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Barbie of Swan Lake - the DVD

by Robert Abrams
October 17, 2003

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Barbie of Swan Lake - the DVD

Robert Abrams
October 17, 2003

What is stranger: Mattel and partners having made a DVD of Barbie of Swan Lake, or my having voluntarily watched it?

No matter what you answered, you are probably wrong, since the above is a trick question. The answer is that the strangest of all is that on a fundamental level I think that this version of Swan Lake gets it right.

Normally, Prince Siegfried loses Odette because he pledges his love to Odile. Odile tricked Siegfried into thinking she was Odette. He has pledged his love to someone other than his true love, and so the curse on Odette can never be broken.

In the Barbie version, Prince Daniel is also tricked into pledging his love to Odile, thinking she is Odette. Odette is doomed, as usual, except the story doesn't stop here. Daniel has his usual battle with the evil Rothbart. Except that Odette wakes up and rushes to protect Daniel. Rothbart delivers what he thinks will be a killing blow. The force of the blow causes Daniel and Odette to fall to the ground. At the last possible moment, Odette and Daniel's hands clasp together. This touch is affirmation of their true love. The spell is broken. Rothbart is defeated and all his evil work is undone. Odette never has to become a swan again. (This action also frees the skunk and the porcupine, but more on that later.)

This is what I meant about the Barbie version getting it right. In Swan Lake we are dealing with a force of mythic proportions. Do you really think such a force is going to be stopped by an illusion? The Prince has made a true pledge to a false object. What should matter is the pledge, not the object. True love, at least in fairy tales and perhaps elsewhere, is not volitional. One's true love simply is. The Prince should rightly be put through a series of agonies for having been a dolt and not having seen through the illusion in the first place, but he should not be denied his true love once he finds her. And most appropriately, from a dance perspective, the Barbie version of the story recognizes the true consummation of the pledge through Odette and the Prince's touch, not the Prince's mere words.

Barbie of Swan Lake takes some extreme liberties with the story. Ballet purists are likely to object, but the fact of the matter is that plenty of people have altered the story without damaging it. Even the New York City Ballet's version is not completely traditional, having added a major character in the form of a jester. Some may object to Odette's flock of swans having been replaced with a skunk, a porcupine, a unicorn and other assorted enchanted animals in the Barbie version, but the role of these characters is still mostly the same, so the change doesn't bother me.

Odette in the Barbie version has also become this strong young woman. Many people complained after the affair with the "I hate math" talking Barbie doll. In Barbie of Swan Lake, I think that Mattel has more than made up for that. If anything, in the Barbie version, Swan Lake has become a girl power flick. Odette in this version looks like she could just about take on Rothbart by herself, if only the Prince would stay out of the way. And should Odette need help, she has her doesn't-take-no-guff-from-anybody, horseback-riding sister Marie.

The plot line in the Barbie version has become perhaps a little too complicated, but I think this is mostly because the creators of the DVD had some good ideas, but were then hemmed in by having to keep certain key elements if they still wanted their version of Swan Lake to be recognizable as Swan Lake. Now that they have gotten the traditional portion of the story out of the way, they can go crazy with the sequel. I suggest that it be titled "Strikeforce Odette." In this version, a new evil villain arises. He, or maybe she, curses the Prince to get him safely out of the way. After various plot twists and dance numbers, Odette gathers her swans and skunks and what have you to do battle with the evil whoever. (Actually, the evil character in the sequel should probably be Odile, who eventually finds the good within her, but not before they have a really kicking fight scene.)

Yes, yes, you are saying, of course there should be a sequel, but what about the dancing in the current DVD?

When I requested a review copy of Barbie of Swan Lake, I had assumed that this was going to be an all dance presentation of the ballet in animated form. While the Barbie version is still a story ballet, the emphasis is on "story." This presentation has a lot of narration, action and dialogue, with several extended dance numbers appearing at regular intervals throughout. This isn't a bad thing. After all, Swan Lake is a compelling story or it wouldn't have lasted this long. The story form allowed the film makers to include some sequences which, while not dance, were balletic, such as an aerial chase scene that was not only beautiful but showed some understanding of tactics appropriate to a three dimensional space.

Also, the ability to "read" an all-dance performance is not a form of literacy that can be automatically assumed on the part of all kids. The dance numbers are engaging. The traditional narrative film format should provide a familiar context in which to introduce kids to pure dance. The makers of the DVD got help from some of NYCB's best dancers, such as dancer Maria Kowroski and choreographer Peter Martins. When you look closely, you can see their precision, even in animated form. The animated dance sequences are not as good as the same dancers would be live, but they are probably as good as current animation technology will produce. To its credit, Mattel has also taken the dance sequences and made them accessible through the bonus features section of the DVD. This allows a child to view just the dance numbers with some helpful educational commentary that points out key moves and their formal names. This section feels like they put some effort into it both from a dance and an education perspective. If anything, they should have done more in this section.

All in all, if you have a child who may be interested in dance, Barbie of Swan Lake is worth a look. The actual impact of the DVD on kids is hard to predict without studying their reactions first hand. Should an opportunity for such a study arise, I will report on the results.

Barbie of Swan Lake was produced by Mattel Entertainment, Artisan Home Entertainment, and Mainframe Entertainment. It features Kelsey Grammer as the voice of Rothbart, as well as the London Symphony Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky's score. More information can be found at www.mattel.com .

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