Monday, 8 March 2010
'The Princess and the Frog' review:The triumphant return of the Disney animated musical
Not since 2004’s ‘Home on the Range’ has Disney theatrically released a traditional, hand-drawn animated film. You have to go even further back, to 1998’s ‘Mulan’, to find the last musical entry into the Disney “animated classic” canon. Recent years have seen Disney make their own, in-house computer animated films, with mixed results. These have included average films like ‘Chicken Little’ and ‘Meet the Robinsons’, as well as really awful films like ‘The Wild’ and last year’s ‘Bolt’. None of these have been able to match Pixar’s animations in terms of quality or box-office success and they have seen the studio, which of course pioneered the feature-length, animated motion picture, lose their position as the market leader for the first time in their history. As a fan of the classic Disney of yesteryear, and of animation in general, I take great pleasure in welcoming the old Disney back with the hand-drawn, animated, musical ‘The Princess and the Frog’.
‘The Princess and the Frog’ is directed by two heroes of renaissance-era Disney: Ron Clements and John Musker. These co-directors were key figures in a major reversal of fortunes for the Mouse House in the 1990s, with such films as ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Hercules’. However, they also directed a film that would ultimately contribute to Disney abandoning hand-drawn animation: 2002s ‘Treasure Planet’, which failed to recoup its massive production budget and became a notorious flop. Happily, ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is closer to the folksy charm of those earlier films, than it is to the miss-judged, high-octane antics of that more recent, CG-heavy film.
Like many of the oldest Disney classics (‘Snow White’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Cinderella’), ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is based on an old, European fairytale (The Frog Prince), which in this case finds itself relocated to New Orleans, probably in 1913 (judging by a newspaper declaring that Woodrow Wilson has been elected President), with a hint of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ about it in its depiction of a band of characters on missions of personal fulfilment. Much has been made of its lead character, Tiana, being the first African-American “Disney Princess”, with some commentators finding the film racist, whilst others have accused it of cashing in on fashionable African-American culture. In this area, Disney are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Make Tiana and her family too well-to-do and you’ve ignored centuries of black history, whilst making Tiana poorer than the average Disney “Princess” and you can be accused of reinforcing negative stereotypes. Understandably, Disney have choson to try placing the black characters somewhere between the two extremes, and for my money they have carried this off rather well.
The house in which Tiana’s family live is not squalid or impoverished, yet it is also markedly smaller than that of the wealthy white family for whom Tiana’s mother works as a seamstress. As Tiana and her mother leave that extravagant setting, they walk almost mournfully into the shadows, as the wealthy, white father showers his spoilt daughter with gifts. It is true that there is no obvious sign of racial tension, but the disparity of wealth is not ignored. It may have been sugar-coated, but this is a children’s fairytale and not social-realist drama, after all. My point is, the film does not ignore racial issues altogether.
In fact, some lines exist which do reference Tiana’s ethnic background, such as in the moment where the white realtors (who are denying her a property) tell Tiana that someone of her “background” might be better off staying where she is. There is also a playful line in one of Randy Newman’s excellent songs (and Newman has a history of lyrics which discuss racism, such as 'Rednecks' or 'Sail Away') in which the black voodoo villain, Dr. Facilier (pictured below), asks a white character whether he has a soul (an obvious reference to that black music in inherently soulful). Tiana is also demonstrated to be the hardest working Disney Princess, working two jobs, to save towards her dream of owning her own restaurant, she doesn’t have it easy, but at the same time, there is no explicit reference to underlying social-economic problems. In other words: ‘The Princess and the Frog’ doesn’t ignore social problems, even if it (understandably) chooses not to make a feature of them.
As mentioned, Randy Newman (a frequent Pixar collaborator with scores for ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Cars’) provides some excellent Jazzy songs into the mix, creating a delightful atmosphere reminiscent of ‘The Aristocats’ – a personal favourite of mine – rather than the Broadway-style popular songs that characterised the Ashmen/Menkin era. The fine music compliments the beautiful animation, influenced by the Disney films of the 1950s-era, specifically the look of ‘The Lady and the Tramp’, an influence which is felt most in the films depiction of New Orleans at night. The animation of all the characters (especially the male frog) is superb and performed with a charm and refreshing subtlety. The film also reminded me of Brad Bird’s superior 1999 Warner Bros animation, ‘The Iron Giant’, in the way it discloses the passing of Tiana’s father through the subtle detail of a bedside photo featuring him in military uniform (in Bird’s film you can suppose the father has fallen in Korea, whilst here it seems more likely that the father has been killed during the First World War – another nod in the direction of racial/social politics, as Tiana’s poor, black father is killed, whilst her friends wealthy white father is still very much alive).
There are some awkward moments, as I felt uncomfortable hearing Tiana’s father sermonise about the value of effort and hard work in achieving success (especially as we are told he works triple shifts whilst never achieving his dream), but whilst the film is a little too “American Dreamy” for my tastes, it is ultimately hard to fault the moral: that you have to work hard if you want to fulfil your dreams. In live-action, maybe I would dismiss this movie the way I have dismissed the last few Will Smith vehicles, about upwardly mobile, hardworking believers in the American way of life. But as a handsome 2D animation, with a fantastic score and a delightful cast of characters - who exist on just the right side of “wacky” – ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is a charming and essential new Disney film, and the studios best since ‘Lilo & Stitch’.
'The Princess and the Frog' is rated 'U' by the BBFC and can still be seen in cinema's nationwide, although it must be nearing the end of it's run. Watch this clip, that I'm not allowed to embed, to get a taste of the film. See it whilst you still can. The same goes for the equally terrific 'Ponyo'. If you are interested, below is a 2007 Goofy short Disney made in order to test paperless 2D animation techniques used to make 'The Princess and the Frog'.