As children Princess Odette (voiced by Michelle Nicastro) and Prince Derek (Howard McGillin) were unenthusiastic about their royal betrothal. Yet growing up the kids came to see each other in a new light. By the time adult Derek sees how beautiful Odette has become his mind is well and truly changed. Alas, dopey Derek’s inability to value Odette beyond her looks deeply offends the princess who calls off their engagement. As a mournful Odette journeys home her carriage is ambushed by vengeful sorcerer Lord Rothbart (Jack Palance). Rothbart puts a spell on Odette, transforming her into a swan by day only able to take human form briefly at night. It falls to Derek to seek out and save the princess but only by proving his undying love.
Richard Rich might not have the same cult reputation bestowed on fellow former Disney animators Don Bluth and Brad Bird but has remained a consistent presence within the industry. His post-Disney films tend to fizzle at the box-office only to rebound on the home video market. This was especially true for The Swan Princess which, like Bluth's Thumbelina (1994) and Warner Brothers' Quest for Camelot (1998), sought to cash-in on the Nineties' Disney renaissance with some second-hand magic. Despite proving one of the costliest animated theatrical flops of all time the film became a monster smash on home video. So much it sired something like nine direct-to-video sequels. While most critics at the time cared little for its sub-Disney charms a whole generation of children clearly did.
Though undeniably derivative of vintage Disney fare, especially Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Swan Princess has a certain old fashioned charm coupled with a refreshing lack of irony. Something that became increasingly rare in children's entertainment throughout the Nineties into the early 2000s. Rich crafts a modest yet unpretentious fairytale romance laden with amiable if juvenile humour. Truth is the film does not really improve upon the opening musical montage that deftly charts Odette and Derek's gradual maturation from squabbling adolescents to young adults slowly learning to appreciate each other's finer qualities. Albeit, in Derek's case, only at a surface level. Despite that title and the pleasing portrayal of Odette as a post-Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991) heroine (smart, gutsy and unwilling to be reduced to a simpering beauty), The Swan Princess' thematic arc actually concerns the cloddish Derek. The well-intentioned yet foolish young prince is an unusually feckless hero. Yet what might have proven infuriating instead leaves him interestingly flawed and easy to empathize with as he struggles to look beyond the surface and value the true beauty that lies within.
After a strong start the plot develops a strange lack of urgency and meanders through a lot of musical comedy silliness. It trots out the comic animal antics of Monty Python legend John Cleese as a talking frog named Jean-Bob with an outrageous (suitably Pythonesque) French accent. He sparks an unlikely but effective duo with American comedian Steven Wright (who was very in vogue throughout the Nineties) as sarcastic turtle Speed and Steve Vinovich as an inexplicably Irish-accented Puffin. Meanwhile veteran Jack Palance invests the role of Rothbart with a raspy malevolence born of forty years of sublime screen villainy. The film even includes a sight gag referencing Jack's famous push-up routine at the 1992 Academy Awards.
Sumptuous hand drawn animation brings a touch of old fashioned magic to proceedings although the film cuts a few corners in both its visuals and storytelling. The musical sequences, scored by a Golden Globe-nominated Lex de Azevedo, run the gamut from routine to deeply odd with the surreal Busby Berkeley inspired "Princesses on Parade" an offbeat highpoint.