Way back in 1937, cartoonist Hal Foster was given the opportunity to create a comic strip of his own, which he did with the Arthurian-era adventures of Prince Valiant, which is still in some newspapers today, later drawn by John Cullen Murphy, and currently by Gary Gianni.
As usual, Hollywood just can’t let a popular comic strip or comic book character go by without giving it the adaptation go-around. This animated TV version is a rarity—a prime time animated action/drama series. Airing on the Family Channel in the early 1990s, it was an attempt at a genuinely “all ages” cartoon, one with excitement and swordfights for the kids, and sophisticated serialized plotlines for the adults.
Now, the first 33 episodes are out on DVD in this five-disc set, for today’s viewers to rediscover this experimental historic epic for themselves. So grab your singing sword and let’s get started.
When an invading army takes over the kingdom of Thule, young Prince Valiant (Robby Benson, Beauty and the Beast) and his family are forced to take up residence in a marshland. Overwhelmed by visions of heroic knights in faraway Camelot, Valiant decides to leave his family, against his father’s wishes, and eventually join King Arthur at the round table.
In his travels, Valiant meets two friends, Arn (Michael Horton, Star Trek: Insurrection), a tough commoner, and Rowanne (Noelle North, The Smurfs), a beautiful female archer. After some adventures in the wilderness, the trio finally arrives at Camelot, where they begin training for knighthood, with their teachers Sir Gawain (Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Sir Bryant (James Avery, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), and with the wisdom of Merlin (Alan Oppenheimer, Skeletor from Masters of the Universe) and King Arthur himself (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Babylon 5). But it’s a busy life in Camelot, and our heroes have to deal with enemies outside the city walls, and treachery within.
Lovers of animation often wish something more could be done with the medium. After all these years, most people still consider animation as something created only for children. Anytime you see or hear “animation for adults,” it’s normally crude comedy or ultra-violent anime porn. But the creators of The Legend of Prince Valiant had a different goal in mind. They’re out to create an animated drama, one that could air right alongside the usual prime time TV fare. There’s no sex and onscreen violence is minimal, but it’s “adult” in that it takes itself and the characters seriously.
Which such lofty goals, it’s unfortunate that The Legend of Prince Valiant isn’t a better show than it is. I applaud this series for what it attempts, but the sad truth is that there’s a strong disconnect between the look of the series and the story it’s telling. The writers are crafting a huge historical epic, with journeys among various kingdoms, court scheming, and swordfights with death and honor on the line. The visuals, however, tend to be fairly flat. The characters and their movements are stiff, with little facial expressions. The backgrounds are all nicely painted, but the characters don’t seem to fit in with what’s behind them. It’s as if the writers are attempting T.H. White, but the animators think they’re doing He-Man.
Not that the writing itself is impeccable. During the first few episodes, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of thought given to Valiant’s search for Camelot. The attitude seems to be, “Camelot might be right over the next hill, or right around the next corner,” as if it never occurs to Valiant that Camelot is a huge, city-like castle. I kept expecting him to start looking under rocks for Camelot. Fortunately, things pick up later on in terms of story, as Valiant faces a decision whether to go back to Thule in reclaim his father’s kingdom, or stay in Camelot and continue on in his quest to become a knight.
Although the colors here are bright and vivid, the picture is still marred with many flecks and scratches. The 2.0 sound does its job, but is not overly immersive. The commentary tracks on two episodes are the highlight of the extras, in which the creators go over the series’ history and their goals for it. This also extends to a handful of interviews on the set. Rounding out the extras are a slideshow of nice concept art for the series and the entire storyboards for one episode.
I’m sure if the animators were here, they’d tell me that they did the best they did with what they could, that they had limited resources, and they should be applauded for trying something new. All this is true. As animation slowly continues to grow in diversity, perhaps future generations will look back at this Prince Valiant as being ahead of its time.
Trivia time: Tim Curry, who provided a voice for this series, also did a voice in the 2005 animated film Valiant. That film had nothing to do with Prince Valiant, but, still, funny coincidence.
I wanted to love this series for what it attempts, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t meet its goal. All the high ideals in the world can’t save a series from some flat visuals and some so-so writing.