Set in the shadowy world of the porn industry, the first animated feature from Danish director Anders Morgenthaler, Princess, has gained an unwarranted notoriety that has detracted somewhat from the strengths and innovation that can found in it. Working in a medium that is, sadly, still widely regarded as being strictly for kids, it’s the kind of storyline that tends to sit uncomfortably with some people (notably censors), who aren’t sure quite how to categorise it. There is no reason however why an animated feature shouldn’t be capable of setting out to examine issues of guilt, child abuse, the workings of the porn industry and the lives it destroys.
The director makes a convincing case for the use of animation to deal with such subject matter, which in many ways is about the corruption of innocence. There are several lives that have been destroyed in Princess. One of them is Christine (Stine Fischer Christensen), who along with her brother August (Thure Lindhardt), have been left orphaned after a car accident. Christine blames herself for the death of her parents, and left to fend largely for themselves, the direction of the lives the two young children is determined by this event, pushing them both to opposite extremes. Christine eventually becomes a celebrated porn star known as Princess, while August becomes a priest. When Christine becomes pregnant, August tries to talk her into giving up her line of work, but five years later, after the birth of her daughter Mia (Mira Hilli Møller Hallund), Christine is dead. August takes Mia in, but the child has also has an unconventional and troubled upbringing in an unhealthy environment. Appalled by the evidence of the lives that have been destroyed and ruined by it, August sets out to in turn destroy the porn industry.
The unusual mixing of strong adult subject matter with a format that is more commonly viewed by children is mirrored in the techniques of the animation itself, which uses not only with traditional 2-D animation, but blends it with 3-D CGI and live action. Such mixing and matching initially looks confusing, as if the filmmakers lack the confidence to rely on a single form, but the use of each style is consistently applied and largely thematically coherent – the 2-D animation used organically for the main storyline, the CGI for mechanical objects and their movements, the live-action for what is viewed through the camera and seen on video tapes – and each of them effectively achieve the purpose for which they are used. Surprisingly, it is the traditional 2-D animation which is strongest. It looks over-simplified, static and incapable of capturing the depth of expression that the story calls for, but it never fails to reveal the subtlest of nuances and emotions and find the correct tone for the environment in which they are set. It also fully exploits the capabilities of the medium, taking it where strictly realist live action footage cannot, blending imagery, making it come alive and react to the inner feelings of the characters and their complex notions of guilt, anger, compassion and the need for revenge.
Revenge. Ay, there’s the rub. While the expertise and skill of the director and animators go a long way towards conceptually reconciling the diverse elements of the film’s techniques and breaking down those artificial barriers of prejudice that exist towards animation that refuses to be easily categorised, it’s the execution of the plot itself that is rather more problematic. The concept of revenge to atone for a loss of innocence is often one that provides many comic book artists, cartoonists and filmmakers with what they believe to be justifiable reason for the use of extreme violence and bloody retribution – Frank Miller’s Sin City stories of child abuse, Quentin Tarantino’s animated O-Ren Ishii revenge backstory in Kill Bill, and of course Luc Besson’s exploitative and queasy flirtation with child sexuality in Leon, are all precedents here. For all Morgenthaler’s delicate handling of the backgrounds of Christina, August and Mia and the exquisite use of the blending of techniques, in the end what Princess comes down to is nothing more than a violent revenge storyline. Admittedly, even this is exceptionally well animated, paced and plotted, but August’s crusade to clean up the porn industry is deeply reactionary and just as hysterical and exploitative as the above-named examples.
It’s a subject that the Danish director evidently feels genuinely strongly about. In interviews about Princess he has repeatedly condemned the nature of an industry that thrives on presenting an image of glamour while at the same time destroying lives. It’s unfortunate then that Anders Morgenthaler clearly has no better answer to the problem than to make a violent action picture that ironically has gained its notoriety from that very same use of the porn imagery in its setting. It’s a pity, because the mindless revenge plot undoes much of the good work and imaginative creativity clearly evident elsewhere.
Princess is released in the UK by Tartan. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is not region encoded.
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer and it looks excellent throughout. Practically none of the usual problems associated with animation on DVD can be detected here - the image is progressive and shows no interlacing, ghosting or banding issues. Colours are superb, the image is impressively stable and the clarity is simply perfect. The only issues – and they are minor ones – are a hint of edge enhancement and occasional evidence of purple and yellow cross-colouration occasionally evident in flat background colours – usually dark skies. Any such issues however are minor and fairly uncommon, the image for the most part looking close to perfect.
There is a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. The surround soundtrack is the most impressive, giving excellent distribution to the speakers, with perfect tone, clarity and reverberation. Action sequences are highly dynamic, dialogue and music score clear and warmly toned. The Dolby Digital stereo is good, but relatively lacking in comparison.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. They are in a clear, white font.
The only extra feature on the disc is the film’s Original Trailer. Inevitably they can’t help but use all the best and most dynamic bits of the animation sequences, giving away a lot of the plot in the process and spoiling some of the developments.
As an animated feature setting out to highlight the wrongs of the porn industry, Princess can be confusing and send out mixed messages in its concept, form and execution. Concept and form are admirably handled, the animation proving to be innovative and highly effective in dealing delicately with the development of the characters and the complexity of their emotional lives, but the execution of the idea is somewhat lacking. Such a complex subject of underlying guilt, child abuse and exploitation deserves better than merely providing the basis for a violent revenge story. Princess remains an intriguing film however, is well-made and certainly shows that European animation is capable of dealing with more serious subjects – but then the Japanese have known this for years. Tartan’s UK DVD release is disappointingly light on extra features, but the presentation of the film itself is superb.