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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Princess and the Frog hints at a return to Disney's glory days

It's amazing just how much a 16-18" snow will push your plans back for days and days.

I had originally planned to catch Disney's newest movie, The Princess and the Frog, during the first week it opened, but a little (actually, huge) snowstorm changed all those plans.

So, it wasn't until today that I had the opportunity to see this film that has been heralded as the long-awaited return to 2-D hand drawn animation and bring you a review and my thoughts.

So without any further introduction, here is my review:


Seriously, if you are a fan of any of Disney's hand-drawn classics, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White or The Lion King, then you must see The Princess and the Frog. Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter wasn't kidding when he said this movie marked Disney's return to 2-D animation.

I'll go even further and say that The Princess and the Frog ushers in a return the grandeur and cinematic brilliance of Disney animation's modern glory days from the 1980's and early 90's.

Now, I'm not just gushing over the fact that Disney's finally released a 2-D movie, rather it's that The Princess and the Frog also marks a return to the kind of storytelling that pulls at your heart and makes you sing with joy. Somehow, these two elements work best hand-in-hand.

I know The Princess and the Frog took a long time to produce, but it's clear that the time was well spent. Each character, especially Tiana and Naveen have been well-developed with a complete backstory that helps to make these characters even more believable. Tiana is a strong-willed, focused and driven woman intent on achieving her dreams. She embodies Walt Disney's saying, "if you can dream it, you can do it." Tiana has a dream and she constantly strives through hard work and determination to achieve it. In one line of her song, "so work real hard each and every day," perfectly describes Tiana's work ethic learned from her father.

When The Princess and the Frog was first announced, many made a big deal out of the fact that Tiana would become Disney's first black princess. To be honest, I never even saw the color of Tiana's skin, which is how it should be. Instead, I saw an independent woman determined to achieve her goals. There is a hint of the differences between the races as was prevalent in the early 1900's, but it is not thrust into our faces. Big Daddy is a rich white person who's daughter, Charlotte, has no concept of what it means to work to achieve a goal. She thinks you just make your wish and it comes true. Tiana, on the other hand, learned at a young age that, as her father says, "wishes only take you so far." Dreams come to those who work for them.

Naveen, in contrast, is another black character who is every bit as reckless and care-free as Charlotte. Some key scenes in the film even poke fun at how Naveen hasn't worked hard for anything. Throughout the story, we see the true transformation of Naveen, not from prince to frog, but from irresponsible playboy to a loving, caring man. At first, I thought he was a bit over the top with the whole playboy-thing, but it's plain that this was necessary to most effectively setup the later transformation.

Then there's Dr. Facilier, the evil voodoo "shadow man," who is our main villain. This is one great villain. He is scheming, manipulative, swave, ruthless and, like many villains, working for some even greater evil powers. All throughout the film, Facilier is working to serve his own interests, no matter who he swindles and deceives along the way. I heard one person comment that Facilier wasn't "in" the movie enough, but I disagree. His presence was just right. Much like Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Faciler is around just enough to prevent the primary characters from prevailing, yet isn't so overpowering that we lose the love story that develops along the way. In the end is a climatic battle, though not your typical good-vs-evil struggle. You'll just have to see it for yourself.

With such a well-developed story in hand, the animators created characters so real that there were times where the dialog wasn't needed. For instance, not one word needed to be said for us, the audience, to understand just how deep Ray's love for his Evangeline is. It was all in his eyes. That's something I don't think translates as well in CG animation.

In a similar manner, the environment is spot-on. Within minutes, I could feel myself being immersed in early 1900's New Orleans. The directors did a fantastic job of maintaining the New Orleans charm without slipping into the pit of stereotyping. To be honest, when I first saw the trailer, I thought that's what happened with the character of Ray, the cajun firefly. I was wrong. Ray is a heartfelt, fun-loving character who portrays the cajun spirit without being stereotypical.

Like New Orleans itself during Mardi Gras, the Princess and the Frog is filled with color, rich and vibrant. Even during some of the darker scenes (I'll keep this spoiler free), there still is a hint of color, just as there is a hint of hope.

As if all this eye-candy wasn't enough, there's plenty of ear-candy as well. There are seven original songs and a wonderful score by Randy Newman of Toy Story fame. The music is toe-tapping, heartfelt and inspiring. Newman took a great deal of inspiration from the musical heritage of New Orleans including jazz, blues and gospel. Music is a key part of what makes up New Orleans and The Princess and the Frog quite nicely blends music into the entire story, especially through the antics of Louis the trumpet-playing crocodile. This is one soundtrack you'll be glad you picked up. I got this soundtrack a few days ago and have listened to it several times already.

Disney has hit a grand slam with The Princess and the Frog. I'm hopeful the glory days of animation have returned and Disney continues with 2-D hand-drawn animation. Leave the 3-D CG films to the experts at Pixar. The Disney Animation Studios have re-asserted themselves as the experts at traditional 2-D. That's the way it should be.


Cara said...

I completely agree with you. We saw the movie the first weekend it was out. It's my new favorite. I loved it. I want to see it again!

I also love how Disney captured the culture and spirit of the city I love. So many movies get that so wrong.

Great movie. Worth seeing more then once.

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