In my experience, only two kinds of people have seen The Swan Princess (1994). The first kind has watched it religiously since childhood, having arbitrarily snatched the VHS off a Blockbuster shelf because it had princesses and cuddly animals. The second kind had their arms twisted into watching it by the first kind. It’s not high art, but what four-year-old is going to shake their stubby fist at the screen and cry, “This narrative lacks verisimilitude!” The film is an animated adaptation (I use this word in the most generous sense possible) of the classic ballet Swan Lake. That’s right, the one in Black Swan. That’s a sign marker for “now leaving family friendly territory” if I ever saw one. So how do you adapt it into a kids’ movie? Eh…you don’t. But this is how you try.
Every summer until Princess Odette and Prince Derek come of age, they’re shoved into each other’s arms. The endgame of their respective parents, King William and Queen Uberta, is that they’ll fall in love and merge their kingdoms. The kids are at each other’s throats for years, but in one fateful meeting, everything changes. This year…they’re hot.
Derek is raring to get hitched, but Odette is disappointed that he’s only after her beauty, so the marriage is called off. Wait, what? Did a D-list animated kids’ movie from the 90s just take the concept of arbitrarily smashing pretty royalty together and slug it in the mouth? What sorcery is this?
Speaking of sorcery, the evil wizard Rothbart ambushes William and Odette on their way back to their kingdom. Derek hears about the attack runs through the woods screaming Odette’s name, because screw the king’s well-being. William tells Derek that he was attacked by something called the Great Animal, and stammers out that “it’s not what it seems.” Derek asks where Odette is, and William uses his last breath to say she’s gone. Look, your majesty, I know you’re dying, but…we figured. Wanna narrow it down? No? Thanks, sire.
Rothbart takes Odette to his scenic lakeside fortress and gives her a quick rundown of the curse: she’s a swan by day and a princess by night, but only if “the moonlight touches her wings.” Since moonlight is only sunlight reflected off the moon, I guess the moon has special swan-filtering properties? And why a swan? “Let’s turn the captive into a wild animal known to break the arms of grown men!” A+ job.
Essentially the purpose of the spell is to blackmail Odette into marrying Rothbart, thereby making him king. Hold on, dude, with all your magical powers, you’ve got way more options here!
A) Terrorize the entire kingdom with your magic and appoint yourself as their evil overlord.
B) Turn yourself into King William and ascend to the throne without a fuss.
C) If you still want Odette out of the deal, turn into Derek and marry into ruling two kingdoms.
But no, Rothbart goes with Operation “Turn the princess into a swan for half a day, every day, until just maybe her loneliness lowers her standards!” Another A+ for Rothbart.
Despite rejecting Derek that very same day, Odette spends all her time imprisoned by the lake pining after the boy. I’ll buy love at first sight in Disney movies since it’s a time-honored trope, but you can’t go out of your way to subvert it and then come running right back without an explanation, you little tease.
Derek still clings to the hope of booty and vows to hunt down the Great Animal. He and Odette cross paths in the woods, but unfortunately she’s in her considerably less sexy swan form and he doesn’t recognize her. Derek recalls William’s hint that the Great Animal is “not what it seems,” and somehow assumes it’s disguised as a swan. Y’know what also doesn’t seem like a Great Animal, Derek? That tree behind you. That hill. The sun. Why’s it gotta be a swan?
Derek catches up to Odette just in time for her snazzy transformation sequence and halts his attack, but if I were him, I’d be thinking, “A glowing swan? That’s definitely the Great Animal!” But no, he rushes to kiss and make up with Odette. Derek begs her to leave with him, but to dodge the impending cries of bestiality, first he needs to break Odette’s spell.
Odette will be set free if Derek makes her a vow of everlasting love, and he has to do it in front of the whole world. Queen Uberta just so happened to invite “the whole world” to a ball she’s holding tomorrow night (someone’s desperate for attention), so Odette promises to attend. Rothbart overhears and smugly informs Odette that she won’t be able to go, since “tomorrow night…there is no moon!” But wait, a new moon doesn’t mean the moon’s gone, it means you can’t see it from Earth! Hurry, Odette, fly into space!
Rothbart magically disguises his henchwoman as Odette and sends her off to the ball. If Derek makes his vow of everlasting love to the wrong girl, Odette will be stuck as a swan forever, Rothbart’s henchwoman will be queen, and Rothbart will rule through her. Great idea, Rothbart! Let’s add that as option D on our list of “Things You Could Have Done Without Resorting to Swans!” While we’re at it, here’s option E: since Uberta invited the whole world to her ball, why not kidnap every princess there? You could hold the whole world ransom and get a truckload of pretty honeys out of the deal! Think big!
Derek mistakenly makes a vow of everlasting love to the henchwoman, and so Odette is heartbroken. No really, her heart broke. She dying. But why? He may have pointed at the henchwoman, but he said he made his vow to Odette. That’s like saying, “Man, I could eat pancakes forever!” and accidentally gesturing to your beloved kitten. Bon appétit, and my condolences.
The real Odette flaps around by the window, so Derek realizes his mistake and chases after her. Odette turns back into a human long enough to say goodbye to Derek, then keels over and dies. Derek orders Rothbart to resurrect her, and Rothbart agrees…if Derek can defeat him in battle. And it’s hardly fair fight, since Rothbart is the Great Animal. What a tweest!
Derek still curb-stomps Rothbart and declares that he’s always loved Odette, although that montage of a dozen years of stink eyes begs to differ. Departing from the original ballet so that millions of children won’t cry themselves to sleep, Derek brings Odette back to life, they get married, and they live happily ever after.
So there’s The Swan Princess. Our leads may be bland and short on brains, and the plot keeps tripping over its own shoelaces, but it’s fun! Plenty of love and care went into the animation, the songs range from catchy to gorgeous, and the actors deliver some memorable performances, especially the side characters. Sure, they really fumble the “what else is there?” thread, but kudos to them for bringing it up. All in all, The Swan Princess is a cute flick, and I definitely recommend it to the young at heart.