Frolicking in the woods sweet, young Princess Irene (voiced by Sally Anne Marsh) and her beloved cat Turnip are unnerved by the sound of goblins creeping nearby. Luckily forest boy Curdie (Peter Murray) happens along and scares the goblins off with the one thing they fear the most: singing. On returning home to the royal castle Irene discovers a secret door leading to a magic room. There Irene meets her great-grandmother, coincidentally also named Irene (Claire Bloom). She gives the little princess an invisible ball of magic thread, claiming it will be useful during the impending goblin threat. Sure enough later Curdie stumbles upon an underground lair where he finds the goblin army plotting to storm the castle and kidnap the princess.
Nineteenth century Scottish fantasy author George MacDonald is cited as a major influence on later writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbitt and Neil Gaiman. He was also a mentor to Lewis Carroll. Given MacDonald’s importance it is surprising his literary output has been largely neglected by the cinema. The Princess and the Goblin, an animated adaptation of MacDonald's like-named children’s novel, remains the most high profile treatment of his work and even then only among a select group of fans. Upon its release in 1992 the film failed to connect with a wide audience, swiftly overshadowed by Disney's Aladdin. Few critics at the time had kind words for the first venture from Welsh based animation studio Siriol Films (with production input from Hungary, Japan and the United States), lambasting the "dull" plot and tepid visuals.
Viewed today such criticism, while not entirely unwarranted, still seems unduly harsh. Sure, set beside the flashy, big-budget techno-wizardry of a then-newly resurgent Disney studio, The Princess and the Goblin comes across somewhat archaic. The animation is inconsistent: fluid in some sequences, stilted in others. Nevertheless Hungarian director Jószef Gémes pulls off a few neat multiplane shots, makes playful use of light and shadow and showcases some appealing characters. It also the benefit of a distinguished British voice cast including Joss Ackland, Roy Kinnear (in one his last roles, released several years after his death), Victor Spinetti, sitcom veterans Mollie Sugden and Peggy Mount along with Porkins himself: American actor William Hootkins. Much missed comic actor Rik Mayall further energizes proceedings with a typically snotty turn as venomous goblin prince Froglip. On a side note lead actress Sally Ann Marsh, one half of an appealing lead duo alongside American actor Peter Murray (in what appears to be his only film credit), had a side career in addition to her credits as an animation voice actress. She went on to front not only short-lived girl band Faith, Hope & Charity but score a top ten hit with techno outfit Xpansions.
If the script, crafted by writer-producer Robin Lyons (a significant force in British children’s television with shows like SuperTed, Hilltop Hospital, Romuald the Reindeer and Fireman Sam), lacks the nuance of MacDonald's original story it still passes muster as an engrossing children’s adventure. It is also pleasingly earnest, lacking the snark that mars too much contemporary fare. Certainly the languid storytelling may prove less beguiling for today’s impatient young viewers. However animation buffs may warm to the film’s modest charms and cosy tea-time tone. Especially those with fond memories of Cosgrove-Hall productions.