February 07, 2010

The Princess and the Frog review

Great characters.
Last Tuesday, Emma, my cleaning woman, was taking over my apartment for the afternoon, so I went to see two movies to pass the time. First I saw Up in the Air, which was disturbing, upsetting, mature, and enjoyable, and then I saw The Princess and the Frog, which I adored.

I've always been a Disney queen. I was obsessed with Disney movies as a child, and even lugged around a Mickey Mouse doll everywhere. (He was a largish doll, plastic and plush, with "walking action" that moved his legs when you squeezed his hands.) My parents would take me to the first runs or revivals in the theaters, and there I saw Fantasia, Bambi, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, The Sword in the Stone, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, The Three Cabelleros (at a drive-in), The Jungle Book (creepy), Song of the South, and Robin Hood. The disappointing, boring Robin Hood was the last movie I saw in the theaters with my parents, as I was getting older, and none of us liked the Don Bluth ickiness and awkward storytelling that was taking over. Disney entered a dark age then -- a fading of the magic that I'd loved -- with such wan "realistic" offerings as The Aristocats, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Company. Those I didn't see in the theaters -- I saw them later on video, and was saddened by the cheap-looking animation, annoying characters, and denial of the animated movie musical form that Disney had perfected. These weren't fairy tales -- they had none of the archetypal power of romantic American myth that I'd loved so dearly. They had lost their magic.

Underwater wonders.
Then, when I was already in college, Jeffery Katzenberg took over the animation studios at Disney, and hired Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to write a proper musical. The wonderful The Little Mermaid heralded the Disney Renaissance, and two terrific movies followed -- Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, both glorious with all the mythological fairy tale power I craved. Sadly, Howard Ashman died during the making of Aladdin, taking some of the lyric magic with him. The Lion King was a huge hit, but I didn't love it. The anthropomorphized animals were creepy with their flapping mouths, and the movie reminded me more of a National Geographic special than a archetypal folkloric narrative. I admired its retelling of Hamlet, but the pure power of the story seemed missing.

Katzenberg left Disney, and a new dark age followed. The list of movies from 1995 to 2006 is pretty pathetic, with the only bright spot being the sweet Mulan in 1998. I saw all 14 of the movies during this period, and an unfortunate uninteresting modern or historical realism mars most of the movies. They'd moved away from magic. During this time, Disney lost animation primacy as DreamWorks (with Katzenberg) made some good and some great movies, and Pixar (with John Lasseter and Brad Bird) ascended to wear the mantle of excellent animated storytelling.

In 2006, Disney bought Pixar, and John Lasseter took over the Executive Producer role spanning both Disney Animation and Pixar movies. I haven't seen Meet the Robinsons or Bolt (both of which he executive produced), but under Lasseter's guidance Disney Animation has come alive again and made a complete return to form with The Princess and the Frog.

Of course, it helps enormously that the movie is based on a classic Grimm's fairy tale, with all the freighted weight of their primal narrative. It was also a wonderful idea to set the movie in New Orleans in the 1920s. We're already starting off in a world that has a certain nostalgia quotient -- a jazz age setting in a city that was recently destroyed. That it's a unique city known for its frightening voodoo as much as for its musical culture makes it the perfect setting for a magical musical adventure. Factor in New Orleans' French Quarter architecture, bayou landscape, swamp animals, recognizable accents, and fabulous food and the ante is upped considerably.

Then there are the characters. Much has been made of Tiana, Disney's first African-American heroine, and her race seems appropriate (and overdue) in this Obama era. More interesting is her hardworking, no-nonsense nature, her talent for cooking, and her ambitions to open a restaurant, and her sturdy values instilled by her loving parents. She's a perfect Disney heroine, one of my favorites, and deserving of her ascension into the pantheon of Disney princesses.

Tiana's not a princess in the beginning -- we first see her wearing a toy crown as she plays in childhood with the fabulously silly Charlotte, her rich (white) friend. Charlotte's outrageously spoiled, but friendly, happy, and cheerful enough to still be likable. Their friendship endures into their young adulthood, even though Tiana works several jobs and Charlotte's been given everything she wants by her father, Big Daddy, a wealthy Fat Cat running New Orleans. Tiana's own father, who encouraged her ambitions to own a restaurant (as they were his own), has died before realizing his dreams.

Maldonian charmer.
Then Prince Naveen of Maldonia strolls into town. He's a handsome (um . . . very, with a cute Brazilian accent) but poor royal, cut off financially by his parents because of his lack of direction and wayward extravagances. He's more interested in music and revelry than responsibility, and his gleefully enthusiastic charm makes everything too easy for him. He's brought along a valet named Lawrence to help him find a rich wife to finance his outrageous lifestyle.

Charlotte's got everything she wants except a royal title, so her desires and Naveen's predicament align nicely. They'd be married in an instant if it wasn't for the evil machinations of Dr. Facilier, a dark voodoo master, who twists Naveen and Lawrence's desires for his own purposes, to take over New Orleans from Big Daddy. Naveen is transformed into a frog and Lawrence is glamoured to look like Naveen.

While catering Charlotte's masquerade party, Tiana learns that her dreams of opening a restaurant are dashed, and she meets up with Naveen, who is pretty charming even as a frog. Naveen convinces Tiana that he'll finance her restaurant if she kisses him so he can marry Charlotte. So Tiana reluctantly agrees, and . . . is turned into a frog herself.

The two frogs escape into the bayou, where they enlist a bunch of friends (Louis, a human-loving alligator trumpeter; Ray, a Cajun firefly in love with the evening star who he calls Evangeline; Madam Odie, a blind voodoo queen) on their quest to regain their humanity.

Shadow man.
The best part of the characterizations is how clearly each character's desires are delineated and easily-understood. Tiana wants her restaurant. Naveen wants money to finance his musical slackerdom. Lawrence wants money to stop being a servant. Charlotte wants to marry Naveen to become a princess. Dr. Facilier (an excellent and terrifying Disney villain) wants to rule New Orleans and repay his debt to his horrifying "friends on the Other Side". Louis wants to become human to play trumpet with a human band. Ray wants to be with his impossible love Evangeline. It's all so clear, it's almost as primal as the desires of the characters in The Wizard of Oz (which is my touchstone for clearest and most archetypal character desires). In fact, the desires are so clear in The Princess and the Frog that Madam Odie even sings a song ("Dig a Little Deeper") about the difference between what the characters want and what they need. The narrative confidence in including a song like that is breathtaking -- yes, the dichotomy between want and need is one of the cornerstones of character development, but the writers of this movie were so secure in their characterizations that they could baldly reveal this narrative technique with postmodern flair.

The music is lovely throughout. Randy Newman did a great job writing songs that advance the plot, and he composed catchy tunes in a wide range of funky New Orleans styles. The basic Disney song formula remains intact: there's a setting introduction song ("Down in New Orleans"), a striving song for the heroine ("Almost There"), a villain's mission statement ("Friends on the Other Side"), and an achingly sweet and deluded love song ("Ma Belle Evangeline"), among other great tunes. The jazz and blues compositions add a new flavor to the typical Disney Broadway-esque score.

Beautiful animation.
Of course, I wouldn't have loved the movie quite so much if the animation wasn't totally gorgeous. The French Quarter of New Orleans in the '20s is brought to life completely believably, the bayou is deliciously murky and squishy. The dream sequences are created in a more stylized animation style that feels just right. And best of all are the magical scenes, both the voodoo sequences and the romantic ones. They're . . . magical. They're frightening and colorful and alive with demonic shadows and lovely flickering firefly light. They lifted me out of the mundane and got my heart racing and tickled all the spots where wonder and awe flirt with ecstasy. I teared up, completely lost to the magic.

Then, in the rollicking adventure of the story's climax, what happens with Ray the Cajun firefly had me stifling sobs, with hot tears trailing in streams down my cheeks. I'm such a sucker for the sidekick, and I abandoned myself to childlike emotional wonder.

I wiped my eyes to enjoy the happy ending, sniffling at the completely satisfying conclusion.

As the credits rolled, I saw John Lasseter's name as Executive Producer, and I thought, Of course. That's why the storytelling was so flawless. I want to work for him. Can anyone out there make that happen? Seriously, I'm thinking of sending him a letter and seeing if I can get a gig writing for him, something, anything.

I loved The Princess and the Frog. Now I can't wait for the next Disney animated movies on the docket: Rapunzel, this November, and King of the Elves in 2012.

All you Disney queens out there -- our time has come again!


Tinsel Shrimpfax said...

I loved it too.

Juan Jose said...

Well, we think alike, i really loved the movie, and i'm really happy that disney it's starting again with all the magic i remember from the past, I'm such a disney Queen too. And i hope we can talk when you'll be in MedellĂ­n.