For love of Prince Derek

THE SWAN PRINCESS Richard Rich (U)

THREE WISHES Martha Coolidge (PG)

THE SHOOTER Ted Kotcheff (18)

THE TIE THAT BINDS Wesley Strick (18)

Once upon a time it was Christmas, and the critic, who had been a (fairly) good girl throughout the year, was granted three wishes by the sprocket-hole fairy. She wished for all movies to last less than 90 minutes. And she hoped that Chris Columbus, Roland Joffe and Michael Winner would never make another film. Those requests were refused as being beyond the powers of even the most powerful magus. But she also asked for some decent seasonal movies and - wondrous to relate - that wish was granted.

Apart from the enchanting Babe (reviewed on the previous page), there is a revival of Jean Cocteau's brooding La Belle et la Bete to remind us of the dark and erotic undercurrents in that fairy-tale before Disney got its mitts on it. And there is The Swan Princess, an animated version of the story that inspired Swan Lake. Here the human in animal guise is a princess transformed into a swan by an evil magician and allowed to resume her womanly shape briefly by night. To break the spell she must get dashing Prince Derek to declare his undying love. Only in Americanised fairy-tales - in EuroDisneyland - could Derek be thought an appropriate name for a regal leading man.

Actually, The Swan Princess is not a Disney film: the director, Richard Rich, left the studio in 1986. Most attempts outside Disney to find the pot of gold, notably the animated features of Rich's fellow-refusenik Don Bluth, have flopped resoundingly; it seemed that only Walt's magicians held the secret. But The Swan Princess is rather good - not groundbreaking, it's true, but a polished variant on a trusty pattern.

By far the weakest spots are the fuzzy painted backgrounds and the soppy, bland-featured lovers with their dreary ballads ("Derek, you and I were meant to be"). And by far the best bits are the witty musical comedy numbers (the lyrics are by David Zippel, who wrote the clever film noir stage musical City of Angels). A brisk curtain-raiser shows how the two bratty royal sprogs, thrown constantly together by match-making relatives, hate each other on sight, then quickly change their tune as puberty kicks in. The ball at which the Prince must choose his bride becomes, amusingly, "Princesses on Parade", a bad-taste showbizzy beauty pageant.

The subsidiary characters are nicely conceived, too; Jack Palance plays the villain (who at one point treats us to a one- armed push-up, as performed by Palance when receiving his Oscar at the 1992 Academy Awards). The comic animal sidekicks include John Cleese as a frog who believes he's a prince (French-accented, inevitably), and the comedian Steven Wright as a droll, sepulchral-voiced turtle.

Grown-up fairy-tales are the hardest to achieve. In Three Wishes, Patrick Swayze plays a mysterious stranger, a tramp with a magic dog who enters the lives of a Korean war widow (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and her two sons and grants each of them a wish in return for their kindness. This slow, directionless film takes an age to get going, and looks on the surface like a feeble attempt to make a modern Frank Capra movie.

In fact it's quite different - we're in no cosy utopian small town but a place of claustrophobic, mid-Fifties conformity; the kitsch, pastel- coloured Toytown suburb could be just down the road from Edward Scissorhands' house. Swayze, a proto-beatnik, affronts the locals by brewing up sun tea in the garden and helping the useless Little League baseball team by teaching them Zen: it's a tribute to his performance that he brings this piffle off with a degree of plausibility. The big message (Be Happy With Who You Are) is well meant, but hardly original - it's articulated with greater subtlety and wit in rival releases elsewhere.

Dolph Lundgren is no Prince Charming. Slack-jawed, dull-eyed, his brow furrowed in perpetual perplexment, he is (against stiff competition) the dimmest of superheroes. The Shooter finds him swanning around Prague in his Franz Kafka sweatshirt getting constantly beaten up, sometimes by girls, in his pursuit of a beautiful hit-woman.

I enjoyed this stupid straight-to-video movie. Unlike Stephen Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, new-man Dolph allows decent female characters in his films: here, Maruschka Detmers as a beautiful bisexual assassin and Assumpta Berna as her lover. One priceless early scene finds our hero and his sidekick bumbling inadvertently into a lesbian bar. "Gay?" wonders Dolph as women embrace passionately all around him. "God, I hope not!" groans his tubby friend. There is also a wicked Cuban villain with oiled hair and python-skin boots. The picturesque locations make you want to rush out instantly and book a weekend break in the Czech Republic.

The Shooter is a fun-bad movie. The Tie that Binds, by contrast, belongs in the boring-bad category: a routine thriller half-baked in the mould of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (note the near-cloned title). Keith Carradine and Daryl Hannah are natural-born killers forced to abandon their six-year-old daughter during a crime spree; Vincent Spano and Moira Kelly play an upscale couple who unsuspectingly adopt her. The baddies, however, harbour parental yearnings and want their little girl back.

In this sort of movie the psychos are generally the best characters, but Hannah and (more disappointingly) Carradine don't bring to them the kinks and quirks that would make them more than cardboard villains; in any case, most of our time is spent with the dull yuppies. The plot is full of loose ends (why, for instance, have Spano threatened by bankruptcy if nothing is to come of it?), and Wesley Strick, a successful scriptwriter - his work includes Wolf and Cape Fear - directs from someone else's screenplay at a pace that allows you ample time to puzzle over them. The general and thorough-going unpleasantness, which also involves the little girl mutilating herself and stabbing another character, earnt the film an 18 rating.

n On release from tomorrow

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