clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Quest for Camelot marked the beginning of the end for the animated musical formula

Warner Bros. Feature Animation’s first theatrical film was also its downfall

Grid featuring six screens from The Quest for Camelot animated movie Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Warner Bros. Animation

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Your favorite childhood movie might’ve been a total box-office dud. The animated movies that defined the late ‘90s and early 2000s are beloved by a generation that grew up watching them on VHS, but many of these nostalgic favorites were critical failures, box-office disappointments, or both. What went wrong along the way? And why did they gain such love after the fact? The Beloved Animated Failures series is out to dust off those old VHS tapes (or, more accurately, find the movies on streaming) and examine some of these films.

As the Disney Renaissance reached its peak with 1994’s The Lion King, other studios abruptly began to see that theatrical animation had become a viable blockbuster subgenre, capable of raking in millions of dollars. Many studios opened their own animation divisions, and executives at Warner Bros. Animation tried to start their journey toward animation riches with a big fantasy action-adventure musical: Quest for Camelot.

But Quest for Camelot became the first indication that perhaps the tried-and-true Disney formula wouldn’t last forever — and that other studios couldn’t achieve success just by copy-pasting it. While the creatives who worked on the project were passionate, mixed messages from executives — who chose marketing over storytelling — doomed the movie from the very beginning. But even though it earned poor box-office returns and got poor reviews, it meant something to kids who grew up with it, especially those who, for the first time, got to watch a young woman wield a sword and embark on a great adventure.

kayley holding a sword Image: Warner Bros. Feature Animation

What it’s about

After Excalibur is stolen by evil Sir Ruber (Gary Oldman), plucky young Kayley (Jessalyn Gilsig) sets out to recover the sword before Ruber and his magically augmented army can raid Camelot and defeat Arthur. While in the Forbidden Forest, she teams up with blind hermit Garrett (Cary Elwes) and a two-headed dragon (Eric Idle and Don Rickles) to save the day.

kayley holding excalibur Image: Warner Bros. Feature Animation

A little backstory…

Warner Bros. Feature Animation announced Quest for Camelot in May 1995, as the studio’s first full-length feature animated film. Technically, at this point Warner Bros. already owned Turner Animation, so 1997’s Cats Don’t Dance preceded Quest for Camelot. But from the get-go, there was a clear preference for projects wholly under the Warner Bros. banner. And while Cats Don’t Dance didn’t see a lick of merchandising budget, “extensive marketing and merchandising support” was instrumental in the Quest for Camelot plan, according to the Los Angeles Times.

It was an exciting time to be at Warner Bros. Animation, associate producer Zahra Dowlatabadi tells Polygon. While news articles at the time immediately compared Quest for Camelot to Disney Renaissance films, Dowlatabadi’s energy didn’t come from the studio’s attempt to exactly emulate Disney, but from the excitement that animation was finally being seen as legitimate.

“[Disney’s] success with films like The Lion King and Aladdin really provided an opportunity for people to look at animation as a very viable form of entertainment,” Dowlatabadi says.

The executives at Warner were so eager that they rushed the film into production before the script was even finalized. The original story, based on a book by the same name by Vera Chapman, followed a young woman named Susannah as she set off on a quest for the Holy Grail to save her sister. But Warner Bros. Feature Animation president Max Howard decided to change the Grail to Excalibur — just one of the many alterations to the story that came from studio management. Eventually, one of the film’s original directors and a co-producer left over creative differences. (Rumors split on whether they were fired or they resigned.) After that, two supervising animators, several employees in the art department, and the film’s initial producer left the production.

When contacted, one person formerly involved with the movie’s early production told Polygon, ”I prefer that people not even be reminded that I had anything to do with the project in the first place.”

This strife wasn’t a secret. Even before the movie came out, The Record published an article rife with damning quotes from anonymous interviewees. “The simplest thing I could say is that there were 20 people who had 20 different movies in their heads,” says one source. “From the top down, no one had the clarity of mind to say what this movie is. No one said anything.”

Without a clear vision for the movie, Warner sunk more and more money into Quest for Camelot. Dowlatabadi tells us that very often, there was not always a quantifiable reason to even spend the money — or even any parameters for budget. The costs were piling up, especially with all the merchandising and marketing tie-ins. After being pushed from November 1997 to May 1998, Quest for Camelot finally released in theaters.

ruber wearing a hood and forcing kayley’s mom to drive a carriage Image: Warner Bros. Feature Animation

Why it didn’t work

“I think that the movie tried to be too many things,” says Dowlatabadi. “I think it tried to be musical. It tried to be an action-adventure. It tried to please too many chefs in the kitchen.”

It’s not that a movie could not be all those things — in fact, in an unfortunate circumstance for Warner Bros., Disney’s Mulan came out just a few weeks after Quest for Camelot. Both movies are action-adventure musicals featuring young women picking up swords to honor their fathers. They both team up with comic-relief dragons and work to save their lands from grey-skinned villains with long ragged hair who plan to storm the capitol city and dethrone the current ruler. But Mulan is objectively the better movie, and it earned more than $300 million at the global box office, while Quest didn’t crack $40 million

Quest for Camelot did not pull off what it set out to do. Even though one song from the movie (“The Prayer”) was nominated for an Academy Award, most of its musical numbers are pop and rock oriented, and they hardly feel like they’re from a fantasy epic. The singing voices also sound jarringly different from the voice actors. Garrett’s singing double, country singer Bryan White, doesn’t even try to emulate Elwes’ British accent. The music feels like an obligatory addition to the film, inserted solely because animated musicals were in vogue at the time. The pacing is frenzied, with a whole movie’s worth of exposition crammed into the opening without much grace. The issues all trace back to those multiple visions for the same project — and the fact that executives and those higher up didn’t want to prioritize the storytelling component of the movie.

“Storytelling is so challenging. You can’t do this, because you want to make toys, because you’re thinking about the lunchboxes and the cereal,” Dowlatabadi explains. “There was too much of that component.”

But even if Quest for Camelot had been a better movie, the market as a whole was already becoming oversaturated with animated musicals. Perhaps by trying to compete in the niche Disney had carved out already, Warner Bros. doomed its initial animated feature from the get-go. Unfortunately, though the studio’s next film, The Iron Giant, was a science fiction tale with nary a song in sight, and a unique and well-crafted vision that could’ve shaped the studio’s voice going forward, the failure of Quest for Camelot caused Warner Bros. Animation to balk at the prospect of sinking the same amount of money into marketing. This lack of marketing was exactly what doomed The Iron Giant at the box office, and eventually doomed the entirety of Warner Bros. Feature Animation.

garett showing kayley how to fight Image; Warner Bros. Feature Animation

Why we love it today

After a flurry of princess movies where the female characters were stronger and more driven than previous counterparts, but still wore pretty dresses and dreamed of romance, 1998 brought not one but two girls who wore pants, wielded swords, and followed in their fathers’ footsteps. The fact that Mulan and Quest for Camelot came out in the same year likely hurt the latter at the box office, but for children growing up with the movie — little girls in particular — having more of these active, dynamic heroines was a good thing.

Some critics called Quest For Camelot’s Kayley a standard spunky heroine, but she’s actually fairly unique among the animated heroines of the 1990s. Kayley is one of the few who doesn’t wear an elaborate gown, or a skimpy, sexualized outfit throughout the movie. (She does wear a nice dress at the end — but for her knighting ceremony.) She’s also the lead character of her own movie, and while romance is involved in her story, it isn’t the central driving force behind her motivations. Mulan checks those same boxes.

In 1998, these two heroines broke the mold. But Western animation pivoted away from musicals, and consequently away from more female-led movies. Girls could be princesses, sure, but not comedic leads or science-fiction adventurers. Female characters existed, but they were love interests or one girl in a group of boys. There were some exceptions (as in Lilo and Stitch), but Mulan and Kayley represented a first taste of a female-lead action-adventure that almost completely disappeared from Western animation in the years to come. With movies like Raya and the Last Dragon and shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power putting female leads at the front of animated fantasy adventures, it can be hard to remember a time when that was the exception, not the norm.

kayley riding a horse Image: Warner Bros. Feature Animation

It’s not that Quest for Camelot’s characters were particularly unique. The villain is pretty standard. The comic-relief dragon is grating, and full of pop-culture references for no apparent reasons. The rest of the cast is fairly one-note. But Kayley was important to little girls, and Garrett, the male lead, is also unique. To this day, he is one of the few animated leading men with a disability as a prominent and explicit part of his character. Sure, his conflict about not fitting in with society, and finding comfort by being alone in the woods, is pretty surface-level, but it doesn’t change the fact that a blind man as the leading, romantic hero was pretty damn groundbreaking for its day. He’s blind, but he’s also a capable fighter and a snarky, dreamy love interest.

For all its formulaic bits and pieces, Quest for Camelot put a new spin on Arthurian legend, sparking a love for the mythology. Retellings of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are a dime a dozen — hell, even Disney has its Sword in the Stone — but this was a new take on the legend, putting the focus on a young woman. As fun as the original tale is, the women involved don’t get to wield swords or be the centers of the story. But with Kayley as the lead, curious kids initially drawn to her found a love for Arthurian myth in general.

And while she’s one of the most indulgent characters for little girls, that’s entirely a positive thing considering how many heroes out there cater specifically to little boys. She wears pants, stomps through the woods, and rides a horse. She saves the day and gets knighted at the end of the story, by King Arthur himself. And she also gets to smooch Garrett at the end. Quest for Camelot might not be a good movie, but there’s a reason it won over the fans it did, despite all its flaws.

Quest for Camelot is available to rent on YouTube.