Monday, December 14, 2009

It Ain't Easy Bein' Green

Can an old dog learn new tricks? Scratch that, can Pluto learn new tricks? Disney's first hand-drawn animated film in almost six years, The Princess and the Frog, makes a herculean effort to return to the glory days of the late 80's and early 90's and largely succeeds. Whats particularly fascinating about the film is it that in addition to replicating the feel of past successes (as well as the box-office to go with it) the film is also making a valiant attempt at pushing their film's degree of progressiveness and stepping away from the studios more conservative family-centered branding. It cops out in the third act but I commend Disney for making a concentrated effort to push in a different direction in a couple of areas.
The plot you know or can at least guess. In jazz-age New Orleans a young girl, Tiana (Anika Noni-Rose) scrimps and saves to buy her own restaurant. At her best friend Lotty's (Broadway vet Jennifer Cody) costume ball, where she, through happy coincidence, is now dressed as a princess, is approached by a talking frog. The frog explains that he is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) a happy-go-lucky, broke, visiting dignitary who has been put under dark voodoo magic by Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and transformed. The twist here is when Tiana kisses the froggy Navine she turns into a frog as well. With that duo are off on a mad dash to become human again and acquire the typical animal sidekick types and learn valuable lessons on the side. My one major qualm is that Tiana doesn't really need to learn any lessons, or at least the lesson she needs to learn is unclearly presented and solved.
The film goes to great lengths to show Tiana's background, the child of hardworking, married parents (voiced by Terrence Howard and Oprah). The animators have a number of shots where the wedding bands our clear on both characters' hands. Now is this to show that there could be happily married African-American couples at this time? Is it so impossible to believe this as an actuality? Or do they want to paint these characters in an especially positive light? Most Disney heroines don't come from two family households to begin with so would it really matter if the weren't married? Would that be so morally indefensible? It's muddled. But either way Tiana's parents imbue her with a strong work ethic and the traditional Disney trope of wishing upon a star is upended. Tiana's mother tells her daughter early on that wishing will only take you so far, its Tiana's personal agency that will take her the rest of the way. Tiana also is shown early on to reject the conventional princess ethos. Its her friend Lotty that longs for dresses and castles and handsome princes (and this obsession is used to great comedic effect-aided by the marvelous animators and vocal performance of Miss Cody). Tiana has managed to succeed in spite of her socio-economic disadvantages and this is truly admirable. She has no interest in a man or frog for that matter. Her bliss is found elsewhere. Which is why the ending rings false. The story goes to such great lengths to make Tiana different from other Disney leading ladies but then forces her into a relationship that nothing previously established by her character would push her towards. Her biggest issue is that she is so busy waitresssing that she doesn't have time for much of social life. Big whoop. Tiana's I want song "Almost There" (beautifully conceived by modern legend Eric Goldberg in an alternative jazzy art-deco style) makes it clear her joy and satisfaction would most certainly come from the community that would emerge as a result of her work. So why does she need a husband?
That being said, you can't analyze a film for what it isn't, you must analyze the film for what it is. If you're not putting it through a pedagogical ringer The Princess and the Frog works. It's funny, moving and gorgeous. The animators have worked to bring back the grandeur of those modern classic hand-drawn films and the picture has a grace and fluidity that is distinct from CGI. The movie is big and grand and its swamps and cityscapes are rendered in lush detail. The music too is memorable as composer Randy Newman works in a variety of Southern musical styles. Each number is well sung and given genuine show-stopping power so don't be surprised if your audience breaks out into applause.
Even the side characters that provide the comic relief feel a little deeper this time around. There is Louis (another Broadway vet, Michael Leon-Wooley) , a trumpet playing alligator who craves validation for his extraordinary trumpet skills (the resolution of the characters doesn't quite go as one might expect). Then there's firefly Raymond. From the trailer and rather gimmicky posters I assumed this character was going to be one big butt joke after another. Boy was I wrong. Ray has the best conventional love arc of the film and is probably going to be the audience favorite when they close the book on this one. Voiced by long time voice -acting vet Jim Cummings (you probably know him as Pooh or Pete from Goof Troop) Cummings gets lots of laughs but very tender emotional beats as well since Ray is in love with Evangeline, the wishing star that he believes to be a beautiful firefly. The resolution of this character is going to move all but the most stone-hearted of viewers.
The film isn't perfect but it works in a lot of ways that count, first and foremost is that it is an extremely entertaining animated fairy tale that will delight all ages and likely make the older one's think a little harder about what they've seen before in Disney films. My highest compliment I can pay the film is that I can easily see it in a few years standing beside Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. I really would love to hear feedback on this film as there are plenty of other intriguing issues the film raises and some stuff that didn't fit in this review. Be our guest.


Heather said...

ones not one's :)

P.S. Where is Elissa's shoutout?

El Gigante said...

A couple hundred words of analysis and I criticized about one and one's? Bah.

Also the Elissa shout out is where it makes most sense. Place your cursor over the last picture in the article.

Heather said...

I'm always appealing to your eye for grammar.