Tuesday, December 15, 2009

REVIEW: The Princess and the Frog

The magic is back.

I have long been a Disney aficionado, but even so, I was pleasantly surprised at just how highly The Princess and the Frog lifted my spirits. I came out of the film feeling like I was walking on air, and I haven't gotten that lift from a Disney movie for a very long time. It's not up to the latter-day crown jewels of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, but it is Disney's best animated film since Lilo & Stitch.

In all of the end-of-the-decade wrap-ups floating around right now, I have been unsurprised but still displeased to see no one mention the demise of hand-drawn animation as one of the key events in movies over the last 10 years. As CGI increasingly dominated the scene, misguided studio executives believed that audiences were no longer interested in hand-drawn animation, never mind that the real problems were weak stories and poor marketing.  Regardless, studios gave up on the format, consigning it to direct-to-video junk. Disney, the studio that started it all, ended the era ignominiously with the pleasant but relentlessly underwhelming Home on the Range in 2004. For me, it was one of the saddest turning points of the decade, and hardly anyone paid it any mind.

But now, with the arrival of The Princess and the Frog,  attention is being paid, and rightly so. Co-Writers and directors John Musker and Ron Clements were at the forefront of Disney's renaissance when they made The Little Mermaid in 1989, and in the great tradition of history coming full circle, they're at the helm of another resuscitation. In this tale, our heroine, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose of Dreamgirls) wants more than anything to open  her own restaurant and realize the unfulfilled dreams of her late father.

Of course, there are a few bumps in the road on the path to dreams come true. The flippant, devil-may-care Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) unwisely falls under the spell of the black magic master Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who turns Naveen into a frog. He believes Tiana's kiss will turn him human again, but the kiss turns her into a frog as well. The two make their way into the bayou to find a way to become human again and restore normality - so far as it goes.

Some might say this is formula Disney, and it is, up to a point. However, Musker and Clements and their co-writers put several fun spins on the formula. I liked how the heroine's dreams didn't revolve around landing a man, and how she was even skeptical of wishing upon a star.  The villain isn't bent on domination so much as he is under pressure from evil spirits. And the sidekicks don't just crack wise on every other line.  I feared that the Cajun firefly Ray (Jim Cummings) would just be an excuse for fart jokes, but even this character had real heart to him.

Befitting the vibrant diversity of its setting, New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog feels like a synthesis of Musker and Clements' past work.  It blends the classicism of Mermaid,  the wild stylization of Aladdin and Hercules and the zippy, zany humor of all their movies. When a jazz-loving crocodile lands on a riverboat to blow his trumpet, the ensuing chaos made me laugh harder than I have in a theater all year.

I also noticed nods to the movies of Walt's era, and some of the bayou animation even reminded me of the Disney films of the 70s, like The Rescuers. Click here for a fun article listing references to other Disney movies; I suspect there are many more.

Naturally, I was also thrilled simply to see hand-drawn animation in all its glory from the studio that revolutionized the process. The Princess and the Frog looks spectacular, featuring not only lush and beautiful scenes but eerie, foreboding ones too. The movie's use of shadow play in Dr. Facilier's scenes is a perfect example of why hand-drawn animation was the right choice for this movie. As gorgeous as computer animation can be, there are some effects and details it simply cannot convey. May studios never again forget that pens and pencils can =make for beautiful art, and beautiful storytelling.

Just as The Princess and the Frog looks great, it sounds great as well. Randy Newman wrote the songs and the score, and they're marvelous. While his work probably won't have the staying power of Alan Menken's best tunes, all the songs are solid at the very least.  My favorite was Tiana's bright "I want" anthem "Almost There," followed by the bayou  showstopper "Dig a Little Deeper."

I notice I'm gushing, and I have to wonder - am I overrating the film simply because it's the first hand-drawn Disney film in five years, and their first fairy tale in 17? Am I the starving man who thinks the cracker he's been tossed is the greatest meal he's ever had?

I won't deny some degree of nostalgia rose-colors my view of the movie, but I do recognize minor flaws. A scene in which Tiana and Naveen tangle with some redneck hunters is padding and could easily be dropped. The climax also feels a touch too frenetic, which drains the ending of the emotional wallop Disney's best movies deliver.

However, 2009 has delivered one great animated movie after another. The Princess and the Frog may not be the best of the bunch,  but for me, it's the happiest. The movie proves that Disney can, indeed, make 'em like they used to.


PS: Anybody hear anyone calling the movie racist now?

1 comment:

Allison Dickson said...

You hit all the right points, Eric. Finally saw this last night and loved it. It was a gorgeous spectacle of animation I grew up watching, and it was great to be able to share it with my kids, who loved the movie as well.