Background: There are probably very few people in the Western world that have not heard some version of the legends surrounding King Arthur and Camelot. The story predates most of the written language of England but describes the perfect king who unites the warring nation under one crown. He pulled his magic sword Excalibur from a stone (or anvil, depending on which legend you believe) and was guided by the ageless magician Merlin to form the round table where disputes could be solved under a nation of laws rather than men. There being no shortage of versions in film and on television, today's review is on a sort of spin off tale related to the tale called The Legend of Prince Valiant: The Complete Series V1.
Prince Valiant was a much later creation in the western lore of the King Arthur legend as it began nearly 70 years ago when cartoonist Hal Foster was commissioned by the newspaper king William Randolph Hearst to publish a weekly comic that would invoke a certain spirit of noble attitude among the people struggling out of the Great Depression. So, on Saturday, February 13, 1937; a prince was born to right wrongs and fight the evil doers of the world on a weekly basis. This led to movies, comic books, and all sorts of other merchandising over the years, including the subject of today's review; the first half of the television series originally airing on the Family Channel back in 1991. Due to the religious nature of the owners of the channel, the series was held to certain guidelines as to what could be shown and what kinds of adventures could be undertaken but in all, the show was simply a politically correct version of the comic strip in most ways.
Valiant was voiced by actor Robby Benson. His father's kingdom of Thule was overtaken by a evil king and Valiant set off for the mythical land of Camelot where life was grand since it was ruled under the just hand of King Arthur. Valiant has no idea which direction to start heading, nor is there any established record of the kingdom in question but he has a dream about it and ends up on the road with his naïve ways making the best of life against his father's wishes. He has the fire of youth and determination of the righteous so when he meets a young man named Arn, the two become fast friends and set out for Camelot together. They soon come across a third companion to travel with, the daughter of a small village's blacksmith named Rowanne; a skilled archer and lady in need.
The three face various evils and obstacles until one day they all but stumble across Camelot under less than positive circumstances. They unveil a plot and become accepted as the kind of people the shining city wants to have, with Arn and Valiant on the fast track to becoming knights as they train under the tutelage of Sir Gawain. Rowanne makes it clear that she intends on being the first female knight of the round table (which Arthur takes under advisement) but the established formula of the series is that the trio continue to fight for the common good wherever they are sent by Arthur. Like most cartoons, the stories center on moral tales of the week, using friendship, loyalty, faith, and other such constructs as their guiding principles. Surprisingly, there was some death and killing shown (which ultimately ended the series prematurely) but the magical elements were stripped away as Merlin and Morgana became more like alchemists and dragons were no where to be found.
1) The Dream: (September 3, 1991)
2) The Journey: (September 9, 1991)
3) The Blacksmith's Daughter: (September 16, 1991)
4) The Kidnapping: (September 23, 1991)
5) The Trust: (September 29, 1991)
6) The Finding of Camelot: (October 6, 1991)
7) The Gift: (October 13, 1991)
8) The Singing Sword: (October 20, 1991)
9) The Trust Betrayed: (October 27, 1991)
10) The Secret of Perilous Garden: (December 1, 1991)
11) The Dawn of Darkness: (April 5, 1992)
12) The Visitor: (December 15, 1991)
13) The Trap: (January 26, 1992)
14) The Return: (December 8, 1991)
15) The Awakening: (January 5, 1992)
16) The Turn of the Wheel: (March 1, 1992)
17) The Competitor: (March 8, 1992)
18) The Road Back: (March 15, 1992)
19) The Fist of Iron: (March 22, 1992)
20) The Waif: (March 29, 1992)
21) The Guardian: (January 12, 1992)
22) The Battle of Greystone: (April 12, 1992)
23) The Reunion: (April 19, 1992)
24) The Choice: (April 26, 1992)
25) The Triumph: (May 3, 1992)
26) The Dream Come True: (May 10, 1992)
Note: the airing and production dates become really spotty after the first season and without a reliable source to cite, I left these episodes without airdates until I can locate such a source.
27) The Lost: ()
28) The Beggar: ()
29) The Black Rose: ()
30) The Deception: ()
31) The Cursed: ()
32) The Flute: ()
33) The Color of Honor: ()
Okay, without going too deeply into the artistic and creative compromises the show had to succumb to thanks to the venue that funded and aired it, I have to say that there was a reason why the series won an award or two when it aired. It was family entertainment that held more than a modicum of positivity yet did not shirk from showing that even the leading characters were not perfect. They learned from their mistakes and I gathered from the commentaries (as well as the stories of course) that the writer's were allowed, if not actually encouraged, to let the characters grow as time went on. Contrast this to most such works where the idea is to shoot 100 episodes for the syndication market, with as little continuity as possible needed past the initial handful of establishing episodes (so that new viewers aren't alienated out of watching it). On a related note, the order the episodes were placed on the five DVDs in the package was different from several sources I tracked down online. I listed the air dates as best I could determine them from a variety of sources that have been reliable in the past and revisited the episodes in question to see if there were any major continuity interruptions. The series seemed to deal in arcs of episodes so there wasn't all that much to go on but there might have been some maneuvering of the episode list when putting them on DVD but it did not impact the storylines significantly (if at all) for the better or worse in my opinion.
Okay, the animation style was limited and the heavy-handed morality plays sometimes more than I tend to prefer watching but this was definitely quality family entertainment that I could watch with kids and not wince at every other word or contemporary concept. Yes, the PC way some of the scripts were written was a bit much too but I think that while most of you out there will think it is a Rent It, those looking for something a bit more interesting than Davey and Goliath to watch with your kids will think of it substantially higher. Check it out and decide for yourself, noting that it was a bit too much for Pat Robertson and the 700 Club to stomach but only marginally so.
Picture: The Legend of Prince Valiant was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in for airing on The Family Channel. The picture looked a bit grainy and seems to have been captured on 35mm film, adding in some minor video noise but otherwise looking pretty decent after the first handful of episodes (which looked a bit worse upon checking out the DVD). The colors were bright and the limited animation style employed to tell the story was about par with other shows from the era, noting it was made 15 years ago. The boxed set had the first 33 episodes on 5 discs and there did not appear to be any issues with compression artifacts or heavily damaged frames (if they were, they were edited out) and the visual appeal of the show was better than I expected.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital English but there wasn't any separation that I could hear and the dynamic range was limited but the balance between the vocals and score were pleasing. The voice actors ranged from quite good (Tim Curry comes to mind) to quite weak (some of the fill ins) and some that were obviously hired based on their fame (lead Robby Benson; though he was decent enough in the role). There were reasonable attempts to upgrade some of the vocal acting from previous efforts.
Extras: My favorite extras were the two audio commentaries by creator/producer David J. Corbett, writer Brooks Wachel, and voice actress Noelle North (Rowanne). They were hosted by Andy Mangels and took place on episode 9 (The Trust Betrayed) and episode 15 (The Awakening). They offered up some tidbits and fond memories of the show though I would have preferred more details from their experience besides the rose colored views they offered up. There were a couple of interviews with creators and historians about the Legend of Prince Valiant that were more interesting in detailing some of the dramas involved with shooting for The Family Channel, a storyboard gallery, a lengthy slideshow of character paintings and background drawings, and a DVD Rom feature of 5 complete episode scripts. One of the best extras in my opinion was the 8 page paper booklet outlining the episodes and extras.
Final Thoughts: The Legend of Prince Valiant was family fare that won't bore you to death and can be watched with your children. The show was far from perfect and discarded much of the Arthurian legends of the past but as a primer for fans of animation, it was a pretty good show. The story of Arthur has been around for 1000+ years and the Prince Valiant story for the better part of 70 years. Both have many followers and this DVD package was well handled by BCI. It might not be perfect but it was more than fans could have expected given the nature of TV on DVD to date.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.