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‘The Swan Princess’ (G)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 1994

Earlier this year, there was Disney's "The Lion King," which is back in theaters for a second run. Now there is New Line Cinema's "The Swan Princess" and, if you ask me, the latter is far the better of the two.

Produced and directed by Richard Rich, a Disney veteran, "The Swan Princess" is a beautifully animated romantic tale about a mad sorcerer named Rothbart (the voice of Jack Palance) who transforms the statuesque Princess Odette (Michelle Nicastro) into a swan to foil her marriage to Prince Derek (Howard McGillin), her dashing childhood sweetheart. It's a story of an evil usurper trying to claim the kingdom for himself, which makes the film at least superficially similar to Disney's African epic. But its tone couldn't be more different. Child or adult, you can watch it without feeling that you've had a shopping mall erected in your brain.

As lovers, Odette and Derek, who have been "intended" for one another since infancy, are a cut above the bland pair in "Beauty and the Beast." Even so, the course of true romance does not run smoothly. Just as they are about to announce their engagement, Derek tells his beloved that she is beautiful, to which she replies, "What else?" Poor dope that he is, Derek answers: "What else is there?"

Immediately, the wedding is called off, giving Rothbart room to launch his vile scheme.

Transformed, the swan Odette is exiled to an enchanted forest, where she is befriended by a couple of lakeside wildlife knuckleheads. The first is a frog named Jean-Bob -- get it? a frog who's French -- who is under the impression that he, too, is a royal person trapped in an animal's body. The estimable John Cleese brings him to life with an accent that makes Inspector Clouseau look like a Berlitz valedictorian.

Jean-Bob's best pal is a turtle named Speed. Of course, the handle is ironic, a point underscored by the phlegmatic brilliance of comedian Steven Wright's deadpan delivery.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the film is its fluid, unhurried pace. Rich and his team aren't interested in roller-coaster effects or sledgehammer manipulations. They have a lush, original sense of color, even a flair for the poetic. The score -- by lyricist David Zippel and composer Lex de Azevedo -- isn't terribly distinctive (it's probably the movie's weakest link), but there is a merciful absence of the hard sell in that area as well.

In the past, the Disney studios, for all their bullying and gargantuanism, have held a complete lock on feature animation. They were it. Now, it seems, they've got talented company.

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