Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thoughts on "The Princess and the Frog"


Before I get to my musings on Disney’s latest, I’m going to announce the winner of IPC’s first trivia contest, which illness prevented me from doing last week. Our winner is markwilliamsjr, who correctly identified “Love” from Robin Hood as the song in Fantastic Mr. Fox that makes reference to another animated film with foxes in the starring roles. Check at the end of today’s article for a new trivia challenge.

It’s no secret that I’ve been looking forward to The Princess and the Frog. Disney movies were what got me interested in animation in the first place and I have eagerly anticipated the studios return to their roots with a new hand-drawn feature. Plus, it felt pretty good to know that many more little girls would soon have a Disney princess who looked like them. But as the release date drew near, I was feeling conflicted. I liked a lot of what I was hearing about the film, but most of the trailers I had seen weren’t quite winning me over. I wanted the film to succeed and prove that hand-drawn feature films could still be successful. But at the same time, I worried that the film was going to be bogged down with unappealing sidekicks and suffer from all the same mistakes as the films that led to Disney kicking traditional animation to the curb. So when my husband and I finally found the time to see the movie, I was both excited and worried. Happily, the film soon put my fears to rest and gave me hope that Disney was really coming back.

The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s old recipe for success, with enough new ingredients tossed in to keep it fresh. The one that’s getting all the attention, and not without reason, is that the film features Disney’s first African-American princess. The New Orleans setting also gives the film a distinct flavor that helps it stand out, giving direction to story, visual, and music. It sits comfortably alongside the previous Disney fairy tales, but avoids feeling like a by-the-book retread.

One element the movie handles particularly well is making both of its protagonists interesting people with their own problems to work through rather than one being the person who needs to grow and change over the course of the story and the other being more or less an object of pursuit. Tiana is the daughter of working class parents. Her one wish is to realize her late father’s dream of owning a restaurant. In her eyes, her problem is that she needs money to make this happen. But her real, internal issue is that her pursuit of this dream has caused her to shut out almost everything else in her life except work. On the other end of the social spectrum is Prince Naveen, a foreign royal visiting New Orleans. Naveen is theoretically in town to meet, woo, and marry a young woman from a wealthy family, but he’s not particularly interested in doing so. It’s not out of any romantic dreams of true love; Naveen simply doesn’t want to settle down or stop having fun, despite the fact that his carefree pursuit of the good life is the very reason he needs to marry money. Naveen’s parents, disgusted by his spendthrift ways, have cut him off. So if Naveen wants to continue enjoying the lifestyle he’s accustomed to, he needs to find a new source of cash.

It should come as no surprise that these two characters don’t exactly fall in love at first sight. It doesn’t help the situation that by the time Tiana meets Naveen, he’s had a run-in with the nefarious Dr. Facilier and been transformed into a frog. The characters’ initial relationship with each other is based solely on self-interest and lies. Naveen outright lies to Tiana about his financial situation, promising a monetary reward if she kisses him and breaks the spell. Tiana isn’t quite as bad, but once she realizes that Naveen could provide her with the money she needs for her restaurant, she doesn’t exactly correct his mistaken notion that she is a real princess and not just in costume. The rocky start to their relationship makes for some pretty entertaining moments as they slowly become friends and eventually start to fall in love. One of the nice twists that keeps the story from feeling too familiar is that Naveen, ostensibly the less sympathetic of the two characters, ends up being the first to realize that the life he’s been pursuing may not be the path to true happiness after all, while Tiana takes nearly the whole movie to get her priorities straight.

The rest of the cast fares pretty well too. Particularly notable is Dr. Facilier the “shadow man.” His voice is provided by Keith David, who also voiced Goliath on Gargoyles. David is just phenomenal here, giving the main villain a dark charm and fast-paced energy that is reflected in movements that border on rubber-hose animation at times. The cast is generally a nice balance between voice and “face” actors, none of whom turn in a bad performance. One of my biggest concerns based on the trailers was that Ray, the buck-toothed Cajun firefly, would get on my nerves. But thanks in part to a very solid performance by the ubiquitous Jim Cummings, Ray is genuinely appealing and his personal story adds a good variation on the film’s central themes of believing in your dreams and the power of love.

The movie packs a lot of visual punch as well, retaining much of the appeal of past hand-drawn Disney films while adding in a few new surprises. There’s plenty of nicely observed detail, from Tiana’s skeptical expressions and hesitant body language when she first encounters the prince turned frog to the intricate metalwork on the balcony where they meet. Lighting plays a big role in setting the mood of each scene: sunlight gleaming through various colored glass bottles, Ray and his firefly clan lighting the protagonists’ way through the bayou, and the sunshine streaming in through the roof of the run-down building that Tiana hopes to turn into her restaurant, which both highlights the dusty, dilapidated condition of the place and casts the scene in the glow of Tiana’s hopes. Tiana’s nearly achieved dream also kicks off her “I want” song and one of the film’s two big stylistic departures. As Tiana sings “Almost There,” the Art Deco illustration that has been the physical touchstone for her dream comes to life. Such flat, graphic animation is nothing new, especially since Flash came along. But what’s truly impressive is that Tiana in particular never feels like a two-dimensional paper cutout. Even as the animation style changes, she still feels like a living, dimensional character. The scene was supervised by animator Eric Goldberg, who also headed up the Hirschfeld homage “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence in Fantasia 2000. The movie’s other visual extravaganza is Dr. Facilier’s musical number “Friends on the Other Side.” Facilier seals the devil’s bargain that will turn Naveen into a frog as the scene shifts to a black-light nightmare, complete with singing masks and dancing voodoo dolls.

Despite its strengths, The Princess and the Frog is by no means a perfect movie. One of my biggest gripes was with the designs of Naveen and Tiana as frogs. While they both move and emote well enough, the look of the characters just feels a little over-simple to me, like it could have used a little more finessing and detail. Randy Newman, who provided the songs for several of Pixar’s films, composed the film’s score and musical numbers. The overall score is something of a mixed bag. The New Orleans flavor is there, but the tunes themselves range from toe-tappers to pretty melodies to completely forgettable ditties. It’s worth noting that my husband, who is not a fan of the musical genre, liked the songs, but I found the majority of them merely OK. Borrowing Randy Newman may not have been a bad idea, but it there’s one thing that I wish Disney could learn from Pixar’s movies, it would be subtlety in storytelling. Though the story does keep the connection between race and social class from overpowering the story without eliminating it altogether, the main themes are much more blatantly stated. I look at a film like Up where so much is conveyed without words and where Carl never has to come out and say “My wife died,” or “I don’t need physical objects because I have my memories,” or “I have to stop living in the past and make new connections with people,” and I wonder why Disney can’t have a film where the theme is “Never lose sight of what’s important” without having characters literally say those words, let alone clarifying that love is what’s important. This is still a strong return to form for Disney that does a lot more right than wrong. But there are still problems, which I hope Disney will be aware of the next time they tackle a classic fairy tale.

The task of “saving” hand-drawn animation is a lot for any one film to take on. It’s not entirely a true picture of the state of the industry either. Whatever happens, hand-drawn animation will still be around, courtesy of other countries, independent animators, TV shows, advertising, and any number of other sources. At most, what’s riding on the success of The Princess and the Frog is the future of American theatrical hand-drawn animation, assuming that if Disney can’t make it work, other studios won’t bother to try. Even then, it may be only a matter of years before a new success or failure comes along and changes the future of the medium once more. I can’t tell you if The Princess and the Frog will “save” hand-drawn animated features in the U.S., whether audiences will go to see it in big enough numbers to make it a success or ignore it in favor of another film, if home market and merchandise sales will be good enough to make more such film seem commercially viable. What I can tell you is that The Princess and the Frog is a good movie with some fantastic visuals, engaging characters, and a fun story that make it well worth seeing.

Trivia Time! Disney’s return to hand-drawn fairy tales brings with it several nods to previous Disney films. You may notice the magic carpet from Aladdin being shaken out from a balcony in one of the film’s first shots. You’ll almost certainly recognize one of the Mardi Gras floats that shows up closer to the end of the film as King Triton from The Little Mermaid. And if you’re familiar with some of the people behind the scenes at Disney, you might spot John Musker and Ron Clements – the directors of Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog - tossing beads from the Triton float. But these aren’t the only in-jokes in the film and there’s another one that really warmed this old Disney fan’s heart. It has to do with the name of Louis’ band towards the end of the movie. What’s the name of the band and why is it a Disney in-joke?

Once again, the answer is not too hard to find online, should you choose to do so. The first person to post the correct answer will be named in the next article, with a link to the winner’s website.

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