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"The Legend of Prince Valiant Volume 1": A Series Fit for a King

Once upon a time the newspaper comic strip sections were robust and full of not only the usual comedy but also action adventure. Though it has a lower profile today, one of the most famous such strips is “Prince Valiant,” which has portrayed the dashing exploits of a young Arthurian knight since 1937. Though there have been a couple film attempts, 1991-93′s The Legend of Prince Valiant animated series remains the most comprehensive adaptation. The first volume from BCI contains 33 highly entertaining episodes.

But where are the Knights of Justice?Created as a primetime series for the Family Channel, the award-winning Legend matches the concurrent Batman: The Animated Series with sophisticated plot, characters, dialogue, a superb big-name cast, and realistic and unflinching action. It does fall short of the mighty Batman in a couple areas: its forgettable score and sometimes creaky Korean animation. However the show has an ace up its tunic: unlike the vast majority of American animated series, it is serialized, with a considerable amount of rewarding continuity for the loyal viewer.

Despite Legend‘s strong moral values, art lover Pat Robertson of the Family Channel’s The 700 Club eventually managed to get it cancelled for the occasionally mature themes and violence. Frankly I’m surprised the show lasted as long as it did. The often gradual pace and lengthy dialogue seem better suited for adults than children.

We first meet Prince Valiant (Robby Benson, Beauty and the Beast‘s Beast) as an invading army overruns his father William’s small kingdom. Exiled to a remote swamp, the restless Valiant is beset with visions of the utopian kingdom of Camelot, and, against the skeptical William’s wishes, sets off on a quest to become a just knight of the Round Table.

Along the way he is joined by the steadfast young peasant Arn (Michael Horton), and spirited and comely blacksmith’s daughter Rowanne (Noelle North). Eventually they do discover Camelot, and are enthralled by the majestic domain of the magnanimous King Arthur (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Batman: TAS‘ Alfred) and kindly, wise wizard Merlin (Allan Oppenheimer, He-Man‘s Skeletor). Soon, though, they realize that it is not quite the perfect society they had imagined, for there are some within who would rather preserve the rule of might over the rule of reason. Our heroes endeavor to bring Camelot in line with their vision as they train to become knights.

Chivalry doesn't mean you don't need a cupMost episodes are quite strong, and unlike similar series, often unpredictable. One of the best is “The Gift,” in which Valiant’s childhood mentor Rolf comes to visit him in Camelot, bringing a letter of rapprochement from his estranged father. Valiant spurns the letter, despite sage advice from Arthur on forgiveness. Rolf is eager to help with his training, but Valiant is so focused on his lessons with Arthur’s knights that he has little time for him, and Rolf begins to feel he has become obsolete both as a teacher and a friend. The episode concludes with an unexpected burst of tragic violence, which forces Valiant to reconsider the value of his relationships with both Rolf and his father.

To the show’s credit, most characters are neither wholly perfect nor imperfect, and undergo some change as the series goes on. Despite being kind and heroic, Valiant starts out impetuous and often self-absorbed and, much like Frodo’s Samwise, Arn’s role as loyal sidekick conflicts with his ability to speak his mind.

Free-spirited and ambitious Rowanne has a touch of modern sensibility, but never to the point where she becomes as outrageously anachronistic as certain Disney characters. Neither is her feminine side ignored, as Valiant and Arn both eventually become smitten, and her ambiguous response causes tension between them.

Needless to say the weaponry made intimacy difficultAs for the villains, Camelot knight Mordred and Arthur’s half-sister Morgana are among the most memorable. Although an uncompromising warmonger, the refined and revered Mordred is more misguided than truly evil. In contrast, Morgana is chillingly bloodthirsty, but in public employs her considerable charm and beauty to manipulate her pawns.

The performances are excellent across the board, although it takes some time to get used to Oppenheimer portraying a benevolent character. Among the many well-known actors involved are James Avery (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and John Rhys Davies (Lord of the Rings).

Legend contains little intentional comedy, although an army of maids vanquishing professional soldiers with curtains and brooms provides one good laugh. There is a healthy quantity of generally solid action, and a fair number of people and animals meet violent deaths, usually by cold steel and sometimes at the hands of our heroes. In one scene Valiant slashes and presumably kills two helpless if off-screen men, and in another Arn excitedly speaks of strangling his enemy.

Although the character design is excellent, the animation quality over the first few episodes is almost He-Man awful, with very jerky movement and bland, brightly colored backgrounds more appropriate for Peter Rabbit. Thankfully both problems improve significantly later on. Unlike He-Man, there’s an impressive amount of detailed, realistic locations and the characters actually change clothes fairly regularly.

Death is no stranger to ValiantLegend‘s score is passable Braveheart style fare, though rather limp and generic. The exception is the rousing opening song by AOR singer Marc Jordan, which sounds a little like something Bryan Adams might do for Disney.

The video quality is good but not on par with BCI’s He-Man releases. At times it looks a little grainy or washed out. Nor does the packaging really compare. The use of double-sided discs is a bit disappointing.

Luckily the extras are quite good. The two highly informative episode commentaries from creator/producer David Corbett, writer Brooks Wachtel, and North reveal among other things that the Family Channel discouraged them from using dragons or magic. Corbett and Wachtel also give interviews, the former saying he insisted on hiring dramatic rather than cartoony voice actors, and the latter explaining how he tried to include a lot of real history. A third interview with comic strip historian Rock Norwood provides extensive background on the Valiant strip. There’s also a storyboard with frustratingly small images, five episode scripts on DVD-ROM, and a gallery of beautiful character sketches and backgrounds.

The Legend of Prince Valiant is a superb, intelligent series that should appeal to audiences of all ages. Fans of King Arthur or knights in general will particularly enjoy it. I’ve long held that Batman: The Animated Series is the best American action cartoon ever, but Legend is one heck of a challenger. If only Valiant had a better barber.

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