Given the widespread popularity of the Barbie animated features, odds are that parents may be thinking The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is a knock-off of Barbie of Swan Lake (2003). If anything, it’s the other way around.
Former Disney animator Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron) made his first adaptation of the Tchaikovsky ballet way back in 1994 with The Swan Princess, starring Michelle Nicastro as the Princess Odette, Howard McGillin as Prince Derek, and Jack Palance as the evil Lord Rothbart.
That debut turned into a mostly direct-to-DVD franchise for Nest Family Entertainment, which quickly followed with The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain (1997) and The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom (1998). Then, after a 14-year hiatus, they came back with The Swan Princess Christmas (2012), The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale (2014), and The Swan Princess: Princess Tomorrow, Pirate Today (2016). All of the Swan Princess sequels tend to fall in the same made-for-young girls ages 2 through 8 range. The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is no exception. But it is exceptional by comparison.
As recent titles suggest, the Swan Princess has migrated pretty far from the original film plot, in which Princess Odette and Prince Derek’s betrothal to unite kingdoms is jeopardized by the sorcerer Rothbart, who, though defeated, vows revenge. Years later he ambushes the royal couple by transforming himself into an animal and kidnaps Odette. He turns her into a swan during the day in order to keep her hidden from the world, and she can only become human again under moonlight on the lake. Eventually, after a Romeo-and-Juliet moment or two, Prince Derek is able to defeat Rothbart and break the spell.
Now the main characters are children, and those children are secret agents and pirates and Ninjas—whatever’s popular any given year. Most of the recent installments feel overly familiar to adults, not just because of that chasing-pop-culture aspect, but because so many elements seem to have been recycled from earlier Swan Princess entries, or else “borrowed” from other films. With this one, the borrowing seems to come from Disney’s Frozen, with a little Spy Kids thrown in for good measure—including a mini-submarine. Instead of a prince cozying up to a princess in order to gain control of a kingdom, as we saw in Frozen, it’s a scoundrel trying to woo an old dowager. Outfitted with gadgets from their own personal Q, it’s up to spy kids Lucas (Grant Durazzo) and Princess Alise (Jayden Isabel) to expose the plot. Along the way they’ll have to figure out who they can trust, and like Disney heroes they’ll have to rely on animal friends to help them, especially Puffin (Gardner Jaas).
It’s all pretty formulaic and the characters are stock types that we’ve seen many times before. But the animation is colorful, there’s enough action, music, and humor to keep little ones from getting bored, and (most importantly) the main characters are likable enough to make it an entertaining diversion for the target audience. Because the action is ramped up, the gadgets add interest, the story seems more logical and the animation seems more sophisticated, Royally Undercover is a cut above recent Swan Princess sequels.
Bottom line: If your children liked the other Swan Princess sequels, they’ll like this one as well. But older children may still roll their eyes. Royally.