I know what you’re thinking: “You’re subjecting us to yet another fluffy shoujo anime?” Though it looks like the girliest mahou shoujo anime this side of Tokyo Mew-Mew, trust me, it’s not. Princess Tutu takes the archetypal magical-girl formula, sets it in a ballet academy in an ambiguously German town and has its heroine heal people through the power of emotional expression. This particular magical-girl plot has an unusual twist; our heroine is a duck who, when given a magic pendant, can transform into a girl who can in turn transform into Princess Tutu. She yearns to restore the heart of Mytho, the mysterious but gifted dancer and BMOC at the ballet academy. But Mytho’s childhood friend, Fakir, and Mytho’s girlfriend, Rue, are determined not to let Mytho’s heart become whole again and fight against Tutu. But do any of these characters act of their own free will, or are they simply cogs in a greater plan? Imagine if Kafka rewrote the Grimms’ canon; that’s the most succinct way I can think of to describe Princess Tutu.
This is not an anime where traditional animation and CGI merge seamlessly. Produced by the unremarkable studio Hal Film Maker, the animation often looks cheap. There is heavy use made of clockwork imagery, all of which is done in CG and, in all honesty, it’s some of the worst CG I have ever seen. The gears look oddly flat and don’t look at all organic to the rest of the world. Where the animation really succeeds is during the ballet sequences, especially in episode 13, which features a real pas de deux from Swan Lake, nearly step-for-step. These scenes manage to capture the emotional resonance that the best ballet companies strive for, and that’s no mean feat.
Okay, when you read the beginning of the review, did you have trouble keeping everything straight? I hope not, because I barely scratched the surface of Princess Tutu’s numerous plots. What I described above is only the plot to the first half of the series. The second half takes a hard left turn and becomes a completely different story; I don’t want to give away too much, but we learn why Fakir and Rue are so opposed to Mytho regaining his emotions, discover Fakir’s tragic past and the destiny he faces unless he and Tutu work together to stop it. And I left out a lot to sum all that up quickly.
The supporting cast is responsible for this low grade. While the principal cast is engaging and well-acted, the rest of the cast is populated by a bizarre mix of humans and animals. Talking, realistically-rendered animals. So at this ballet academy, it’s par for the course to find kids chatting with Chihuahuas and competing with anteaters for the attention of their instructor, a cat named Mr. Cat who threatens to marry his students if they don’t pay attention during class. And the animals’ names aren’t remotely clever; along with the aforementioned Mr. Cat is Anteaterina, Chihuajuan and Ostricha.
I really wanted to like this. A mahou shoujo anime with ballet elements? Sign me up. But the more I watched, the more unsettled I became. Between the sub-par animation, overstuffed plots and nightmarish animal characters, Princess Tutu had the overall look and feel of a fever dream to me. I recently re-watched it to see if my opinion had changed. It hadn’t; if anything, I disliked it even more on a repeat viewing. In fact, I couldn’t even finish it the second time around. I feel that, had this been a 13-episode series, it could have been great. But stretching it out to 26 episodes, many of which are one-off stories that don’t serve to further any of the important plots, made this a wasted opportunity.