Blowin' It

A resonant children's classic from E.B. White becomes a dismayingly dissonant movie

A shame, this frenetic mess, as there were loads of reasons to be hopeful. First and foremost, there's the source material, a cute and clever children's novel by late writer E.B. White, on par with the anthropomorphized menageries he presented in Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. There's the fact that three full decades have elapsed since the publication of The Trumpet of the Swan, allowing producers plenty of time to transcribe its sweet nuances. Also, following its predecessors' employment of flamboyant weirdos such as Paul Lynde and Nathan Lane, this movie capitalizes upon the eternal zing of Little Richard. Yet, sadly, while this colorful chaos may hold appeal for tots, enraptured viewing from adolescence upward will hinge upon lodging a tube of industrial-strength glue up each nostril throughout the film's hyperactive 75 minutes.

Like the sleeker, photorealistic Stuart Little, this conventionally animated movie starts off by transferring the narrative's perspective from the humans to the critters, in this case a couple of swans in western Canada on the brink of starting a family. The prideful father (Jason Alexander) swoons over the "three little chips off his old block" while their mother (Mary Steenburgen, all sighs and yodels) smiles politely at his bombast. The two little shag-haired girls are named first--Ella (E.G. Daily) and Billie (Melissa Disney)--and then comes this story's adorable outsider, the spunky but mute Louie (Dee Baker).

Blowing his own horn: Louie makes like Chet Baker, before his swan song.
Blowing his own horn: Louie makes like Chet Baker, before his swan song.

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A trumpeter swan who can't even peep simply will not do, of course, and so we observe as poor Louie (dumbed down from White's more dignified Louis) is put through life's wringer as a defective child. He screws up flying by neglecting to honk in "traffic," he fails to express his love for the sweet Serena (Kath Soucie as a cygnet, Reese Witherspoon as a big bird), and--most distressingly--his little laryngeal problem prevents him from warning his family of the approach of a voracious fox. Fortunately, however, this attack provides a perfect opportunity to introduce human contact in the form of young hippie naturalist Sam Beaver (Sam Gifaldi), who befriends Louie.

Sam becomes the catalyst for Louie's intellectual development, as, in lieu of squonking, the young swan decides to attend school to learn how to read and write. This provides the characters an opportunity to interact with a Benetton-spectrum of racially balanced children singing the praises of tolerance and whatnot. Their teacher--a fern-obsessed scenery-muncher named Mrs. Hammerbotham (Carol Burnett)--quickly caves in and welcomes Louie into her fold as a gesture of non-species-exclusive equality, and wackiness ensues. The result: Louie learns to read and write, brandishing a slate around his neck...but to what avail?

Meanwhile--and this is pivotal--Louie's father has committed a peculiarly aggressive crime, flying to Billings, Montana, to smash up a music store and steal a trumpet, in order to provide his son with a "voice." By the time the newly literate Louie returns, however, the father has become a haunted sort of Jean Val-swan, and the young bird decides to learn his instrument, work as an itinerant musician across the eastern states and reclaim his dad's squandered honor.

The problem with The Trumpet of the Swan isn't a lack of fun material--there's loads of it in the book, and the movie heaps on plenty of extra kicks. Rather, the project is so impatient and breathless that it seems targeted specifically at ADD-riddled audiences, with cutting so random it seems to have been edited by Ray Charles under the guidance of Ronald Reagan. Whether or not one appreciates the saccharine, post-Disney style of animation on display here (co-directors Richard Rich and Terry L. Noss brought us The Fox and the Hound, among many others), less haste would have helped tremendously.

There's also the matter of tone to consider. An E.B. White book is a rather contemplative thing, sweet but direct (with a touch of darkness, as children muse upon heart failure), rendering the age of the reader irrelevant. Here, it's a lot like that sour note at the end of the otherwise lovely A Muppet Christmas Carol, in which children are dutifully reminded to read books. This ham-fisted condescension--helpful reminders that natural life is good and stealing is bad--detracts from the fun.

As reconfigured by Judy Rothman Rofe, White's book loses most of its modest charm but maintains all the strategic elements. Infected by the same malaise that infects many screenwriters, Rofe seems determined to prove that she understands the material better than the author, jumbling his sequences and adding "heavies" such as swan suitor Boyd (Seth Green) and huckster Monty (Joe Mantegna). Occasionally she garners a giggle from this gaggle (as when the papa swan, disgusted by a man with a leaf-blower, decries, "Augh! Who would want to mate after hearing that?"), and her transference of Sam's passion from zoology to conservationism is noble, but this Swan is otherwise jarring and inelegant. There was no need to goose it like this.

 
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