The Swan Princess. Dir. Richard Rich. New Line Cinema. 1994.

The Swan Princess follows the story of Princess Odette and Prince Derek. From the time they are children it is hoped that they will marry and join their kingdoms, and as they grow up they fall in love with each other. However, their romance is thwarted by the evil warlock Lord Rothbart, who kills Odette’s father and wishes to take over his kingdom by marrying Odette. He casts a spell on her so that until she agrees to marry him she turns into a swan during the daytime, and can only turn back into a human at night. With the help of her animal friends, Jean-Bob the frog, Speed the tortoise (mistakenly referred to as a turtle in the film[1]) and Puffin the puffin, Odette must try and find a way to return to Derek and get him to break the spell before it is too late…

The Swan Princess is first and foremost an animated movie. Although not strictly a genre, animations often ‘contain genre-like elements’[2] and most often are created to appeal primarily to children, although the whole family can enjoy them. The genres included within The Swan Princess are romance, fantasy and musical.

  • Romance films centre on a love story between two main characters, in this case Odette and Derek.
  • Fantasy films take place in a world in which events take place that aren’t possible in real life, and ‘often have an element of magic, myth, wonder, and the extraordinary’.[3] In The Swan Princess fantasy elements include the talking animals and Rothbart’s magical powers.
  • Musical films include song and dance numbers as a significant part of the narrative, and this film includes many musical numbers including ‘Far Longer Than Forever’ and ‘This Is My Idea’.

In The Swan Princess Rothbart punishes Odette for refusing to marry him by turning her into a swan every day. There is a clear message that being a swan is worse than being a human, firstly because Odette’s transformation is a punishment, whereas if it were better to be a swan it would be a reward, and also because as a swan Odette finds it hard to accomplish things that she could have done with ease as a human. Negative aspects of being a swan include that Odette can’t talk to humans and so can’t communicate with Derek, and that as a swan she is a relatively weak creature with wings rather than hands or arms. We can the failings of being a swan clearly when Odette is trying to get into the banqueting hall to reach Derek, but can’t get in because she can’t open any of the windows and doors, and also when Derek is trying to hunt her because he thinks she is an evil creature and she can’t tell him who she really is. In the ballet Swan Lake being turned into a swan proves fatal for Odette, and in this film she is saved just in time. The character of Jean-Bob also spends the movie trying to become a human rather than a frog, and so reinforces the message that being a human is better than being an animal.

As Odette changes into a swan she covers her face, showing that she feels ashamed of the transformation…
Still from The Swan Princess.

…while as a swan she seems to cry out in anguish.
Still from The Swan Princess.

Yet, Odette is associated with swans not only while she is under Rothbart’s spell, but all the way through the movie, for example when Derek gives her a necklace with a swan on it at beginning of the movie, and when she wears a swanlike wedding dress at the end. This suggests that Odette has positive qualities that the viewer associates with swans, such as ‘loyalty and strength’,[4] ‘fidelity’,[5] ‘beauty and grace’,[6] and many more. It is interesting that while being a swan is seen as negative, possessing qualities than humans have attributed to swans is just the opposite.

Odette is associated with swans throughout the movie…
Still from The Swan Princess.

…suggesting that she shares certain characteristics with them.
Still from The Swan Princess.

Meanwhile there is a clear contrast in the film between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ animals. The main ‘good’ animals are Jean-Bob, Speed and Puffin, who are anthropomorphised and can speak with Odette in both her human and swan form. Meanwhile, the ‘bad’ animals can’t talk, so that the viewer has no opportunity to empathise with them, and stereotypically ‘bad’ animals are used to show that they are evil. Rothbart’s tower is guarded by crocodiles, commonly feared by humans because of their sharp teeth and carnivorous nature. Meanwhile, when Rothbart transforms into a ‘great animal’ he looks distinctly bat-like, following in a long history of the association of bats with evil, for example in the vampire myth. Stereotypical representations of animals are not limited to the ‘bad’ creatures, as the ironically named Speed is stereotypically slow, apart from at the end of the movie, when his ability to swim quickly is depicted humorously.

The ‘good’ animals – Puffin, Jean-Bob the frog and Speed the ‘turtle’.
Still from The Swan Princess.

The ‘evil’ bat-like monster.
Still from The Swan Princess.

Several ethical issues are broached in this film concerning animals, although they aren’t explored in any detail. The first issue is hunting, as Derek hunts the evil ‘great animal’, which is actually Rothbart in disguise. However, although hunting may seem permissible in these circumstances, while hunting the ‘great animal’ Derek almost shoots and kills Odette when she is a swan, and earlier in the film Puffin is actually shot by an arrow. It is therefore difficult to judge whether hunting is portrayed as acceptable or not, especially as the film makes no explicit statements on the subject. Similarly the ethical issue of eating animals is introduced through the character of Jean-Bob the frog. He is French, which leads the viewer to think about the fact that the French eat frogs’ legs, and at a comedic point in the film he says that he will ‘have your back legs fried in butter’. However, the film never assumes a standpoint either for or against eating animals.

Puffin is hit by an arrow – but the film doesn’t explicitly condemn hunting as unethical.
Still from The Swan Princess.

It is interesting to note that The Swan Princess is based on the ballet Swan Lake, which was adapted from the folk tales such as The Stolen Veil and The White Duck. These folk tales in turn may have derived their source from the ancient Greek myth of Zeus and Leda, in which Zeus rapes Leda while in the form of a swan. This shows a continual fascination through the years with the figure of the swan and with human-to-animal transformation, as well as the relationship between humans and swans.

In my opinion the most important aspect of animal representation in The Swan Princess is that it portrays being an animal as worse than being a human. The film depicts Odette’s transformation into a swan as a punishment and emphasises the negative aspects of being a swan instead of a human, and the character of Jean-Bob further reinforces the message that being human is better than being an animal because throughout the film he wants to be human instead of a frog. Secondly, this film reinforces animal stereotypes. While Odette is associated with stereotypical qualities of a swan, the ‘bad’ animals appear to have been picked according to common perceptions and stereotypes, with ‘bad’ animals including sharp-toothed crocodiles and vampiric bats, while ‘good’ animal Speed the tortoise is stereotypically slow.

The motif of a human being transformed into an animal is a common one in films, especially children and family-oriented ones, and in many of these films being turned into an animal is seen as a negative thing. Examples of such films are Beauty and the BeastPinocchioThe Princess and the Frog and The Emperor’s New Groove. The ethical issues that are touched on in this film can also be seen in in other children and family-oriented films, for example hunting is dealt with in Bambi, while the question of whether eating animals is ethical is also raised in The Little Mermaid through the character of Sebastian, as well as in films such as Chicken Run. Meanwhile, there are many films that play on existing stereotypes of certain animals as ‘evil’, as The Swan Princess does, with films including Lake Placid and Jaws depicting crocodiles and sharks as violent and bloodthirsty. However, films based on true stories such as Primeval and Open Water demonstrate that crocodiles and sharks can in fact be extremely dangerous, and therefore that the stereotypes of these animals are based in fact. This is not the case for bats, which although popularly associated with evil are unlikely to attack humans.[7]

Referenced works:

The Swan Princess. Dir. Richard Rich. Nest Family Entertainment and Rich Animation Studios, 1994.

Dirks, Tim, ‘Animated Films.’ AMC Filmsite. (accessed 5 April 2013).

Dirks, Tim, ‘Film Sub-Genres.’ AMC Filmsite. (accessed 5 April 2013).

‘Do Vampire Bats Drink Blood?’ Discovery Kids. (accessed 6 April 2013).

‘Swan Symbolism.’ Pure Spirit – Animal Communication, Training & Behavior Solutions. (accessed 6 April 2013).

‘The Swan Princess Trivia.’ The Internet Movie Database. (accessed 4 April 2013).

Further references:

For more information on the film:

For more information on genre:

For more information on the stories which The Swan Princess is based on:

For the full ‘Princess and the Frog’ tale:

[1] ‘The Swan Princess Trivia.’ The Internet Movie Database. (accessed 4 April 2013).

[2] Tim Dirks, ‘Animated Films.’ AMC Filmsite. (accessed 5 April 2013).

[3] Tim Dirks, ‘Film Sub-Genres.’ AMC Filmsite. (accessed 5 April 2013).

[4] ‘Swan Symbolism.’ Pure Spirit – Animal Communication, Training & Behavior Solutions. (accessed 6 April 2013).

[5] ‘Swan Symbolism.’

[6] ‘Swan Symbolism.’

[7] ‘Do Vampire Bats Drink Blood?’ Discovery Kids. (accessed 6 April 2013).