Saturday, February 12, 2011

Let’s Review a Movie: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

It’s February, the month of love, lust, and romance which means reviewing romance films. This time I’m looking at the company famous for its romantic couples and some cartoons about a mouse. (Poor Oswald doesn’t get any recognition.)

Well this was the first hand-drawn film to come out of the Disney studio in five years and I initially had no intention of seeing it. After seeing the glorious heights that the studio could reach in the 90’s and early 2000’s and watching it all come crashing down in a storm of poorly thought-out direct to video sequels to every movie they could think of, mediocre TV shows designed to appeal to one specific age group, and making a bunch of forgettable 3D animated movies, because it’s the hip thing, man! It was down right depressing. It’s a good thing Mr. Disney didn’t freeze himself because if he ever found out what the money grubbers have done to his company the yelling and swearing would never end. Truthfully I was not expecting anything of quality from Disney unless Pixar was behind their name; and when I saw the first trailer for this movie I thought it was too little too late. Riding on the coattails of what had come before, pumping out the nostalgia, wasn’t going to get me into the theatre to see this. Disney was dead to me.

And then the second trailer came out.

When Naveen mentions the witch doctor and we get our first look at Doctor Facilier that was the moment I literally went ‘whoa back it up, who was that?! This is going to be awesome!’ Truthfully Doctor Facilier is the only reason I went to see this film and he does not disappoint. He’s slick, he’s smooth, and the fact that he moves like Michael Jackson only scores him several more awesome points. He is also quite different because he isn’t doing his villainy as some personal payback to anyone, as many other Disney villains do. Naveen could be any person of royal blood, Charlotte could be any rich man’s daughter, and Tiana is just an innocent girl caught up in the madness. He looks at this as an opportunity to further himself, and of course to pay back his debts, not as some revenge against them personally. He is even sympathetic, until he runs over the Moral Event Horizon by stepping on Ray, because he does want to make something of himself he just chooses a really bad way to go about it.

Despite going to see the film only for the villain it is a very well done and enjoyable flick. Being Disney though it does contain many of the Disney tropes: the happy ending, a prince, a princess, some sidekicks, and of course a moral. This makes sense as it is this formula that has given the studio so much success over the years so no need to fix what isn’t broken. However, it also contains a couple of things we don’t often get to see. For example we actually have both parents present for our main character, very rare for anything Disney. Oh, sure dad dies off screen and that’s an important life moment for Tiana, but at least he was there and he got to talk too! Then we actually get to see a parent when our main character is an adult, another rare move. In fact it seems the only person with a single parent is Charlotte; a secondary character who normally wouldn’t get any back-story at all.

We have the usual sidekicks as I mentioned and they are fun and likable, although I could have done without the butt and snot jokes on Ray’s behalf. Aside from the toilet humour Ray is interesting because although he is in love as Tiana and Naveen also come to be he was like that before they came into the picture, and after Tiana yells at him the she’s just a star Ray still cares about Evangeline, it goes beyond seeing the main characters together. Louis is like this as well because he wants to be human and play jazz on the riverboats. In other words they have goals outside those of the main couple. This film has fully developed characters that have lives of their own, they’re interesting and fun! They also subvert the usual character designs as Louis is an alligator which is normally a villain role, along with Momma Odie’s sidekick snake JuJu, and Ray actually looks like a bug instead of little man with no ears as Jiminy Cricket is. If this movie doesn’t watch it I’m going to have nothing to complain about.

The main couple themselves also have lives outside of the romance. Naveen is an actual person as opposed to just being a symbol as the princes in Cinderella or Snow White are, those poor saps don’t even get names. They represent freedom to our female leads, of a different life they could have, they are not full characters in their own rights. We got a bit better during the 90’s run with Aladdin and Jasmine and Tarzan and Jane and so forth, but I think this is the furthest we’ve gone with the canon before. Tiana isn’t even seeking romance as her main goal and the entire moral is based upon her, and the others, re-evaluating her priorities in relation to that goal.

The only place where I really think the film dips a bit is the frog hunting scene. While the scene with the hunters is necessary to show different sides of Tiana and Naveen to each other, otherwise they would have nothing to fall in love with, I personally would have liked something besides the three stooges in a boat, an extension of the cooking scene instead maybe? On the flip side though younger members of the audience laugh at the slapstick and for me it’s at least tolerable, and can be skipped over on the DVD. The ability to engage different audience members can be seen as one of the film’s greatest strengths, and one of the greatest strengths of the classic Disney Company as a whole: that it made films for all audiences. This allows the film to age with the audience; yay for parental bonus! For example kids will enjoy the jazz band at the end of the movie, but it’s the older members of the audience that will recognize who the name ‘The Firefly Five Plus Lou’ is paying homage to.

So, why didn’t this go on to be a big juggernaut at the box office? Aside from poor marketing from my perspective; seriously they released this during the holiday season and didn’t have a ton of merchandise to roll out with it? The big issue here, I think, that prevents this movie from launching the company into another renaissance is the fact that there is nothing mind bogglingly new. Disney use to be about innovation. They were the first to use Technicolor for their cartoons, to make feature length animation a staple of the industry, the Xerox process, perfecting personality animation, experimental animation, like that of Fantasia, new ways of using sound etc. Who Framed Roger Rabbit showcased a whole new way to look at animated films, both in terms of content and design, and allowed the Disney Renaissance to unfold as it did. This film while expanding characters in terms of their motivations, inner life, and ethnicity of course doesn’t move beyond the Disney formula. It doesn’t show off a new technique and this should be especially important now when 2D is basically looked upon as a dead medium.

In closing what we have here is a feel good film. We have good characters, a totally awesome villain, a good moral, nice music, and a couple of dumb moments that are easily over-looked in the grand scheme of the film. Despite the lack of innovation a lot of care, dedication, and love was involved in making this and it shows. It pays homage to what came before while bringing in a couple of subtle new ideas. Although not a big leap it is at least a step in the right direction. Keep this up and there may be hope yet for an end to the Dork Age.

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