18 April 2010 | D_Burke
An Oversimplification of a Complex 19th Century Novel, But It Has Its Merits
I like independent animated movies that fall below the radar. That's not to say I don't appreciate Disney or other popular animation giants. However, there's something noble about animators who create a good story with intriguing characters on a smaller budget. Independent full-length animated features that don't conform to family-friendly standards are ones I admire the most.
That's why it's hard not to respect "The Prisoner of Zenda", the first and only animated movie based on the 1892 novel by Anthony Hope. It doesn't try to be like Disney at all. It doesn't talk down to children, but also doesn't alienate adults by being too cute for its own good. That being said, it's hard to say who the intended audience is for this film. Would any child be interested in seeing this movie over other animated features that are out there?
Burbank Films Australia released this movie in 1988. As far as I know, it wasn't released theatrically in America, and I'm not sure how well regarded it is in Australia or other parts of the world. I first discovered it on Nickelodeon one afternoon when I was 10. I remember liking it, or at least I could follow the story pretty well. The film came to my attention again recently when I purchased the DVD at a toy store for only 50 cents (in the clearance section). The DVD, manufactured in 1998, was so old that it was labeled a Digital Versatile Disc.
Despite the age of the DVD, the picture and sound quality are actually good. There are times when it's difficult to tell what the characters are saying some of the time, but overall, the film was restored well.
For a low-budget film, the animation was also pretty good. I liked the European feel of the background art, and the movements of the animated characters were fluid and not distracting in the slightest. I also admired how the lips moved in sync with the character's voices almost all of the time. It sounds patronizing, but truthfully, it matters when an independent studio is able to successfully make that effect happen. When it doesn't happen, the audience becomes distracted and taken out of the story.
So by no means was the animated "Prisoner of Zenda" an easy film to make. It was 100% hand-drawn animation. Of course, for 70 years, that's all animation was, but it is still noteworthy.
However, the question remains: was this story worth being an animated movie? That's where it gets tricky.
This movie centers around the fictional European monarchy of Ruritania. The king, while on his death bed, appoints his son, modest and true Prince Rudolf, to succeed him. Rudolf has a fraternal twin brother, Prince Michael, who was technically born first. However, the king does not make him king because he has "wildness within (him) that is not befitting to a king". You learn as the movie progresses that Michael is tyrannical and that his father is essentially correct in not appointing him, but that reason could have been worded less vaguely.
I confess that I haven't read the novel yet, and I try to read literature based on films before I go see them. However, I knew the novel had a better explanation for why Michael wasn't crowned king. According to Wikipedia, Michael was Rudolf's half brother in the book, and was born to a woman of non-royal blood whom the king married second, thereby making him less fit to be king than his brother. In the book and this movie, Michael can only become king if Rudolf dies.
The story gets interesting when Michael immediately schemes to kill his brother. His wife, Princess Antionette (who, in the novel, is Michael's mistress), warns Rudolf immediately. Rudolf, although doubtful of his brother's desire to murder him, sends Antionette to London for reasons unexplained in this movie. They are merely brushed over by Rudolf saying, "Maybe I have a plan. Yes I do, but I'll need your help". The next scene cuts to London 3 weeks later (says the subtitles), and no further details are revealed.
Antionette runs into a gentlemen named Rudolf Rassendyll, who looks identical to Prince Rudolf. The whole point of Antionette meeting him is that she spontaneously finds an effective double for Prince Rudolf, but it's doubtful Prince Rudolf knew about his existence, because Rudolf Rassendyll definitely didn't know about him.
This and other details make this adaptation feel as though another more complex story is being held back. Furthermore, Prince Michael seems too cartoonishly menacing in this version. His henchmen are buffoons, which is not a bad thing. However, Michael seems too much of an idiot himself, and is more like Wile E. Coyote than Scar from "The Lion King" (1994). Scar and Prince Michael wished to take the throne by any means necessary, knowing their brothers' lives stood in the way. Scar was more menacing and smarter. In the end of this version, the consequences of Michael's actions are way too slapstick to be taken seriously. A lot of tension is also absent from the climax, and the ending was insipid.
The filmmakers probably wanted to make this story appeal to kids, but either read the Cliff's Notes, or skipped over the racy details for family entertainment's sake. The animation is not half-baked, but the story sadly is. If anything positive should come out of this adaptation, it is that seeing it has made me want to read the book. If kids see this movie and somehow feel the same way, then it's impossible to dismiss this film as cheap animation.