At the beginning of The Swan Princess, as King William holds up his new baby daughter for the kingdom to coo over, you can't help admiring the moviemakers' gutsy optimism in so nakedly invoking a signature scene from The Lion King. But hey, hakuna matata.
Yes, The Swan Princess shamelessly borrows elements from many of the great Disney animated classics: "Princesses on Parade", a Busby Berkeleyesque whirl of wedding wannabes, looks awfully like Beauty and the Beast's big ''Be Our Guest'' number; Prince Derek almost marries the wrong girl à la The Little Mermaid; the villainous Rothbart takes on the movie-star persona of the human who provides his speaking voice (Jack Palance), showing off the actor's well- known facility for one-handed push-ups as offhandedly as Aladdin's Genie performed Robin Williams' stand-up routines. But here's the one surprise in Princess: The relentless recombination actually works. Filled with rousing production numbers and the requisite love song, Princess feels like a Disney movie and that's a compliment. It's the first full-length animation feature from Rich Animation Studios, the brainchild of 14-year Disney veteran Richard Rich.
The film is based on the fairy tale-turned-ballet Swan Lake. (Disney had a version in the works two years ago but dropped it.) This Swan revolves around Princess Odette (Michelle Nicastro), who has been transformed into a swan by evil enchanter Rothbart. She befriends a French frog (John Cleese), a turtle named Speed (Steven Wright), and an injured puffin (Steve Vinovich), who help reunite her with her true love, Prince Derek (Broadway's Howard McGillin).
Although the title may deter any boy old enough to verbalize his distaste for princess-related fare, the movie does feature plenty of action, humor, and animals for the Power Rangers set, and they can always go out for popcorn during the mushy parts. There's a very funny scene in which the prince hones his archery skills, and kids will find the frog and turtle's friendship appealing (do the names Pumbaa and Timon ring a bell?).
The two main characters are pretty standard-issue in the looks department, she with a waist even Barbie would envy, he the perfect Valiant-coiffed catch. But when the movie starts casting their courtship in terms of '90s thinking, it enters brave new territory: Derek declares he loves Odette because she's beautiful, and she asks, ''But what else?'' He's at a loss to elaborate, and she rejects him. ''Good for her,'' you think.
Of course, five minutes after walking away, Odette gets zapped into swandom by Rothbart. She isn't saved till the end of the movie, when Derek finally finds the light switch and utters the right words about Odette's ''kindness'' and ''courage.'' Maybe the point is that girls will suffer until boys learn how to express their emotions.
With its modern sensibility and a visual look beautifully steeped in tradition, The Swan Princess takes a well-deserved place in the circle of animation. B+