On Nostalgia for Bad Childhood Movies: The Swan Princess at 20

My favorite film as a kid was little-known, not-Disney, and not great. I'm fine with that.

$230. That’s about how much it would have cost me to buy a handmade adult-sized Swan Princess costume on Etsy this past Halloween. Not that there were any cheaper, mass-produced alternatives, and for good reason. The 1994 animated film The Swan Princess, ever-so-loosely inspired by the ballet Swan Lake, survived a measly box office run and was largely dismissed as a critical failure, albeit “a perfectly serviceable confection for small fry.”

Directed by former Disney animator Richard Rich, of Robin Hood and later The King and I, the film centers around the titular Princess Odette, who is captured by hirsute evil-man Rothbart and cursed to turning into a swan during the day. To lift the curse, she must marry him and hand him control of her father’s kingdom, or else her beloved Prince Derek with his shaggy man-bob must make her a vow of everlasting love. The “Disney wannabe” peddles cringe-inducing jokes, an implausible plot, mostly forgettable songs, a predictable storyline, and a largely anonymous cast (with the exception of John Cleese and Jack Palance).

Perhaps because of a suspiciously timed Lion King reissue on Swan Princess’s opening weekend, the film has a strange place in pop-culture history. At least half a dozen Atlantic staffers, all female and between the ages of 22 and 28, remember seeing the film as children. Everyone else who was surveyed (unscientifically) had never heard of it.

As YouTuber Nostalgia Critic Doug Walker put it, “While I don’t know anyone that sees the [film] as the worst thing ever, it does carry this awkwardness that just enough people saw it to make four more direct-to-DVD awkardnesses.” In other words, sequels galore, the last of which, the atrocious-looking The Swan Princess: A Royal Family Tale was released straight-to-BluRay for the franchise’s 20th anniversary.

All of which seems to indicate that there were far more culturally resonant Halloween costume choices than Swan Princess. After all, Demi Lovato will never cover “Far Longer Than Forever,” the film’s lovelorn duet, as she did with Frozen’s “Let It Go.” In a world of Disney and Pixar, who rhapsodizes about Crest Animation Productions? In a world of Pocahontases, Tianas, Elsas and Meridas, who wants to be an Odette?

Twenty years ago for Halloween, I did.

At the time, Swan Princess still had some relevance, so my mom could have probably bought a decent child-sized costume for $20 at a chain store; instead she sewed one from scratch. When I was five, it never crossed my mind that Odette had long, blonde hair and peach-crayon-colored skin, while I had black hair and skin that never matched crayons or Band-aids. I watched The Swan Princess every day, knew the words to all the songs, and wore my Odette dress around the house. In that bespoke costume, I turned into Scandanavian-looking Odette, singing, sighing, fainting, weeping. I was Odette yearning for my Prince Derek. I was Odette, wading silk gown and all into a lake and emerging, from a glowing funnel of water, a sad-eyed swan.

Nostalgia of the You-Know-You’re-An-Eighties-Baby-If variety found online emphasizes the thrill of collective cultural memories. But nostalgia doesn’t always have the transporting pull of a madeleine or an Internet quiz. The Swan Princess is admittedly cheesy, embarrassing, and falls outside the canon and not in a cult classic kind of way. But still I’ll nurse a deep and weird attachment to it because of the spidersilk-thin narrative threads that connect me to it—half-formed memories of clutching my Odette necklace on the school bus, wearing that handmade ivory-and-green dress day and night, the fact that both the original actress who voiced Odette, Michelle Nicastro, and my mother were born within a month of each other and later died of breast cancer. More often than not, nostalgia is deeply personal, delicate, unmarketable, and unremarkable.

To be sure, this connection to the film wasn’t enough to stop me from wincing through the “Princesses on Parade” number when I rewatched the film last weekend, nor is it enough to make me feel the slightest bit inclined to watch any of the four (!) sequels. And it wasn’t enough to get me to spend $230 on a costume for Halloween. But I looked for that dress anyway.