[14 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sometimes, the old ways are better. No matter how fancy and fresh feeling the new approach is, the original format often holds a magic untapped and unappreciated by those now enamored of the update. That’s what’s happened with computer generated animation. When it first hit the family film artform, many thought it a clever cartoon complement. A decade later, and it’s completely taken over the genre, moving the formative pen and ink version of the craft to the back burner. Even pioneer Disney dropped 2D after the less than impressive returns for their 2004 effort, Home on the Range.
A lot has happened in the five years since. Pixar, once just an arm of the House of Mouse, is now an official member of Walt’s inner circle. John Lasseter, the man behind Toy Story and other massive hits for the company has been placed in charge of Disney’s animation division - and one of his first tasks as a newly appointed head was to reinvest in hand drawn cartooning. Over the last few years, Lasseter has brought Mickey’s men back to prominence, promising something very special with the release of his first attempt at bringing back the company’s prior glory. With the fabulous Princess and the Frog (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), he succeeds royally.
The story is a spin on the old “kiss the toad” fairytale. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a young girl in turn of the century New Orleans. Her hard working seamstress mother (Oprah Winfrey) makes dresses for Charlotte, the spoiled daughter of the city’s richest man (John Goodman). Growing up together, Tiana follows the sage advice from her late father - determination and perseverance wins the day. Her wealthy pal believes in simply wishing on a star.
When a visiting Prince (Bruno Campos) makes a stop over in the Big Easy, he instantly becomes the focus of Charlotte’s marital intentions. He’s also targeted by local voodoo shaman Dr. Facilier (Keith David). Before he knows it, his highness is a frog and part of a plot to take over the town. Hoping to find a Princess to free him, he stumbles upon Tiana dressed for a fancy costume ball. Unfortunately, when she kisses him, things go from bad to much, much worse.
Without giving more of the plot away (the second half of the film is an elongated trip through the bayou as Tiana and the Prince try to find a way out of their predicament), it’s safe to say that Disney is indeed back with The Princess and the Frog. After nearly a decade of less than spectacular hand drawn titles, the House of Mouse - and specifically, Little Mermaid and Hercules guides Ron Clements and John Musker - have brought the stunning candy-colored patina back into animation. The look here is so arresting and revitalizing that it feels wholly new. It’s like getting into a time machine and going back to the days of great mouse detectives, lion kings, and open-hearted beauties and their lovelorn beasts.
If the old cliché reminds us that we don’t recognize what we had until it’s gone, a new maxim must be developed for The Princess and the Frog. This is the kind of movie that reminds us of why so many of us fell in love with Disney films - either as a child, a teen, or a young adult. Sure, it’s miles away from antiquated classics like Snow White or Cinderella, but by concentrating on character and story, not technology and gimmick-ridden vision, Clements and Musker re-explain why Walt stands as the once and future king. With Lasseter maintaining the respect and internal reverence, this could be the start of Disney Mach 3 (Mach 2 being the post-Mermaid period initiated, oddly enough, by the same men).
This movie is astonishing to look at, full of the majesty and mystery of the Crescent City. New Orleans looks great, and the decision to go with deep rich colors and bright explosions of light instill an instant feeling of nostalgia and homey familiarity. Randy Newman’s score evokes the best of the French Quarter while staying away from the standard showtune grandstanding. The performances all strike the right chord, from Ms. Rose’s fiery proto-feminist to the lothario lameness of Campos pampered prince. Special acknowledgment must go to the character of Dr. Facilier. As another in a long line of classic Disney villains, he is voiced superbly (by Keith David) and featured in a fantastic number that mixes elements of the macabre with splashy Mardi Gras hues.
While it’s true that this is the first time that Disney has dealt directly with the African American community as the center of their story, there is no PC-kowtowing or obvious racial balancing. Tiana is shown as proud and striving for independence. Her mom - even more so. Dad’s introductory moments illustrate the strength in family while the rest of the cast comes across as colorful, not full of minstrel missteps. A few may focus on the ragin’ Cajun firefly known as Ray, his backwoods accented jargon sounding like a combination of Justin Wilson and a cruel caricature, but he is mostly harmless. Besides, he gets the best moment in the movie, a sequence which should send even the most cynical audience member into silent, sincere sobs.
And that’s the key to The Princess and the Frog‘s success. We care about what happens here, getting lost in the slapstick and prevalent humor. We want Tiana to succeed, to realize her dream of opening a restaurant and living happily ever after. We need the Prince to wise up and realize the error of his purposeless, playboy life. We become invested here, thanks to that many ways Disney’s dream team moves us - and it’s not just from an artistic standpoint. Clement and Musker bring back the basics of the genre (something they discuss at length in the massive bonus features offered), the visionary ‘anything can and will happen’ feeling of imagination unleashed and unrestrained.
While it remains to be seen if this is a one-off return to form or a real renaissance, one thing’s for certain: when The House of Mouse left the moviemaking mansion it built back in 1937, it did so to the detriment of the entire artform. As The Princess and the Frog proves, when Disney does it right, it’s pretty close to perfect.