The Trumpet Of The Swan

Directors: Terry L. Noss and Richard Rich
Voice Cast:
Jason Alexander, Mary Steenburgen, Reese Witherspoon

Over the years, my taste in movies has changed, as no doubt yours has at well. My tastes may very well change in the future, but there are certain kinds of movies where I feel it is very unlikely I will change my opinion on any time soon - if ever. In fact, there are specific sources of movies out there that let me know ahead of time that sampling any of their present-day wares will result in great anguish for me. One such reliable source is from certain studios. For example, movies like Allan Quatermain And The Temple Of Skulls have taught me that watching movies from the studio The Asylum is a very bad idea. Another studio that has product I know best to avoid are from Sony Pictures' division Screen Gems; practically all of their movies have been big stinkeroos, such as the Resident Evil series. But possibly the studio that I loathe the most (as least in its modern-day incarnation), is Disney. To say that I hate their movies that are coming out these days is an understatement. With their acquisition of Marvel, they have been pumping out one superhero movie after another with so much speed, that they have run out of new ideas, and they've made the superhero genre boring. With their acquisition of Lucasfilm, they have run riot with Star Wars, so much so that they haven't most of the time taken the care with new Star Wars properties to ensure they are not only of high quality, but to also ensure they won't peeve the fanboys. And don't get me started on all the sequels and remakes they have made from the properties that were originated from the studio decades earlier. While I know not all of their movies nowadays are sequels or remakes, it sure seems like it at times, and what is worse is that these sequels and remakes don't bring much (if anything) new to the table, and as a result come across as blatant cash grabs.

Those aforementioned reasons are mostly why today I hate Disney (and its new products) with a passion; you will never see me subscribe to Disney Plus. But my hatred for Disney started to brew decades earlier. As a child in the 1970s, when I was taken to the theater to see a new Disney movie, it was usually dire stuff like Unidentified Flying Oddball and Herbie Goes Bananas. Disney product did start to improve in the 1980s, but starting in that decade, Disney started to do something new that irritated me greatly. What that happened to be was making a great effort to squeeze out of the picture any competitors that were attempting to attract audiences to their own animated movies. Let me give you an example of this, albeit one that really showed how Disney had perfected its sneakiness by the 1990s. In April 12, 1996, movie studio MGM released to theaters the Don Bluth animated movie The Pebble And The Penguin. However, five days earlier, the Disney company had just "coincidentally" released one of their own animated movies, which was A Goofy Movie. Since the Disney company had a head start, they managed to take what audience was around at that particular time for a family animated movie. The result was Disney making a nice profit, while MGM lost millions because few people went to see their animated movie. Yeah, I know from watching it that The Pebble And The Penguin was a bad and shoddy effort (Bluth himself disowned it), and MGM at that time didn't have the marketing muscle that Disney had at that time... but still, that kind of sneaky manouvering by Disney soured me a lot.

Then there is the case of at least one of the animated movies made by animation director Richard Rich (no, not the cartoon character.) He actually got his start in animation by working for Disney, among his efforts being directing The Fox And The Hound and The Black Cauldron. After being fired from Disney in 1986, he subsequently founded Rich Animation Studios (a.k.a. RichCrest). After dabbling for several years with making animated Christian short films, he finally got the green light for his dream project, an animated take on the fable Swan Lake. It took several years for the movie to be completed, in part because Rich didn't have all the animation technology Disney had at the time. The finished movie, titled The Swan Princess, was released to theaters in November 18, 1994... the exact same date when Disney decided to re-release (with ample marketing) their animated smash hit The Lion King. As a result (and maybe also due to a so-so critical response), The Swan Princess was crushed at the box office by the lion, and Rich's animation career never really recovered. Since then, most of his efforts have been for the direct to video market, and he's moved on to computer generated animated product. That may be due to the fact that after The Swan Princess, his next two theatrical hand drawn animated movies didn't fare well. The King And I was criticized for bad animation, being a wonky-plotted adaptation of Rogers The Trumpet Of The Swanand Hammerstein's original stage musical, and for sheer racism at times. The other film, The Trumpet Of The Swan, didn't get much of a push by its distributor Sony, and was quickly forgotten. A very loyal and very long time (years!) reader of mine (thank you, Michael P.!) alerted me to this movie, and I thought it would be interesting to look at for several reasons. Was there a reason for Sony washing their hands of the movie? Why did Rich return to "swan" material when he failed with it the first time? Could I write a review where I could find an (admittedly flimsy) excuse to bash Disney extensively? The answer to the third question was obvious, but I still had enough curiosity about the movie to watch it. The movie starts off in what I assume is the Canadian wilderness in spring, where a "pen" (a female swan, voiced by Mary Steenburgen of What's Eating Gilbert Grape) has laid eggs, resulting in her having three cygnets (baby swans), two girls and a boy. Her mate, a "cob" (male swan, Jason Alexander of The Man Who Saved Christmas), is as happy as she is at first. But it doesn't take long for the two to realize there's a problem - their male cygnet, who they have named Louie (Dee Bradley Baker, Space Jam), is unable to talk. Though he subsequently has the expected struggles due to his disability, he makes friends with another young swan named Serena (Reese Witherspoon, Pleasantville). As summer draws to a close, Louie's inability to talk hasn't been solved, which is a problem for Louie in part due to the fact he's fallen in love with Serena, but can't express his love to her. Even when Louie befriends a human boy named Sam (Sam Gifaldi, Hey Arnold!), and Sam arranges it so that Louie learns to read and write from his teacher Mrs. Hammerbotham (Carol Burnett, Annie), Louie's new knowledge doesn't help him communicate his love to Serena. So Louie's father takes desperate measures: He steals a trumpet from a music store and gives it to Louie, so Louie can learn how to make music and noises that will help him communicate. However, Louie not only has to deal with a rival swan named Boyd (Seth Green, A Billion For Boris) competing for Serena's love, but the extreme guilt his father feels about stealing the trumpet.

The Trumpet Of The Swan is based on a book by E. B. White, who also wrote the classic children's books Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. As it turns out, I read all three of those books when I was a child, though today I only have vague memories of The Trumpet Of The Swan while I remember the other two quite vividly. However, what I do remember from the book was nowhere as dumb as many of the things I saw in this movie adaptation. In this movie adaptation, we're asked to swallow things such as swans flying south for the winter only as far as Montana, a squirrel managing to travel the considerable (for a squirrel) distance to follow the swans to Montana, a swan understanding the concept of reading and writing in just a few seconds and mastering it just a little longer later, a swan playing volleyball with humans, and (the biggest howler) a canoe river dock at a children's summer camp only being a few feet away from a raging waterfall. Maybe children who watch this movie won't think how dumb those and other unmentioned details in the movie are, but I think even they will be astonished by how poor the basic storytelling in this movie is. For example, not too long after Louie and his family arrive in Montana, the story completely forgets that winter is about to arrive, and then the story abruptly jumps ahead not only to the warmer season, but back up north where Louie was born. Kids as well as adults will be bewildered for a few moments by this, as well as later moments such as when Louie travels all the way to Boston in order to make money with his trumpet playing that can be used to pay back the music store owner for the trumpet. In that particular moment, Louie simply starts playing in a city park, and within mere seconds, the whole human population of the city is dancing and singing a song of praise for Louie's trumpet skills. Maybe it would be so bad had the song been good, but this particular song, as well as the few others in the movie, are instantly forgotten as soon as they end. And the two pressing issues that need to be resolved - Louie beating Boyd and getting together with Serena, Louie's father compensating the music store owner for the stolen trumpet - are each ultimately resolved in probably just a minute, maybe two at most, of running time, making you wonder why they even bothered.

The biggest flaw with telling the story of The Trumpet Of The Swan is how unbelievably rushed it is at times with its characters. The hatching of Louie happens seconds after the movie starts, giving the movie no time to establish his parents properly early on. Later, Louie and the human Sam strike up a close friendship in mere seconds. Further on, the romantic rival Boyd comes out of nowhere, and is subsequently almost totally forgotten until the final aforementioned brief confrontation. As you can probably guessed, the end result is that all of the characters, human or not, are extremely weak. For the humans, the young boy Sam doesn't get a chance to illustrate exactly why he is interested in Louie and the other swans. Later in the movie, Louie gets entangled with a Boston con artist named Monty (Joe Mantegna, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit), who greedily schemes to exploit him while ostensibly promoting him... and that's all we learn about him. Louie himself isn't much of a character himself. With him being mute, that of course posed a problem for the filmmakers, and while we are occasionally allowed to hear his thoughts on the soundtrack, it almost comes across as a desperate post-production addition. In the end, he's a very bland individual, and he is supposed to be the movie's main character. The worst character in the movie, however, is that of Louie's father. While he isn't bland or ultimately lacking personality, the personality he quickly generates is one that is extremely annoying. He's basically a neurotic goofball, seemingly only concerned for the honor he may be given for how his family presents itself to others, and has much less regarding actual love for his family.

There are several times with Louie's father when, as he's flapping around in a panic, the soundtrack utters bass guitar notes a la what was heard on the TV show Seinfeld - which also involved actor Jason Alexander. Whenever that happened, I would think that not only would kids not understand that lame in-joke, adults probably wouldn't be all that amused, especially since it's repeated several times. It also dates this movie even further. This in-joke and the too rushed pace were not the only directorial touches by Rich and his co-director Terry L. Noss in The Trumpet Of The Swan that I questioned throughout the movie. Before getting into that, I will give them this - the colors of the movie, both with the background art and the actual animation, look bright, rich, and very pleasing to the eye. However, everything else about the artistic touches just doesn't cut it for feature film hand drawn animation standards in 2001 when the movie was released, not just that it is in many ways just a slightly fancier version of kiddie television animation of the era. You often spot small bits of dirt, debris, and outright scratches hovering around. The backgrounds look hastily painted and lacking detail, like what you'd find in a Disney or Warner Brothers afternoon TV show of the period. There are several moments when vehicles drawn with CGI assistance enter the frame, and don't match anywhere to the feeling of their hand drawn surroundings. Often when characters (human or animal) are talking, their mouth movements are clearly not matching the words they utter. As a consequence of the low budget, Rich and Noss can't put a real sweeping feel to the action - all they can do is focus in and out of what's moving on the screen, or move the camera to one side or another. And I counted at least one big continuity error. As I alluded to earlier, the total package that is The Trumpet Of The Swan simply was obsolete in the day and age it was released, which probably explains why Sony gave it a very limited theatrical release (though, oddly, not through their Screen Gems division.) While it's possible very young kids might get something out of it, they probably won't want to watch it again in the future. Older kids and adults upon watching it will probably be as disappointed as I was when long ago, I read E. B. White's Stuart Little, and was sorely disappointed that at the end of the book, White left the ongoing story unresolved. Still, the story in that novel was much better told than how this movie told its story.

(Posted December 10, 2022)

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Check for availability on Amazon of original novel by E. B. White

See also: The Archies In Jugman, The Mighty Kong, Pinocchio In Outer Space