Inspired by Tchaikovsky’s great ballet, Swan Lake was one of the last fairytale anime Toei made before the studio scaled back their ambitions and cranked out Dragonball, Sailor Moon and Doraemon features throughout the next twenty years. The film was much admired in Japan, where fans actually stole 2,500 cels during production, and Russia where it won an award at the Moscow Film Festival, but wound up a cult curio in its English dub on the strength of an eclectic cast.
Young Prince Siegfried (Christopher Atkins, from The Blue Lagoon (1980)) is out riding by the lake when he spies a beautiful swan wearing a golden crown. His overzealous huntsman tries to bring back a trophy, but when he takes aim with bow and arrow, an evil-looking owl swoops down and turns him to stone. Watching from the trees, clever squirrels Margarita and Hans know there is magic afoot. Poor Hans is rather miffed, since Margarita is so infatuated with the handsome prince she rejects his proposal of marriage! “Oh Hans, why can’t you be more like Prince Siegfried?” she swoons like a lovestruck teenager.
Siegfried follows the swan to a gloomy castle, where she transforms into lovely Princess Odette (Mork & Mindy’s Pam Dawber) whom, it transpires, is under a spell cast by the wicked magician Rothbart (David Hemmings). By day she’s a swan, by night she’s human, but imprisoned in Rothbart’s creepy lair. The spell may only be broken by the man who proclaims his undying love for Odette at the midnight hour. Smitten, Siegfried vows to do so at the royal ball where he is set to choose a bride, but Rothbart’s daughter Odille (Kay Lenz) learns of this and hatches a devious plan.
It’s a shame Swan Lake isn’t available in a subtitled Japanese version, since Christopher Atkins makes dashing, heroic Prince Siegfried rather more whiny and petulant than the creators intended. Nonetheless, this is an exceptionally handsome anime that benefits from the artistry of veteran Kimio Yabuki, who helmed Toei’s biggest hit The Wonderful World of Puss ’n’ Boots (1969). Pastel hued visuals provide a perfect accompaniment to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score, while Yabuki contrasts good and evil via outstanding character designs and lustrous backdrops: dreamy, mist-veiled lakes and idyllic forests versus dark, misshapen mountains and Rothbart’s eerie, green lair shaped like a demon’s mouth. It’s a beguilingly innocent fairyland sprinkled with Disneyesque touches like a row of ballet-dancing cygnets.
Sixties icon David Hemmings is a real hoot as Rothbart. He glowers magnificently, while Kay Lenz lends a sexy purr to the rather chic Odille (“That Prince Siegfried is a dreamboat on wheels!”). Pam Dawber sounds a little too mature to play a winsome, teenage princess but offers a surprisingly impassioned vocal performance. Stars of the show are undoubtedly the squirrels, Margarita and Hans whose rom-com sparring provides a witty counterpoint to the fairytale romance (Margarita’s response to a compliment: “You know, Hans? Flattery will get you everywhere”). More proactive than your average Disney animal sidekicks, Hans and Margarita emerge as the film’s real heroes, as they foil traps, subdue villains and keep the lovers out of harm’s way. All the while without the human characters understanding a word they’re saying. Makers of Shrek movies take note - they’re also sassy without being obnoxious, as when Hans sets off to rescue Odette. “I’m so proud of you”, says Margarita. Hans replies: “Will you be proud of me when I’m dead?”