(Some of you may be wondering why I’m reviewing this movie so soon after the Nostalgia Critic did, whether this is a plot to ride his coat-tails to success. Much as I’d love it if that happened, my reasoning is much less ambitious. I love watching the Nostalgia Critic’s reviews, but I try not to watch them if the movie is animated and I haven’t seen it yet. I want a chance to watch the movie for myself and formulate my own opinions about it without being influenced by someone else’s. So I’m doing my review now because I’m an impatient fan who couldn’t wait to see the Nostalgia Critic’s review.)
Back in the 90s, most of the big theatrical animation studios that weren’t Disney were trying to copy Disney’s formula. For a time, it seemed like every studio had to have a go at producing a fairy tale or fantasy in the Disney style, no matter how poorly its predecessors had fared. Most of these films have since been forgotten, and Warner Brothers’ Quest for Camelot is no exception. It did very poorly in theaters after a troubled production history that reportedly included the film coming in over budget. Warner Brothers was so dismayed by the film’s underwhelming performance that the studio began having second thoughts about continuing to produce animated feature films.
A movie that gets crushed by its box office competition isn’t necessarily a bad film. But in the case of Quest for Camelot, the movie’s poor financial performance is a pretty accurate reflection of its quality. Along with other problems, Quest for Camelot suffers from being a film that seems uncertain of what it is about.
The credits claim that the movie is based on Vera Chapman’s novel The King’s Damosel, an exploration of a minor character from Arthurian legend. In fact, the movie bears only a passing resemblance to the book, borrowing a few details and character names from the source material. It might have been enough that fans of the book would have noticed the similarities and cried foul if the movie hadn’t listed the novel as an inspiration. But it isn’t enough to make the movie anything close to an adaptation of the book.
The film starts off as the story of Kayley, a young girl who dreams of becoming a knight of the round table, like her father, the noble Sir Lionel. Sir Lionel was killed while defending King Arthur against an assassination attempt, but Kayley kept longing to follow in his footsteps and leave her dull life of farm chores for one of valor and adventure. When King Arthur’s legendary sword Excalibur is stolen, Kayley sees it as her chance to prove herself and make her dreams reality.
It may not be the most brilliant premise every written, but it does have promise. One of the film’s early scenes had the young Kayley spotting knights approaching her remote home and assuming that her father has returned from Camelot. She runs to greet them, only to discover that the knights are escorting her father’s lifeless body to its final rest. A lot of animated films begin with the death of a parent, but not all of them address it this directly. The scene is surprisingly grim and the family’s grief is believable. As I watched Kayley mourning her father and growing into a young woman yearning to be a knight, I felt like I knew what this movie was going to be. Whatever its flaws or other plotlines, this was the story of a girl who wanted to honor her father’s memory by becoming a great knight like him. The setup has a lot of potential, which is why it’s so disappointing when it all goes downhill.
Quest for Camelot’s biggest problem is how much time it wastes on characters who don’t contribute or even relate to the main story of Kayley becoming a knight. The film is absolutely littered with sidekicks and flunkies who are neither entertaining nor interesting. Chief among them are Devon and Cornwall, the two heads of a two-headed dragon. Devon is a proper, upper class Brit and Cornwall is the lowbrow party animal and if just reading about the two of them is putting you to sleep, it’s probably because you’ve seen this “odd couple” bit a hundred times before. Despite being dragons – or a dragon, Devon and Cornwall bring nothing new to this tired old premise. They never progress beyond the level of generic comedy sidekicks. They are clearly an attempt to copy the Genie from Aladdin, right down to their blue skin. Their musical number, “If I Didn’t Have You,” is a blatant rip-off of “Friend Like Me,” right down to the characters appearing in different costumes and impersonating celebrities. But where the Genie capitalized on Robin Williams’ strengths as a comedian, Devon and Cornwall force two very talented comedians (Eric Idle as Devon and Don Rickles as Cornwall) to copy someone else’s shtick. The whole character, particularly during the musical number, feels perfunctory, as though the film was obligated to include a character of this type and is just going through the motions, tossing in a few celebrity impersonations and anachronistic references, including a few nods to old Warner Brothers shorts. Rather than linking the film to the studio’s animation heritage, watching Cornwall attempt to romance Tex Avery’s Red only makes the pair’s antics seem less funny in comparison to what came before.
Don’t clap, Kayley. You’ll only encourage them.
You may be wondering what a dragon with two heads that can’t get along is doing in a movie supposedly about a young woman trying to prove herself worthy of being a knight. Well early on in the film, when Kayley is transparently complaining that she would much rather save Camelot than try on a new dress, her mother responds that the knights will find the stolen Excalibur and adds that they will do it by working together. So now the movie shifts from being about Kayley finding a way to become a great knight like her father to Kayley needing to learn to cooperate. It’s not as if Kayley has been presented as a rugged individualist, or been given a chance to pursue her dreams alongside others but turned it down. We just have one line where Kayley insists that she could find Excalibur by herself to convince us that this is a lesson she must learn. Devon and Cornwall serve as a reflection of this shaky theme. See, they can’t fly or breathe fire and they have to learn how to agree and work tog….oh dear, I see you’ve fallen asleep again.
Devon and Cornwall are sadly not the film’s only useless characters. Bladebeak, the chicken who gets magically fused with an axe (it’s not worth explaining how) takes up a startling amount of screentime for almost no payoff. The character starts out as an ordinary chicken who gets kicked around a lot and spends his time trying to impress the hens, much to the consternation of his overweight, overbearing wife. After being transformed into what the villain of the film dubs “a bladebeak,” he becomes the bad guy’s flunky for a time, seems to feel bad that his wife has been inexplicably stuffed in a bird cage, and help Kayley out towards the end. Did I care? No. This story has nothing to do with Kayley’s journey and I could not have been less interested in this chicken and his marital woes. The character is more confusing than anything. His effect on the plot is minimal, his actions seldom make sense, and it takes a half-hour before the movie reveals that he can talk after being transformed, a device that chiefly lets him spout terrible lines like “You’ve got to ask yourself, do I feel clucky?” (I am so sorry.)
The film’s most disappointing character in terms of wasted potential is the griffin. This unnamed beast is the villainous Ruber’s minion. He is actually quite impressive when he first appears and steals Excalibur from King Arthur, with glowing eyes and black and purple coloring reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent in dragon form. But rather than leave him as a threatening monster, the film decides to make him into a joke, saddling him with a sniveling voice and having Ruber yank on his ears and constantly insult him. My guess is that this was intended to keep the griffin from seeming too scary for the small children in the audience. What it does is add one more bumbling comic relief character to a movie that already has too many.
It takes a strong protagonist to regain control of the movie with so many goofy sidekicks grabbing for the wheel and steering the film off the road. Unfortunately, Kayley is not a strong protagonist. Despite her lifetime longing for heroic adventure, Kayley just seems lost through most of her quest. I think the movie is trying to argue that Kayley has never been very far from home and her father died before he could teach her anything more than the basic code of knighthood. If Kayley is a novice who has the adventure she seeks thrust upon her before she is ready for it, then the movie should show her gaining knowledge and skills during her journey. But even that idea isn’t fully explored. Kayley has a training session with Garrett, the blind recluse she encounters in the forest, but that’s about it. She is neither skilled enough to be impressive nor someone whose determination makes her endearing. This was a real wasted opportunity for Warner Brothers. Disney’s modern heroines were stronger personalities than the classic princesses, but until Mulan came out one month after Quest for Camelot, they were still sidelined when it came to the action scenes. This was a chance to make Quest for Camelot look less like a straight Disney clone. But for an aspiring knight, Kayley does very little fighting. In fact, no sooner does she part ways with Garret than she gets herself captured without putting up any kind of a fight.
So what does Kayley learn from her trials? Why is she more qualified to be a knight at the end of the movie than she is at the beginning? The only answer the movie offers is that she learns that teamwork is good, and I’m still not convinced that she was a staunch loner to begin with. And Garrett teaches her how to dodge an incoming blow, which helps her out in the strange conclusion of the climactic battle.
In past articles, I’ve talked about the importance of setting up a concept that pays off later and not making it feel like setup. The climax of Quest for Camelot is an example of what happens when an idea isn’t adequately foreshadowed. We are told early on how Arthur pulled Excalibur from the stone and became rightful king of England. (The sword in the stone and Excalibur are actually two different swords, but this is not the first retelling of the King Arthur story to make them one.) By the film’s climax, Ruber has used his magic potion to fuse Excalibur to his arm. He and Kayley end up on the castle grounds where the stone that formerly held the stone sits. We can see Kayley looking at the stone and we have a pretty good idea of what she’s thinking. Since we know that no one but the true king could remove Excalibur from the stone, we might be able to guess that Ruber will be trapped if he is tricked into putting the sword back. There’s even a moment where the stone crackles with magical energy when Kayley touches it, reminding us of its powers. But how on earth are we supposed to anticipate the stone creating a wave of magic that evaporates Ruber and causes all of his minions to change from half-weapon monsters back to their original forms?
Let’s compare this to Aladdin. By the time the final battle rolls around, we already know that genies are prisoners in their lamps, trapped in the “itty bitty living space” until summoned by their masters. This fact didn’t feel like exposition that would be important later; it was a reasonable explanation of the Genie’s plight. So when Aladdin tricks Jafar into making the Genie turn Jafar into a genie, we know what the result will be and Aladdin looks pretty smart for coming up with the idea. Here, because we don’t expect the result of Ruber putting the sword back in the stone, we don’t have any reason to believe that Kayley does either. If all Kayley is thinking is “If I trick Ruber into putting Excalibur back in the stone, something might happen,” her success feels more like luck than a result of Kayley being smart. It certainly doesn’t help that the stone, for no apparent reason, also heals King Arthur’s injured arm and splits Devon and Cornwall into two dragons just so that they can prove that they’ve learned that they’re better off together and decide to…hey! Wake up!
One of the few aspects of the movie that I mostly like is Garrett. Garrett is competent where Kayley is bumbling, worldly where she is naïve. He is capably voiced by Cary Elwes, best known to children of the 80s as Westley from The Princess Bride. For him, the lesson of “teamwork is good” makes sense. He chose to be a hermit and live a life of isolation. His arguments that he needs no one – aside from his seeing-eye hawk – are far more convincing than Kayley’s. He even brings Kayley’s father back into the story. Sir Lionel began teaching Garrett the ways of knighthood after Garrett was blinded in a fire. After Sir Lionel’s death, Garrett felt he had lost the one person who truly believed in him and left Camelot for the solitude of the forest. He’s not particularly fond of either Kayley or Devon and Cornwall when he first meets them. Finally, a character I can relate to.
Still, even Garrett has his problems. I respect that the movie tries to portray a blind character without making him constantly helpless, but Garrett seems to possess almost supernatural abilities to compensate for his lack of sight. I think his actions during his song are meant to show how well Garrett knows the forest and how confidently he moves through his environment. But since we don’t understand how the seemingly magical forest works and even homebody Kayley isn’t surprised by it, it seems more like either Garrett is magical or the forest just really likes him. I also don’t understand why the magic stone, which heals Arthur’s arm and splits Devon and Cornwall into two dragons, can’t also cure Garrett’s blindness. Mind you, I like that Garrett remains blind and I’m sure that The Braille Institute and the National Federation for the Blind – both of which receive special thanks in the credits – prefer it that way too. But in the context of the story, it doesn’t make sense that the stone “fixes” virtually everyone else but leaves Garrett sightless. Garrett’s singing voice is provided by country singer Bryan White, whose vocals are too overwrought and not a good fit for the character.
From a financial standpoint, the music was the best thing about Quest for Camelot. The love duet “Looking Through Your Eyes” got a lot of radio play, likely because the pop version was sung by LeAnn Rimes, who was big at the time. “The Prayer,” the song Kayley’s mother sings as her daughter leaves for Camelot, has gained popularity completely independent of the film. Celine Dion sings it in the movie, tenor Andrea Bocelli does a version over the credits, and it’s since been covered by several other musicians. Despite their success on their own, the songs don’t really add much to the movie. Some of them are not too bad and a few will get stuck in your head whether you want them to or not. But few of them impart information about the characters or plot that we wouldn’t find out already, or do it in an entertaining way. “The Prayer” is undeniably a pretty song, but Kayley’s mother expressing her hope that God, her late husband, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster will watch over her daughter and keep her safe is such a short beat and so unable to sustain a song that the movie just goes on telling the story and reduces the song to a background element. Does the song tell us anything we wouldn’t know otherwise? No. Kayley’s mother is all about concern for her daughter throughout the entire movie. Does it highlight a particularly emotional moment? Maybe. But again, it’s such a short emotional moment that the movie leaves Kayley’s mom and moves on to Kayley being chased by Ruber’s half-weapon thugs.
Much as I’d like to say that Devon and Cornwall continue their losing streak by providing the film’s worst song, “If I Didn’t Have You” can’t hold a dragon-ignited candle to the tuneless mess that is the villain’s song. Called simply “Ruber,” which I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t checked the credits, this musical disaster is utterly forgettable and features such uninspired lyrics as “I have a plan. It includes you.” In a movie where nearly every other character has one actor playing the speaking part and a singer to handle the musical numbers, why is Gary Oldman doing his own singing? Like many of the songs in Quest for Camelot, “Ruber” is less a necessary or inspired part of the film and more of an obligation to include all of the songs standard in an animated musical: a big opening number, a love song, a song for the villain, a goofy sidekick song. Bladebeak trying to dance to this train wreck of a musical number only highlights how tuneless, rhythmless, and pointless this song is.
By this point, I guess I should be happy that the film is not visually appealing either. Had the animation been well done, the huge flaws with the rest of the film might have seemed tragic. But since it’s a mess across the board, I can write the whole movie off without hesitation. The character design ranges from merely okay to outright ugly, the drawing is inconsistent, and am I the only one bothered by the fluorescent green grass? I just keep noticing fundamental problems with the artwork in this film. Take this shot of Garrett. I think it’s supposed to be a slightly low angle looking up at him. So his head and shoulders, being farther away from the camera, should appear slightly smaller than normal. Instead, his head is huge, his torso is about normal size, and his legs look too tiny to support his weight.
This being a film from the late 90s, there is some computer animation thrown in. I say “thrown in” because while most of the Disney films of this era tied their new technology to enhance important moments in their films, the computer animation in Quest for Camelot plays like just another item on the animated film checklist. I have a feeling that the rocky ogre was supposed to have a bigger part than he ultimately did and was cut back due to time or budget constraints. As is, he has very little purpose beyond providing the movie with its big fart joke.
The one nice thing I can say about Devon and Cornwall is that their musical number is one of the more competently animated scenes in the movie. The animators may well have been more comfortable with the cartoonier characters, because there’s more consistency to their forms, more snap to the animation, and just more polish to the whole thing.
Quest for Camelot can be seen as an example of the dangers of slavishly following a formula or trying to copy another studio’s recipe for success. But I think its fatal flaw was that no one bothered to develop a strong central story or character, so no one really believed in the story and main character the movie ended up with. The comedy relief characters, the songs, and the other extraneous material all become attempts to prop up a core idea that can’t stand on its own. Without a strong central idea to act as a compass, the movies wanders aimlessly, leaving viewers confused, unimpressed, and eager to forget this meandering quest.
Special thanks to Todd Jensen for providing me with information about The King’s Damosel.
All images in this article are copyright Warner Brothers.