21 December 2012

Disney Daze: Week 49: The Princess and the Frog

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The Princess and the Frog is a film with a clear purpose. It is a picture obsessed with recapturing some of the hallmark elements of a classic Disney feature. It is the first film since Mulan's release a decade prior that focused on anything resembling a princess. In the interim the studio released a full dozen features, many of which were designed to cater to the tastes associated traditionally with boys. These films featured time travel, hidden cities, flying saucers, and many other science-fiction elements, not to mention a tendency to rely on crude humor and failed attempts at being hip and edgy. The Princess and the Frog would be an antidtote to all of that, as well as the first hand-drawn animated feature since John Lasseter reopened the traditional wing that had been dormant since Home on the Range.

The film is a very loose adaptation of the traditional fairy tale about a prince who is magically turned into a frog and can only be restored to his human form by kissing a princess. The movie actually opens with a character reciting the original story to two young children, one of whom is Tiana, a headstrong black girl who cringes at the thought of wooing an amphibian. This disgust serves as a means of narrative shorthand, showcasing that the film will deviate severely from the source material. Later on when Tiana, who is now a young woman working as a waitress is forced to kiss a frog, the effect works backwards, turning her too into a mucous-secreting creature with a penchant for flies.

Much fanfare was made about the fact that The Princess and the Frog would feature Disney's first black princess. This is a shame for a few reasons. The first is that it turns the character of Tiana into more of a novelty. The truly proud moment will come when Disney releases a film with its second or third black princess because by that point a character's race will not be a news story. An auxiliary problem associated with this focus on race is that the character spends two-thirds of the movie as a green frog. If they wanted to superficially highlight a character's skin tone then they should not have done it with a character who is physically altered for a significant portion of the movie. The last problem with promoting Tiana's ethnicity is that it detracts from the far more important advancement in princess characterization, namely the protagonist's strong, hard-working ethos. She is motivated more by her desire to open her own business than by landing a man or becoming rich. Princesses from the past decade such as Pocahontas and Mulan started the trend but Tiana feels like the first fully formed embodiment of a self-sufficient woman. At one point she turns the entire trademark of the company on its head when she says, "you can't just wish on a star and expect things to come true." 

The film is set in New Orleans during the Jazz Age of the 1920s. The choice of location was no doubt made by the renewed interest in the area following the tragic devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. It is also a stroke of genius as the city and its surrounding environs provide an artistic godsend to the animators who have created some of the most beautiful backgrounds ever to grace a Disney picture. The Latin Quarter shines with wrought iron railings and the bayou glistens with moonlight on a murky river. The true beauty of traditional animation and its sumptuous color palette is on full display throughout the feature. Oftentimes one wishes to pause the film just to savor an establishing shot for a moment or two longer.

The animators fill the New Orleans backdrop with lovely little touches, including a couple of noted references to Disneyland, whose own New Orleans Square was an inspirational forefather to the idealized version of the city shown on screen. A riverboat lazing through the bayou recalls the theme park's famed Mark Twain sailing across the Rivers of America. The best and most subtle reference to the park comes at the end of the picture when Louis the alligator is onstage at Tiana's new restaurant playing trumpet in a ensemble called the Firefly Five Plus Lou, a sweet nod to the dixieland group composed of famed Disney animators in the 1950s called The Firehouse Five Plus Two, who would often perform concerts at Disneyland, going so far as to release a live album recorded at the park.

Save the brief appearance of the great John Goodman as a rich and generous man, father to Tiana's childhood friend Charlotte, the film is blissfully free of recognizable celebrity voices. Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard make appearances as well but their roles are more seamlessly integrated into the story and are never used to highlight the personality behind them. The work by the central voice cast is uniformly great. Anika Noni Rose gives Tiana a strong yet warm inflection, with a nice singing voice to boot. Bruno Campos provides just the right amount of silly swagger to the fun-loving, hubristic playboy Prince Naveen to keep him interesting and tolerable. The two comedic sidekicks, the trumpeting alligator Louis and firefly Raymond, voiced by Michael-Leon Wooley and Jim Cummings respectively, are a garrulous pair who never resort to loudmouth antics or petty wisecracks to charm.

The most distinguishable element that elevates The Princess and the Frog from the decade's worth of films that preceded it, is the presence of a good, old fashioned villain. The voodoo-practicing shadowman, Dr. Facilier is a spooky harbinger of evil, with a legion of creepy, crawly shadow minions who stalk the landscape hunting down the escaped Naveen. He is easily the most memorable Disney villian since Judge Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dr. Facilier gets one of the greatest scenes in the film when he delivers his version of Ursula the sea witch's "Poor Unfortunate Souls", a neon-colored dance of the macabre set to the tune "Friends on the Other Side". Tribal masks come to life in hall of smoke and mirrors.

The film is chock full of musical moments, more so than any film since the heyday of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. At a number of points the film goes only two or three minutes between song-and-dance routines. For the most part they are well-integrated and give the animators ample opportunity to work in a series of stylized and more abstract styles, including a great art deco reverie as Tiana tells her mother of her ambitious restaurant plans. The filmmakers wisely chose composer Randy Newman to write the soundtrack, no doubt with some nudging by executive-producer John Lasseter. Newman does not contribute a single song as memorable as his now-standard "You've Got a Friend in Me" from the Toy Story pictures, but he is well versed in the style and sounds emanating from New Orleans. His best numbers in the film are the ones that dive the deepest into a particular genre, particularly his jazz and zydeco tunes.

The Princess and the Frog is a fantastic film and a great modern continuation of the classic Disney formula. The film is possessed with gorgeous design, memorable characters, toe-tapping songs, larger-than-life villainy, and a moment of surprising emotional poignancy. It is a film that does not try and compete with the Shreks and Ice Ages churned out by its competitors. It knows what its creators excel at and provides a wonderful canvas for the filmmakers to showcase their abilities. The Princess and the Frog reminds viewers what a Disney film is capable of.

1 comment:

  1. I still need to see this one. Sounds great.