This year, the 1994 animated film The Swan Princess hits its 25th anniversary. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released a new 25th Anniversary Blu-ray, which features newly-restored picture and sound, along with a new retrospective featurette.
The Swan Princess is an animated musical fantasy film based on the Swan Lake ballet. King William (Dakin Matthews) is growing old and is worried that he doesn’t have a child to inherit his throne. That is, until his daughter, Princess Odette (Michelle Nicastro), is born. In a nearby kingdom, the widow Queen Uberta (Sandy Duncan) also has a sole heir, her son Prince Derek (Howard McGillin). The two monarchs decide to spend time together each summer in hopes that their children will fall in love, get married, and unite the two kingdoms. At first the children can’t stand spending time with one another. But as the years go by, a love starts to form, especially as Derek sees that Odette has transformed into a beautiful swan (not literally…yet).
Meanwhile, the evil enchanter Rothbart (Jack Palance), whom King William had banished from his kingdom decades earlier, looking for revenge. Instead of simply taking the kingdom by force, he wants to marry Princess Odette and legitimize his claim to the throne. So he kidnaps Odette, takes her to a lake, and casts a spell on her, turning her into a swan (for real this time). Each night when the moon rises, she transforms back into her human self, but when the moon goes down, she once again becomes a swan. Each night, Rothbart returns to the lake, once again asking for Odette’s hand in marriage, and each night she refuses. While most believe that Odette is dead, Derek hasn’t given up hope. He has been training for the day when he comes in contact with the “Great Animal” that took Odette. As Odette tries to figure out a way to escape from her captivity, she befriends a slow turtle named Speed (Steven Wright), a French frog named Jean-Bob (John Cleese) who claims to be prince who can be turned back into a human with a kiss, and an Irish puffin named Puffin (Steve Vinovich), who believes himself to be a Lieutenant.
The only way that the spell cast over Odette can be broken is if she receives a vow of everlasting love that is professed to the world. However, Rothbart will do everything in his power to prevent that from happening, until Odette agrees to marry him.
I had somehow never seen The Swan Princess (or any of its eight direct-to-video sequels) over the past 25 years, but was surprised by how well it still holds up today. The film uses a classic 2D, cell animation style that feels reminiscent of the Disney films of the same era. It’s impressive that a film from an independent studio was able to hold its own up against the major animation studios. The story is a timeless classic, and is executed in a way that works quite well for both children and adults—there are a lot of jokes mixed in that are definitely geared towards the adult viewers, in addition lots of humor that will appeal to viewers of any age. At the heart of the film is this love story between Odette and Derek, but at the same time, there is also a lot of comic relief. On Odette’s side of the story, this comes from her animal friends, who have this great comedic chemistry—Steven Wright’s dry wit pairs nicely with the more frenetic tone of John Cleese’s humor. And on Derek’s side, the humor comes from his bumbling best friend Bromley (Joel McKinnon Miller), his overbearing mother Uberta, and her exasperated valet, Lord Rogers (Mark Harelik). And while Rothbart does some evil things, he also has a lighter, comical side, which is seen in his musical number “No More Mister Nice Guy”.
Speaking of the music, while I didn’t find the songs as memorable as a typical Disney film, some of them were quite well done. The love ballad, “Far Longer Than Forever”, was nominated for a Golden Globe, and “Princesses on Parade” is paired with an elaborate choreographed dance number. Overall, The Swan Princess was a solidly entertaining animated fantasy that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.
Sony’s Blu-tray release does an excellent job of cleaning up the picture and sound. The film looks remarkably better than some of the footage included in the retrospective bonus feature. The picture contains clean lines, a pleasant amount of grain, and the colors are well balanced. There are a couple scenes here and there that don’t look as cleaned up as the rest, but these are few and far between and for the most part the picture is fantastic. The audio also sounds excellent, right from the opening of the film as pouring rain and the crashing of thunder surrounds the viewer. The dialogue remains clear throughout the film, and the original songs also sound great.
The Blu-ray is packed in standard HD keepcase without a slipcover and doesn’t include a digital copy, which is odd since the film was also just released digitally as well (and in 4K on some providers). Despite being a 25th anniversary edition, the Blu-ray only contains a small assortment of bonus material. There is a new 10-minute retrospective featurette, but much of this is comprised of footage from the original 26-minute Making Of special, which is also included. The only other bonus features are 5 Sing-Alongs, but these just play the musical scenes from the film, without any kind of lyrical enhancement to facilitate a sing-along.
- 1080p / Widescreen 1.85:1
- Audio: English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, French Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
- Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish
- Looking Back at 25 Years of The Swan Princess (10:16)
The filmmakers look back on the film after 25 years. Combining archival footage from the original Making Of special with new interviews, the filmmakers discuss the casting the film, some of the changes that were made while making the film, the modern move to cgi with the sequels, cleaning up the original film for the 25th anniversary, and more. Those interviewed include executive producer Seldon O Young, assistant editor Joe Campana, producer Jared Brown, lead animator for Puffin Rick Farmiloe, background supervisor Donald Towns, director Richard Rich, SFX animator Debbie Middleton, animation supervisor Steve Gordon, writer Brian Nissen, and Michelle Nicastro (“Odette”).
- The Swan Princess: Making Of (26:36)
This special was originally created for the 1994 VHS Collector’s Edition release. The filmmakers talk about moving from their animated Bible and Hero stories to making an animated feature. They discuss creating the script, developing of the characters, creating the storyboards, and the various stages of animation. They also talk about recording the voices, finding the sound of the great animal, the use of foley artists, choreographing the Princesses on Parade dance and filming it for the animators, and the use of special effects. The special also looks at creating the film’s iconic songs, and features footage of the the voice actors in the recording studio. The filmmakers also talk about product licensing and marketing the film, adding in gags and jokes for humor, and the costly process of modifying a completed scene to add a suit of armor to a character after the news reported that children had imitated a deadly scene from The Program. Those interviewed include president/CEO of Nest Entertainment Doug Martin, director Richard Rich, executive producer Seldon O Young, writer Brian Nissen, producer Jared Brown, lead animator for Puffin Rick Farmiloe, background supervisor Donald Towns, animation supervisor Steve Gordon, composer Lex de Azevedo, and more. The special is presented in 4:3 format, and quality of the picture is a pretty poor at times—a bit dark and blurry—like it was taken right from the VHS.
- Sing-Alongs (16:29)
Play the musical scenes from the film. Unlike most Blu-rays that do this, this is just the raw scenes with no lyrics appearing on screen, though subtitles can be enabled.
- “This is My Idea” (6:12))
- “Practice, Practice, Practice” (2:27)
- “Far Longer Than Forever” (2:34))
- “No More Mister Nice Guy” (2:41)
- “Princesses on Parade” (2:35)
The Swan Princess is a timeless animated tale that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. 25 years later, the film looks and sounds better than ever, and the animation and story still hold up quite well. The bonus material and lack of a digital copy are a little disappointing, but for fans of the film, the restored picture and sound alone should be enough to warrant a purchase. This is also worth checking out for anyone looking for a solid animated musical that the whole family can enjoy.