Swan Princess (1994 Disney with Jack Palance and John Cleese)

USA / 1994 / Disney

Writer: Brian Nissen / Director: Richard Rich

Voice Cast: Jack Palance, Howard McGillin, Michelle Nicastro, John Cleese, Steven Wright, Steve Vinovich, Mark Harelik, James Arrington, Sandy Duncan

This gorgeous animated children’s fairy tale, partly based on Swan Lake, sports memorable tunes, feisty characters and an infectious romantic spirit. When headstrong beauty Princess Odette is captured by an evil sorcerer and turned into a swan, only Prince Derek can save her. But is his love strong enough to break the spell?

The rulers of two neighbouring kingdoms have for years tried to steer their children towards a politically astute marriage. Odette and Derek are having none of it. Every summer since childhood they’ve been pushed together, and each time they bicker and fight. But now that they’ve grown up, Derek is suddenly struck by Odette’s great beauty and makes an advance. She’s incensed that his change of heart seems only to have been inspired by her appearance and flatly rejects him. But on her way home, villainous Rothbart (voiced by Jack Palance), attacks the entourage, killing everyone save the princess, whom he kidnaps. He plans to marry the girl and so become king himself. When Odette refuses, Rothbart turns her into a swan. Only when moonlight hits the lake does she temporarily revert to her human form.

The only way to break the terrible curse is for someone to kiss her and profess his undying love in public. With the help of three new friends, Jean-Bob the frog, Speed the turtle, and bird-brained Puffin, Odette gets word of her predicament to Derek. The prince is distraught, and promises to display his affection during the state ball that his mother is throwing the following night. But dastardly Rothbart overhears their conversation, and disguises his housekeeper as the princess. Now Derek’s amorous proclamation threatens to kill the real Odette. He can still save her, but first he must prove that his love is true and, like the princess’s beauty, not simply skin deep.

Director Richard Rich (creator of The Rescuers, Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound) sticks to the blueprint that has proved so successful for recent rival Disney productions. A luxurious fantasy-world is populated by a slightly dumb but redeemable hero, a deliciously wicked villain, a strong, doe-eyed heroine, and her team of bumbling animal accomplices. It may be a derivative formula, but it’s endearing and extremely effective allowing a riot of humour, action and romance. Graphics are lush, the songs by Lex de Azevedo and David Zippel are playful and melodius, and the characterisation by the voice-over actors (including John Cleese as Jean-Bob and comedian Steven Wright as Speed) is crisp and delightfully comic.