyrics for Disney's Hercules). If anything, these songs aren't good because they're trying to be too much: they're trying to be clever, elaborate Broadway showtunes in a context where that just feels clumsy, and instead of being fun, they feel strained, like they're trying way too hard. The songs, the cast: they both speak to a project that's trying to be extremely good, but comes off ersatz.

Same thing with the animation. This is thoroughly ambitious, right on par with Bluth's first, best, biggest solo film, The Secret of NIMH: the amount of effects animation, the fearless switching between genres (sometimes when a little fear would have been warranted), the presence of an extremely Bluthian bird-monster. But Bluth, in 1982, had several Disney-trained animators on his side; Rich, in 1994, had none, and while some of the visuals in The Swan Princess are just lovely, particularly the water effects and the color design, some of it is really not. Odette, in particular, looks appalling. The film is short on realistic humans, and the more exaggerated the faces, the better off the character animation gets, but trying to do a well-proportioned, beautiful woman? Nope, far beyond the animators' means, and Odette (Derek to a much lesser degree) ends up looking like she was whittled, crudely, rather than drawn, and moves with about that much fluidity as well.

And yet, when the the drawing works, it works very well: I'm thinking in large part of the talking beasts, who are really wonderful piece of business, full of little expressions and constant movement when being stock still would have been cheaper and faster (Speed, in particular always seems to be flexing something). Same with the amount of choreography of movement, which goes for lots of action on lots of levels as often as it can, certainly in all of the songs (the choreography gets the better of the film during Rothbart's villain song, when a boldly sweeping camera moves across the image so fast that you can see the edge of the background drawing drop into frame for about a quarter of a second). If the film looks cheap, it's only because it simply doesn't have the capacity to meet the amount of work Rich was looking for; this is the kind of extravagance that kept Richard Williams hunting for pennies for literally decades as he chipped away at The Thief and the Cobbler, and The Swan Princess was made in just four years on religious cartoon money.

Still, you can see the tremendous accomplishment desperately trying to burst through the crude drafting of the humans, and I certainly think Disney took notice; while The Swan Princess was quickly swamped in a very fourth-quarter marketplace for family films (Disney's live-action The Santa Clause did a fair job of murdering all of its competition that November), somebody at Disney certainly must have seen the thing, and filed it away for safekeeping; 15 years later, The Princess and the Frog blatantly copied Jean-Bob's design and hell, even his accent, for the titular amphibian, and much sooner than that, I refuse to believe that Zippel's work here has nothing to do with him getting hired for Hercules and Mulan. Lord knows what Rich could have achieved if this film was a hit, even if it merely managed to turn a profit; his subsequent career and his studio's is a dispiriting parade of Swan Princess direct-to-video sequels, Mormon cartoons, and every so often, a theatrically-released bomb, like the 1999 animated version of The King and I. It's like a very sped-up, even more depressing version of Bluth's decline and fall. And who knows, maybe The Swan Princess was the absolute pinnacle of what Rich Animation Studios was capable of achieving, but it's so eager to reach for more than it could ever hope to grasp, I can only regard it as the great "what if?" of 1990s animation.