The Trumpet of the Swan

Friday May 11, 2001

     When a schoolboy in "The Trumpet of the Swan" picks up a copy of "Stuart Little" to read, the moment elicits a knowing chuckle. We laugh over the in-joke, such as it is, which is that both "Stuart Little" and the book on which this new animated film is based are from the pen of E.B. White. Then we heave a sigh, since "Trumpet" only confirms that E.B. White children's books have traced a course of diminishing returns in Hollywood since "Charlotte's Web" was made into a mediocre film in 1973.
     Those of us who have not read "The Trumpet of the Swan" may assume that this inept movie is attempting to be faithful to the 1970 book, as the story is just too ragged and eccentric to have been green-lighted without the imprimatur of its late author. Louie is a Canadian trumpeter swan who is born mute (his inner thoughts are voiced by Dee Baker), an impediment that hobbles him not only in the competitive daily traffic of wildlife but also in expressing his affection to another swan, Serena (Reese Witherspoon).
     After a misbegotten attempt to learn to read and write English at a people school--Louie does well, but the other swans can't read his chalkboard scratchings--Louie's insufferably bombastic father (voice of Jason Alexander) flies down to Billings, Mont., and lifts a trumpet from a music store for his son to use as a substitute voice. Louie masters the instrument and ends up in Boston, where he rises to stardom under the exploitation of a smarmy street operator named Monty (Joe Mantegna). Eventually, Louie's gifts will triumph over the combined pushiness of Monty, his father and an arrogant swan named Boyd, who competes for Serena's hand.
     Nothing quite works about "The Trumpet of the Swan," one of those animated films that make you realize how hard it is to strike the right tone for a family film. The art is splashy enough to keep the smallest fry diverted, but the script's whimsy is too flat to amuse older kids raised on the newly hip Disney cartoons. There is little genuine exuberance in the tossed-off musical numbers, while Marcus Miller's jazz-inflected tunes are all over the place and nowhere at the same time.
     Given the story's emphasis on individuality and self-respect, one has to raise an eyebrow over the Victorian characterization of Louie's mother (Mary Steenburgen), who encourages her husband's excesses no matter how suffocating they are to her and the rest of the family. Now that Louie can play like Satchmo, he should teach Mom how to sing the blues.

The Trumpet of the Swan, 2001. G. TriStar Pictures presents a Rich-Crest Animation production, a Lin Oliver production released by TriStar. Directors Richard Rich, Terry L. Noss. Producer Lin Oliver. Executive producer Seldon O. Young. Screenplay by Judy Rothman Rofe, based on the book by E.B. White. Editor Joseph L. Campana. Music Marcus Miller. Character design Elena Kravets, Bronwen Barry. Effects & computer animation supervisor Brian McSweeney. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Jason Alexander as Father. Mary Steenburgen as Mother. Reese Witherspoon as Serena. Seth Green as Boyd. Louie as Dee Baker.

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