There was a time when the name "Disney" meant unassailable quality in animation. The studio of course kick started feature-length animation with the classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and had a renaissance in the format beginning in 1989 with the brilliant The Little Mermaid. However, when Pixar arrived on the scene in 1995, the industry began to shy away from traditional hand-drawn cell animation in favor of the more glitzy and glamorous 3D CGI. Not only that, but Disney began pumping out 2D hand-drawn films faster than before, resulting in less interesting entries like Tarzan and outright failures such as Home on the Range (although a few delights such as The Emperor's New Groove and Lilo and Stitch are sprinkled in). Disney eventually closed down their animation department in favor of CGI. Surprisingly, it was Pixar, who originally heralded the doom of traditional animation, that came to the rescue. When Disney bought the company, John Lasseter was made head of animation, and he had an eye towards reviving the hand-drawn style that made Disney the company it is today.
And in 2009 we can finally see the fruits of his labors. The Princess and the Frog, based on the classic Frog Prince fairy tale, arrives in theaters with a bevy of fanfare. It's significant not just for being the first hand-drawn Disney film in many years, but also for having the first black Disney princess (we previously had Arabic, Native American, and Chinese protagonists in Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan). The story follows Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose), a woman living in New Orleans in the 1920's. Ever since she was a child, she had dreamed of opening a restaurant with her father. While he died before it could happen, Tiana has been working two jobs ever since to save up the money she needs. She's very close to realizing her goal when the rambunctious and carefree Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) appears in New Orleans, looking to nab a rich wife. He is turned into a frog by the evil voodoo huckster Dr. Facilier (Keith David, appearing for the second time in a magical capacity in an animated film this year, the first being Henry Selick's Coraline), who plans to control the city for himself. Naveen, as a frog, encounters Tiana dressed as a princess at a costume ball, and requests a kiss, promising her that he will pay to open her restaurant. When she does, though, something goes horribly wrong, and Tiana herself is also turned into a frog. Now the pair have to figure out how to break the curse, all while avoiding Facilier's minions and the dangers of being small amphibians.
The plot for The Princess and The Frog is a bit thick, and the movie takes quite some time to set everything up. In fact, at times it gets so complex that one character has to give Tiana and Naveen the advice to take a step back and take a look at what they really need instead of what they really want. This gives The Princess and The Frog one of thew slowest starts of any Disney animated film, and it seems to take forever for all the characters to meet each other. Some, such as Facilier, are so on the fringe of the action that they tend to wander in and out of the film, only popping up when the plot needs them. That being said, once things do pick up, the charm of the piece is quick to ingratiate itself with the audience, and by the end it does feel like a modern day fairy tale. The animation is definitely in the later Disney style, but there are callbacks to prior Disney classics, including The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, and Pinocchio.
Setting the film in New Orleans gives the movie a distinctive style that sets it apart from other Disney films. The backgrounds are rich with landmarks of the city (pre-Katrina, of course), and the town has its own culture that takes root in the picture. Especially notable is the score and the songs, all by Randy Newman, who tries his hand at the old Disney model set by Alan Menken. While none of the songs hit the heights of "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast or "Whole New World" from Aladdin, Newman keeps things lively and jazzy, serving up small slabs of New Orleans-inspired music that is most certainly toe-tapping. Anyone worried that he would simply rewrite songs from his outings with Pixar should be relieved to know that he treats this as a separate and distinct musical venture.
The voice acting is uniformly excellent, mixing known celebrities (John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Terence Howard) with newcomers. The result is that you can focus on the characters as portrayed in the film, instead of focusing on who does the voices, as is so often the case with animated films these days (Dreamworks can jump off a cliff for starting that awful trend). The humor is a little light, and sometimes a little poor, and there are a few tearjerker moments that feel undeserved, but for the most part, The Princess and The Frog can sit comfortably beside the second-tier Disney animated films. Somewhere above Robin Hood, but definitely not to the level of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or the neo-classics from The Little Mermaid through The Lion King. Still, if this is the direction Disney is going, then I can only foresee more good things coming from the House of Mouse.
|Studio ||Disney |
|Starring ||John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Terence Howard |