The Swan Princess is not a Disney movie. You probably haven’t even heard of it, but it was supposed to be The Big Thing in the early 90s, judging by the success of earlier princess movies. John Cleese accepted a role in The Swan Princess, figuring that it would be a much bigger financial success than his other offer, the role of Zazu in The Lion King. Obviously, this was a poor choice, and he’s certainly been kicking himself since. This movie was a staple of my childhood, however, and it made me actually think about movie romance, something no other princess movie did for me at the time.
While its intentions seem good enough at the beginning, The Swan Princess quickly transforms into a jumbled mess of messages, jumping back and forth almost as often as the lazy animation. Is it enough just to make a kid question a romance, or should a princess movie go further than that?
King William and Queen Uberta have kingdoms on either side of a river. When William’s daughter Odette is born, the two make plans to have her spend the summers with Uberta’s son, Derek. If the two fell in love and got married, the kingdoms could be combined.This doesn’t go exactly as planned, of course: Derek doesn’t want a girl around, and Odette is quite the bully. As they grow older, Odette bullies Derek less, trying instead to impress him with her intelligence. This frustrates Derek, and he likes her even less. Things aren’t looking good for the two of them falling in love until one summer, when Odette shows up at Derek’s place and is suddenly hot. They have a falling-in-love dance and Derek asks for the wedding to be arranged.
This is quite a shock to Odette, who asks why, exactly, Derek now loves her. He tells her that she’s beautiful. Odette thanks him, and asks what else he loves. Derek, ever the poet, answers with, “What else is there?”
After William and Odette leave, Derek admits that he’s just terribly stupid, and decides to prove his love to Odette somehow. He gets his chance when a wounded soldier stumbles into the room and says that William’s carriage has been attacked. Derek rushes to the scene in time to catch William’s garbled last words, which imply that a “Great Animal” kidnapped Odette.
The creature in question happens to be Lord Rothbart, an evil sorcerer exiled from William’s kingdom years before after an attempted takeover. Since he couldn’t take it over by force, the clear choice was to wait until Odette was old enough to marry and legally acquire the kingdom. Odette does not like this choice, so Rothbart transforms her into a swan in an attempt to change her mind. She can become human again at night, but only if she’s on a certain lake when the moon hits. The only way she can go back forever is for Derek to make a public vow of everlasting love.
A few months later, everyone but Derek assumes Odette is dead. Derek has been training obsessively and searching the library for hints about the Great Animal, and when he finally gets a clue that transfiguration is involved, he heads out to search for the guy. During all this time, Odette has not tried to fly away and get help, instead choosing to wallow in self-pity and talk to animals. On the day Derek sets out, she finally thinks to look for a map and go find him. This is poor timing, since Derek is looking for a Great Animal masquerading as something innocent.
After several hours of trying to murder his intended bride, Odette manages to lead Derek back to the lake and let him know what’s going on. He invites her to his mother’s ball the next night, intending to make his love vow there. Rothbart overhears their exchange and sends a crony in Odette’s place, locking the swan in a dungeon. She escapes just in time to see Derek vow his love to another. When he realizes what he’s done, Derek rushes to the lake, kills Rothbart, and finally tells Odette why he loves her as she’s dying, breaking the spell and allowing them to live happily ever after.
As a child, I absolutely could not figure out why Odette initially turned Derek down. Everyone else in movies got married as soon as they were in love and the bad guys stopped attacking! I mean, Derek was a prince. What exactly did Odette expect?
Despite the terrible script and jumpy animation, I love this movie, and it’s mostly because it made me think about the types of relationships presented in children’s movies. Certainly, I didn’t recognize any of the more disturbing elements in some of the films as a child, but I did start to wonder why everyone else got married so fast. The princes in those other movies barely ever say why they love their princesses, and the women don’t even ask. After The Swan Princess, I started to think that there should be a bit more to those relationships.
As an adult, I can only look at how ridiculous this movie is. How did a script this terrible get made? I mean, check out the lyrics in the villain song. Really now.
The best message in this movie is a bit obvious. Odette wants someone who loves her for her personality, not just her looks. Given that most princess movies have relationships completely based on physical attraction, this is a pretty good message to send. Odette started to take notice of Derek when they were both in their teens, but it was only once she filled out that Derek realized she was pretty cool. If Derek had also been less shallow, this would be a very interesting relationship, but that’s a lot to ask for with this script.
Unfortunately, Odette completely changes once she’s been kidnapped. Suddenly, Derek has been perfect all along and they’re meant to be together. Her former spunk is gone except in her interactions with Rothbart, and the intelligence she shows when she’s younger disappears in favor of becoming a helpless damsel. She’s a shadow of her former self. Granted, she’d just seen her father murdered, but given how desperate she is to see Derek, one would assume that she would pour her grief into flying away and saving herself, something she only attempts after several months of isolation.
Also interesting to note is that Odette doesn’t have any human friends. Derek has a best friend and talks with many of the other characters, but the only conversations Odette has are with Derek, Rothbart, and a bunch of animals. No other human can talk to animals in this movie, so Odette either has a connection from being a swan or is completely insane. The movie ends with their wedding, where Odette sits outside alone and chats with her animal friends. Do you know how hard it is for a bride to find time to be alone at her wedding? Odette must be super weird if nobody wants to talk to her.
Other than Odette’s initial refusal to marry Derek, this romance doesn’t have a lot going for it. Derek is boorish and uninteresting other than his bravery. Odette becomes more of a stereotypical princess as time goes on. They certainly spend more time together than many couples in princess movies do, but they only start to enjoy it at the very end. Derek never apologizes to Odette for almost murdering her several times, and she never apologizes for beating the crap out of Derek as a child. Their relationship, like so many others, seems like it will fall apart as soon as the spark dies out.
Overall, The Swan Princess doesn’t go far with its message of romance based on more than appearance, and goes even further to idolize the idea of a damsel in distress. For little girls inundated with Disney movies, however, the trickle of doubt shown is enough to get the ball rolling to a healthier mindset, and that’s something worth some celebration.