Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD 1: Marchen
A duckling encounters an emotionless prince one day and yearns to help the prince regain his heart. To this end she is transformed into a human girl by a strange man, with one caveat: anytime she acts in a ducklike manner, she returns to being a duck, and can then after only return to human form by getting wet. In her human identity as Duck ("Ahiru" in Japanese) she attends a ballet school where she strives to become a ballerina while searching for a way to help her “prince,” a more senior male student named Mytho (pronounced “myu-to”). Though other senior students seem to obstruct her path and dance instructor Mr. Cat constantly threatens to make her marry him, the normally-inept Duck has a secret weapon: she can transform into the magical Princess Tutu, whose flawless dancing and magical abilities are invaluable to helping recover shards of Mytho's heart. But all of this is in some way part of another story, one where the characters escaped into the real world after the writer died prior to finishing the story. Is Duck doomed to share the fate of the storybook Princess Tutu: that her love will be unrequited and she will turn into a speck of light upon being told so?
I know what some of you are thinking: “A ballet-themed magical girl title? How hideous! And what a ridiculous name!” Yet Princess Tutu is anything but hideous or ridiculous. It would be more accurate to call it a fairy tale set to ballet with a few magical girl elements mixed in, for the storytelling tone and style ring more true to a European-styled fable. And it's an enchanting work of storytelling at that. Though laced with some very funny humor and typical schoolgirl emotional antics, its dramatic parts weave gentle and elegant stories where action comes in the form of ballet dances and conflicts are resolved with soothing words and nary a hint of violence. This may sound dull, but often these scenes carry a surprisingly effective emotional appeal. Viewers are so likely to be entranced by what's going on that they probably won't care about how strange it is that the heroine has, for instance, just resolved one big problem by having a heartfelt dance with an anteater in a tutu—really, it isn't as silly as it sounds. True heart and soul is a precious commodity in anime of any type, but Princess Tutu has it in abundance.
Granted, the episode structure does get a little repetitive by the end of the volume. Princess Tutu always appears at almost the exact same time in each episode, and is always preceded by commentary from Drosselmeyer, the mysterious man who granted Duck her abilities and seems to be monitoring the story closely. There is nothing stale about the dialogue or plotting, however, which seamlessly weaves together elements of both Western and Japanese storytelling in its creation of a European-styled setting where stories take on a life of their own. The ballet theme, rather than being just a gimmick, permeates every aspect of the story, making it inseparable from the characters and plot. Doubtless there are a lot of hidden references within it which an aficionado of ballet might pick up on that the average viewer won't, but that's more a bonus than a necessity for appreciating this title.
Sadly, the artistry of this volume is not the title's strong point. Character designs are stylized, overly thin, and often rather simple, while background artistry fares a bit better. The color palette favors pastels and muted colors rather than the bright, garish color schemes more common in this genre, but that suits the tone of the story better. Though the animation quality is only respectable overall, it supports the dance scenes well enough to turn them into things of beauty. Interestingly, the best-looking part of the series is the opener, which uses some CG effects and tricks of shifting viewpoint, the latter especially in support of its dance portion. If the rest of each episode had fulfilled the artistic potential established in the opener then this would be amongst the year's best titles. Even so, this volume isn't harsh on the eyes, but it isn't what it could be, either. Transformation scenes are, mercifully, kept short.
The elegant, soulful musical scoring is nearly as great a highlight as the storytelling. Heavy on ballet musical numbers, it carries the viewer gently along and mixes divinely with the animated dance scenes. This effect is carried over into “Morning Grace,” the delicate, graceful opening number, whose only flaw is that it isn't longer. The light, orchestrated closer is pleasant and melodic but not as distinctive as the rest. The series even uses excerpts from “The Nutcracker” in its eyecatch!
The dub performances are generally quite good, with most voice actors effectively capturing the spirit of the characters as well as coming reasonably close to the original performances. The biggest discrepancy comes in the narration, but that's inevitable since the flow of traditional storytelling style is different between the two languages. Both are equally good for their language but substantially different in style compared to each other. Luci Christian in particular shines in the key role of Duck, turning in one of her best performances to date, while Jay Hickman is suitably subdued and wispy-voiced as Mytho.
The English script stays close to the original except in two aspects. A big stink was raised when ADV first revealed that they were translating Ahiru's name, hence naming the main character Duck. This is a practice not normally done in anime; have you ever heard of an instance where a character named Sakura becomes Cherry Blossom in the English script, for instance? Yet in this case it's necessary. It is traditional for animal characters in European fairy tales to be named by their animal type, so naming a character “Ahiru” in Japanese would be exactly equivalent to naming a character “Duck” in English and would sound just as odd as a name for a girl. It is also critical at several points in the story for a viewer to know exactly what the lead character's name means, which is not normally the case. More problematic is how the subtleties of honorifics get washed out in both the subtitles and the English script. Using “Senior Mytho” for “Mytho-sempai” is an acceptable (if awkward) compromise, but in other places where issues of familiarity of address come up, viewers relying strictly on the dub or subtitles will be left clueless. (This is particularly evident in episode 4, when Rue tries to tell Duck that she shouldn't be addressed as “Rue-chan” since they aren't that close.) I do not consider this a big enough flaw to drag down the rating of an otherwise-solid dub, but mileage may vary here.
The extras on this volume are surprisingly extensive for a five-episode volume. In addition to standards like company previews and a clean opener and closer, there is a set of outtakes, an “Inside the Studio” feature which looks at various English VAs in action, a light-hearted audio commentary for episode 1 featuring Luci Christian and Chris Patton (who voices Fakir), and a thin audio commentary for episode 5 featuring project translator Shoko Oono and ADR script writer Mike Yantosca. Also present are “Étude” and “Ballet For Beginners,” two bits narrated in-character by Duck's friends which explain (sort of) various aspects of ballet for neophytes. Included in the case are a reversible cover and a commentary by creator Ikuko Itoh in the liner notes.
Every so often a title will come along which turns one of anime's most staid genres on its head. Such a title is Princess Tutu. Even if you are not normally a fan of magical girl anime, you owe it to yourself to check out this one. It may not be the prettiest-looking of anime series, but it is one of the most beautiful.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A
Animation : B
Art : C+
Music : A
+ Enchanting storytelling, wonderful music, loaded with extras.
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