There's no question that Disney is, in terms of public perception, a brand name for animated features. And recent theatrical cartoon bombs such as "The Princess and the Goblin," "Happily Ever After" and "Bebe's Kids" have helped perpetuate the notion that nothing else quite measures up.
But every now and then a non-Disney animated feature comes along that is a worthy challenger. And most of the successful examples of the past decade have come from former Utahn and former Disney animator Don Bluth ("The Secret of NIMH," "An American Tail," "The Land Before Time").
Now, Richard Rich, another former Utahn who was once a Disney animator (he worked with Bluth at the Disney studio), is jumping into the fray. And Rich's first effort, "The Swan Princess" proves to be a delightful achievement.
The story, loosely adapted from the same fairy tale that inspired the ballet "Swan Lake" (with music by Utah musician Lex de Azevedo instead of Tchaikovsky) begins as a young princess and prince Odette and Derek who live in neighboring kingdoms are betrothed as children. The film's early scenes are very funny, showing the mischievous children playing pranks on each other as they grow up (played out against a musical backdrop). And, of course, they later fall in love.
But the evil wizard Rothbart (voiced by Jack Palance) has other plans, and he changes himself into "the great beast" to spirit Odette away, taking her to a remote lake where he turns her into a swan. To break the spell, Derek must publicly profess his undying love for her and perform an act of bravery.
While Derek is looking for her, Odette is befriended by the film's comic-relief characters, a thoughtful, wise-cracking turtle named Speed (perfectly cast with standup comic Steven Wright) and a pompous frog called Jean-Bob (John Cleese), who affects a phony French accent and is convinced that he is actually a prince, waiting for the kiss of a princess to return him to his true form.
Eventually, Speed and Jean-Bob, along with a puffin (Steve Vinovich) that may remind you of the "The Lion King's" Zazu, join Derek to formulate a rescue plan.
The voices are all great, and Palance very nicely blends humor into his villainous portrayal. (Rothbart even drops to the floor to do some one-armed pushups!)
Most of the animation is excellent, especially in the lake scenes. Some of the humans in the film, in particular Odette and Derek, could have used a little more character in their faces they seem awfully bland. And one of the musical numbers, "Princesses on Parade" is pretty sappy. (Even the parents in the audience probably won't get the Busby Berkeley references.)
But by and large "The Swan Princess" is a wonderfully satisfying effort, with broad humor for children and more sophisticated gags for adults and perhaps most importantly, this one has a female who eventually takes things into her own hands . . . er, wings . . . so that she isn't simply rescued by the males in the story.
"The Swan Princess" is great fun and since it marks Rich's maiden voyage as an independent animated filmmaker, it also gives us something to look forward to in his future films.