Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Princess and the Frog

The transformation Disney has undergone over the past decade has been nothing short of astonishing. Faced with a combination of lagging creativity in their film department and the first actual animated competition in the form of Dreamworks that the company has ever had, the company spent the bulk of the decade outright panicking, eventually settling on the idea that the key to regaining their old glory was to completely ape Dreamworks. This is the great plan that gave us films like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, and worked out so well that when Disney finally purchased Pixar a few years later, it was with the demand that John Lasseter not only retain creative control of Pixar, but that he would also take creative control over all of Disney’s other animated studios. While the lengthy development time of animated films meant that there were still a couple years more of lousy movies, The Princess and the Frog finally arrived last year to show what a traditional Disney animated studio could do with Pixar guiding them along.

And quite a movie it is, too. The company’s first traditionally animated film since 2004’s Home on the Range, this is as visually beautiful as anything Disney has ever made (and looks much better than their ghastly efforts at 3D animation), particularly when the style shifts for the song “Almost There” to a style based off of painter Aaron Douglas (I looked it up, I‘m not that much of an art expert). We also get a great villain in the form of the Shadow Man (Keith David), a voodoo priest visually based off of the voodoo god Baron Samedi. I’m a little disappointed that he only gets one song in the film, though since this is Disney I suppose he’ll have plenty of time for new musical numbers when they start churning out fifty sequels.

But yes, the story: Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is an expert cook/waitress at a New Orleans restaurant who is determinedly trying to save up enough money to buy her own restaurant, when she runs afoul of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), heir to the throne of Maldonia, who himself has recently run afoul of the Shadow Man, and been transformed into a frog as part of an elaborate plot to give the Shadow Man control of all of New Orleans. Naveen convinces her that all he needs is for her to kiss him like the frog prince in the children’s story and he’ll turn back to human form, but of course the kiss backfires and transforms her into a frog as well. Soon the pair is on the run, from partygoers, the Shadow Man, a pair of hunters, and some alligators out in the bayou (though in keeping with the film’s praise of New Orleans music, they do actually befriend one alligator that wants nothing more than the chance to play his trumpet), and find their chances of being turned back run out at midnight. I’d say things do not look good, except of course that things in this movie in fact look so very, very good.

Honestly, there is nothing not to enjoy about this movie. The music by Randy Newman features some of the catchiest songs Disney’s made in over a decade (seriously, The Lion King is the most recent film I can think of that could match it), and there was a great commitment made to crafting actual interesting, likable characters, eschewing the recent Dreamworks-inspired trend of having characters that mainly exist to spout off horrid pop culture references. It feels like a very intentional effort was made to use this film to get the company back to what it has traditionally done best* (which likely explains why this is the first film since 1998’s Mulan to give us a new Disney princess -- and in a surprise twist, it‘s also the first Disney film since 1946‘s Song of the South to have a black main character, so good on them for diversity), and it succeeds beautifully.

If I don’t quite give this film four stars, that’s only because it’s not quite at the level of the films Disney was routinely putting out in my formative years. It’s not really on the level of an Aladdin or a Little Mermaid or a Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but in all honesty, I’d rather watch it again before I watch a few of the four star films I’ve reviewed here. And not just ones like Sick, either.

Also, don’t go by the star ratings, read the actual reviews.

Rating: *** ½

* You can see some of the overtness involved in that in the trailer below, which goes on about the company’s 75 years of excellence (including a brief clip of Aladdin picking up the lamp), and in the new animated Disney logo of Steamboat Willy at the start of the film.

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