Quest for Camelot (1998) (part 1 of 7)
Note from the Webmaster: About a year ago, I posted in the Reader Recaps section of the forums (now the Do-It-Yourself Recaps section), asking if there were any reader recaps that should be made into official recaps. In that thread, Rori’s recap of Quest for Camelot was the clear favorite. Of course, Rori’s not exactly just a “reader”—she’s been a part of the staff here since her recap of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, back in 2004—but I still think this recap fits the bill. So here it is at long last: the recap that you demanded! —Albert
I miss 2-D (“traditional”) animated features. While CGI studios have delivered some remarkable films, the pen-and-ink, hand-drawn approach is an art form unto itself. Of course, a 2-D vs. 3-D argument has a lot of gray area—computer assistance was key to the Disney-led animation renaissance of the late ’80s/early ’90s, for example, in that it allowed for more elaborate camerawork and special effects, not to mention quicker turnaround times. But for a lot of folks, that’s just splitting hairs.
The “death” of 2-D was the result of converging mistakes. Disney’s incredible comeback, effectively launched with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, couldn’t last; In 1995, the same year as Toy Story, Disney 2-D animation jumped the shark with the pretentious Pocahontas, and never fully recovered.
At roughly the same time, other studios were opening up feature animation units, causing bidding wars for animators, which in turn drove up the cost of films. Prior to this, Disney had no real competition, because rivals like Don Bluth and Richard Rich—the inherent flaws in their work notwithstanding—rarely had major studio support.
Worse, most of the films from these new animation units drew from the same wells Disney was busy draining dry. They were almost all musicals, with young adult protagonists hanging out with wisecracking sidekicks (human or animal), fighting villains (who usually had magical abilities), and falling in love. Heavy moralizing and political correctness were common, as were anachronistic jokes in the spirit of Robin Williams’ groundbreaking Aladdin performance.
And the Warner Bros. cartoon Quest for Camelot has ’em all. This is probably what people who hate Western animation think the whole genre is like.
This is an adaptation of a novel by Vera Chapman, The King’s Damosel, which I’ve never read, but this review suggests the adaptation is a darn loose one. And the production was quite troubled, if the rumors posted on several now-defunct websites were to be believed.
For one thing, the movie wasn’t initially written as a musical, and it shows. For another, the male hero’s voice was completely rerecorded by Cary Elwes—supposedly, because they wanted a bigger name [!] for the role—but most critics assumed this was an attempt to recapture a little of that Princess Bride magic. The budget soared past $100 million, and a planned making-of/art book was cancelled altogether.
Of course, it bombed, and Warner Bros. was apparently so distressed that they gave their next in-house animation effort, The Iron Giant, a complete marketing brush-off—and we all know how that turned out. Warner only produced two more unsuccessful theatrical animated films (Osmosis Jones and Looney Tunes: Back in Action) before finally packing it in.
Incidentally, this recap is an expansion of a Do-It-Yourself Recap I posted in the forums over several weeks in the summer of 2007. I moderate that particular forum, and I was flattered by the response my other recaps had received (I read everybody else’s, remember, so I know what I’m up against). But I didn’t expect it to be so popular that the other Boothers would specifically request this one to be moved up into the big leagues. I never had the intention of it becoming official, and it was only through the Boothers’ support and Albert’s help (he generated screencaps for me to write captions to) that you see it here now, so big thanks to everyone.
The movie kicks off with the Warner Bros. Family Entertainment logo (the one with Bugs Bunny leaning on the shield, used for the studio’s family films from 1993-99). Then we’re traveling over the gray, then blue sea, up over a cliff, and settling upon a dirt road. (One reviewer on the IMDb pointed out that the filmmakers are basically stealing a live-action cliché here!)
On this dirt road, a family of three—Sir Lionel, Lady Juliana, and daughter Kayley—travel on horseback. The small girl unofficially leads them, and tries to assume a knightly posture.
When they stop and dismount, Sir Lionel talks about how a party of fellow knights are meeting him here. Kayley asks her dad to tell her, again, the story of the king he’s going to serve. Mom exposits that he’s told her that story many times, but Dad has no problems telling it again. To loosely recall what Shredder once said to Krang, “I’m not explaining it to you, I’m explaining it to them [gesturing to the viewers].”
Drawing three separate circles in the sand, Lionel explains that this land was once ruled by war and darkness. Aren’t they all? Drifting into flashback, we learn that the only hope lay in whoever could pull the sword Excalibur from a stone—which, in this telling, is at the center of a Stonehenge-esque circle—and while many tried, none succeeded… until young Arthur came along.
Three interlaced circles, similar to the style of a Celtic knot, decorate the stone. They glow as Arthur pulls the sword free. (Important!) Thus the new king Arthur vowed to make this spot the center of a united, peaceful kingdom.
Camelot was built around the stones, “and the people rejoiced”. Said rejoicing comes in the form of a mass step-dancing celebration in the town square, with the crowd arranged in the formation of the three circles.
In this flashback, one can already see a lot of missed potential. Where there are images of war here, they’re merely superimposed bits of full animation, suspiciously suggesting dropped scenes being stripped for parts. Heck, if time travel were possible, maybe they could have given these clips to Ralph Bakshi so he could finish his Lord of the Rings.
And the telling of the pulling of Excalibur from the stone is perfunctory, especially since we don’t know what made Arthur so special. It’s never explained at any point in the film why he’s the Chosen One, even though it’s key to the plot.
For that matter, the detail that Kayley was born the day he freed the sword never comes to anything. As for the passage of time, the long shot of Stonehenge-Lite becomes Camelot in a series of dissolves. They don’t even go at flicker-fast speed through the seasons.
And then there’s that step-dancing. Riverdance had made its U.S. breakthrough 2 years prior to this, so this may or may not be a try at a cash-in. It’s not an all-out musical number, but at this point step-dancing was already a favorite target for jokes and send-ups, so this bit really didn’t belong in Patrick Doyle’s score.
I can’t help but compare this flashback unfavorably with the storybook prologue from the 1961 Disney take on Camelot, The Sword in the Stone. With its tapestry-style illustrations, and minstrel-styled song, it set up the England-needs-a-savior backstory with elegance and clarity.
Now, about the film’s look. Probably because they perfected realistic, yet smooth and consistent animation of human figures, the Disney design aesthetic has long been the default style for mainstream American animated features. That said, one thing that distinguishes Disney (particularly during the 1990s) are little design decisions made for each film to create a distinct setting and mood.
Some films were decidedly more angular (Pocahontas), some more caricatured (Hercules), some more rounded (Beauty and the Beast). This might be why imitators such as this never quite match Disney’s smooth loveliness—they keep trying to get a “general” look, not an individualized vision. Just look at all the screencaps in this recap. This could be the dullest-looking fantasy movie the Booth has ever known.