Sunday, January 3, 2010
Movie Review: THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (Walt Disney Pictures, 2009)
It CAN'T end this way. Such was my reaction when I saw Home on the Range, Disney's "last" traditionally-animated film, five years ago. The studio that gifted us with Pinocchio, Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, and so many other classics couldn't possibly depart the scene with a trivial movie featuring cows with razor-sharp glutes and a villain whose gimmick was a hypnotic yodel. Things looked bleak there for a while, but, thank goodness, Disney came to its senses and decided to reactivate the 2-D unit... for a good, old-fashioned fairy tale, no less. And the revival wasn't a simple exercise in nostalgia, either, as The Princess and the Frog turned out to be a first-class entertainment with an uplifting message (though, IMHO, not the one on which the "culture warriors" have spent most of their critical gabble).
Despite relatively forgettable songs, TPATF is fully worthy of comparison with the best Disney movies of the post-Little Mermaid (read: "Let's Put on a Broadway Musical!") era. The main reason is its relentless celebration of the old-fashioned, up-by-your-bootstraps virtue of getting ahead through hard work. Originally, Tiana, the African-American heroine, was supposed to be a maid in an upper-class home, which drew the expected accusations of racial stereotyping. The reboot -- in which she's an ambitious waitress who dreams of owning her own restaurant -- is immeasurably more satisfying. Though the film makes clear that Tiana may have sacrificed too much of her life to scrimping and saving for that precious down payment, this can't be considered a major fault; she's a winning, compassionate personality in all other respects, especially in the way in which she demonstrates to her partner-in-green, the playboy wastrel Prince Naveen, the virtues of "do-it-yourself." The black viewers and critics who've been hosanna-ing Disney's first use of a black "princess" may not recognize that the message being telegraphed here is much more in the spirit of the out-of-fashion Booker T. Washington than, say, Malcolm X.
In keeping with Tiana's emphasis on sticking to the basics, TPATF goes back to some of the best Disney features' cardinal rules. "Stunt casting" is kept to a minimum, with Oprah Winfrey's performance as Tiana's mother a low-key one and John Goodman giving the wealthy white sugar baron Le Boeuf (the father of Tiana's man-crazy friend Lottie) Goodman's ebullient personality without any Goodman-specific shtick. Two of the best performances, by Keith David as the villainous voodoo master Dr. Facilier and Jim Cummings as the Cajun firefly Raymond, are given by Walt Disney TV veterans. The obligatory "wacky sidekick characters" (Raymond and Louis the jazzman-wannabe alligator) don't arrive on the scene until the movie is half over and, thank goodness, refrain from anachronistic pop-culture references (apart from those appropriate for early-20th-century New Orleans, that is). Like the best Disney villains, Dr. Facilier is both menacing (especially when seen in tandem with his voodoo allies from "the other side") and somehow funny, taking a little of the edge off of several potentially chilling scenes. Best of all, the movie is entirely free of the snarky cynicism that passes for wit in so many contemporary animated films and was never present in the best Disney movies. If anything, the movie errs on the side of being too genial; race relations in New Orleans during this period were no doubt much more relaxed than elsewhere in the Deep South, but the cozily integrated New Orleans of TPATF strikes me as something of a stretch. The film does brush up against the realities of the time, however gently, when the white realtors from whom Tiana is trying to purchase a building for her restaurant refer to the latter's "background" as being an issue. They might be referring to Tiana's class (since she, unlike another potential buyer, doesn't have the full payment for the property, only a down payment). Then again, they might be referring to her race.
The animation of TPATF is, as you might expect, top-notch, with only a few jarring notes. A couple of scenes, such as crowd scenes in New Orleans and a bank-side view of a riverboat, are too obviously CGI. Other studios, of course, have had the same problem of seamlessly integrating computer animation into 2-D films, but Disney has set a high standard in this area in the past, so I was a bit disappointed that they hadn't improved their technique over the last half-decade. The grown-up Lottie, when seen next to "classically" designed Disney "types" like Tiana and Naveen, looks like -- I'm not making this up -- a cross between a "Southern Belle" version of Elmyra and one of those female characters from the Bruce Timm WB animated series whose immense mouths are shaped like orange wedges. I realize that Lottie is something of a comedy-relief character -- albeit one capable of genuine nobility of spirit -- but, at times, she seemed to have dropped in from another movie. Even Le Boeuf looks a shade more realistic than Lottie. Naveen's put-upon manservant Lawrence is also something of a caricature compared to the main human characters --though I've seen previous Disney characters who resembled him -- and the inept Cajun frog-hunters who menace the unintentional anurae look and act like extras left over from Home on the Range. (The one who mumbles his lines might even be a swipe of King of the Hill's Boomhauer. If so, then that ain't right.) For all of this grousing about artistic inconsistency, my favorite piece of animation in the film, oddly enough, is the stylized sequence in which Tiana fantasizes what her restaurant will look like; it reminded me a bit of the "Rhapsody in Blue" sequence from Fantasia 2000.
The Randy Newman score mixes together Dixieland, zydeco, and gospel material to no particular effect. I honestly don't expect any song from TPATF to become a standard, although "Dig a Little Deeper" (the gospel bit, performed well by the film's "good voodoo" character, Mama Odie) was kind of catchy. It doesn't really matter, however, as all other aspects of the movie were rock-solid (or perhaps I should say jazz-solid, given the theme here). Disney still has the touch, so let's hope that the movie does well enough to touch off a new series of 2-D features. The studio would do well to stagger the new films' releases, however. Look what the "assembly-line" approach of the last regime led to, after all: Cows with tail fins.