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Good, but not great
on October 16, 2010
I'm very lucky to have been the perfect age to experience, firsthand, Disney's early 90's Renaissance. I remember finding out about Aladdin for the first time in the previews of the VHS copy of Beauty and the Beast. I remember hearing the song "Circle of Life" for the first time in the groundbreaking (at the time) trailer for "The Lion King," before anyone had ever seen a mandrill holding a lion cub on top of a rock over kneeling animals. I actually remember wondering what Sebastian was saying when he sang "Unda-da-sea," and whether King Triton was a good guy or a bad guy. These movies shaped the consciousness of my generation. Just go up to anyone between the ages of 22 and 28 who grew up in the Western World, any frat boy, any prissy girl, any former cheerleader, any computer nerd, and find me one who doesn't know the lyrics to Hakuna Matata. From 1989 to 1995, the question of next year's Disney movie was an exciting topic for everyone I knew. What would the next one be about? And, more importantly, would it be as good, both in my eyes and at the box office, as the one before? And (allowing for the less well-known Rescuers Down Under in 1990) the answer was always "yes," until 1995 when suddenly Pocahontas hit the screens, leaving everyone to think, for the first time, "Meh."
Starting with Pocahontas, with the exception of Mulan, the films showed a slow and steady decline, trying too hard to be zany (Hercules), dark (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, possibly the worst subject choice ever for a Disney movie), action-packed (Tarzan), expensive (Dinosaur), or offbeat (Lilo and Stitch)... In short, trying too hard to be anything but the instant classics of the early 90's. Things went from bad to worse (in a curiously correlated decline of quality and box office performance), until finally, following the fiasco of "Home on the Range" (am I the only one who saw it?), Disney announced it would no longer make traditional animated films, in a move that, to me, still sounds like Ferrari announcing it's going to keep making everything except cars. Yes, there were still Pixar movies, but for all their wit and beauty, these always felt like high-tech consolation prizes for anyone who grew up with magic carpets and singing candelabras. With the end of 2-D animation came the end of a collective, global childhood, and for a few years it looked as if, much like the real one, the Disney childhood was gone for good.
Until John Lasseter, the brilliant visionary behind Pixar, announced a new dawn of hope for Disney animation. The first project for the newly revived traditional feature animation department would be a real fairy tale, hand-drawn for the screen, with an old-school villain, a love interest, a fairy-godmother figure, talking animals, and, yes, even song-and-dance numbers in which the characters suddenly break into music. In short: a real Disney movie. And the result, ladies and gentlemen, titled "The Princess and the Frog," just came out in theaters yesterday, following a two-week limited release in NY and LA. Of course, as anyone who's read this post so far must have already guessed, I wasted no time in seeing it the day it came to my city.
And here's what I thought:
"The Princess and the Frog" is good. Yes, it's actually good, and anyone who's prayed for the return of traditional hand-drawn animation should see it without fear of disappointment. The movie looks beautiful, without even a hint of CGI (though I'm sure there must be some lurking here and there below the surface). The characters and backgrounds exist, seamlessly and breathlessly, in the wonderfully lawless physical universe where Ariel sang under water of her longing for the human world, where Mrs. Potts managed to look plump and made of porcelain at the same time. The movie is a visual journey through the glorious folklore of New Orleans, making ample use of the mythological arsenal at its disposal, from the dangers of the bayou to the double-edged dealings of voodoo, from Mardi Gras to gumbo. All the best Disney movies create self-contained universes where you simply want to immerse yourself, and "The Princess and the Frog" achieves this with class and charm. The stylized characters who walk down the street and into the restaurant where the heroine works wouldn't belong in any other movie, not even Aladdin or The Little Mermaid, and yet they're unmistakably Disney.
The entire feel of the movie is as bouncy and buoyant as its visuals, thanks in great part to its hardworking and determined heroine, Tiana. Much has already been said about her historical role as Disney's first African-American leading woman, but few reviewers seem to mention another very important aspect of the character: she's an exceptionally admirable protagonist. Regardless of race, color, or background, few Disney leads of either gender show as much pluck, energy, and perseverance as Tiana. As the movie points out, she's been so busy working all her life that she can't even dance! Why does no one consider that to be innovative for a Disney princess? Yes, Tiana's black, but that's just one of several reasons for which she's such a great addition to the canon. The characters around her are all serviceable, at the very least, but the movie's most memorable character is undoubtedly Tiana.
Now, I've mentioned my two favorite aspects of the movie, but I chose my words carefully when saying "The Princess and the Frog" is good. Sadly, it's not great. It's obviously head and shoulders above any hand-drawn feature the studio has released in the past 10 years, but it's little more than halfway to the brilliance of the early 90's pictures. One very noticeable difference lies in the music. The movie has numerous songs, and they all contribute to its overall stylistic cohesion, but they sadly justified my misgivings when I first heard they would be written by Randy Newman (of the "Toy Story" soundtrack) instead of Alan Menken (of everyone's favorite songs ever). What can you tell me about the song "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story? How does it compare, say, with "Part of that World," "Kiss the Girl," "Prince Ali," or "A Whole New World?" Fatally, the show-stopping production numbers in "The Princess and the Frog" invite comparisons the music just can't live up to. This isn't a statement about the quality of the composer's work, but there's something distinctly lyrical, memorable, and infectious about other Disney soundtracks that just doesn't happen in this movie.
There are also some weaknesses in the story and character department. Most of the great Disney stories can be summarized in a very short sentence that every character's motivations can be deployed around. Though it's very clear what Tiana's conflict is (she wants to open a restaurant but doesn't have enough money), the balance of the plot is surprisingly complicated. Even the bad guy, Doctor Facilier, who's been given all the trappings of a great Disney villain (and score: even a song!), has too many agendas, too many tricks, and too many issues of his own, to seep under the viewers' skin. The love interest raises more questions than he answers (Where's he from? Why, if he's a Prince, does he have no money? Whom does he want to marry? Why?). For all the crap good old Prince Charming in Snow White received for having no personality, at least everyone knew exactly what he was about. The movie's comic relief is, though it pains me to say so, unfunny and forgettable, and it's instantly obvious why these characters are there. The genie, for example, had soul beneath all the jokes, and, from a purely pragmatic point of view, there'd be no Aladdin story without him.
Characters' motivations are not the only issue in the story department. The plot involves many deals, many conditions, many detours, many distractions. For example, before anything has even happened to her, Tiana finds that she can afford the down payment on the building she wants for her restaurant by selling cakes to her friend Charlotte, who wants the cakes in order to win the Prince's affections - but then Tiana is outbid and she must match the other prospective buyer's offer before it's too late. What happened to straight up "Belle needs to break the spell!" or "Simba needs to reclaim the kingdom?" There are so many technicalities in this movie that I'm still not sure what exactly sealed the characters' fates at the end (for both the good guys and the villain). And the vast majority of the plot seems to rest on the shoulders of Charlotte, the ditzy rich childhood friend, who's unwittingly at the center of several convoluted schemes simply because her dad has a lot of money. Again, the simple universality of Ariel's dream, or Cinderella's, for that matter, is far more engaging, not to say intelligible (especially for children, while we're at it).
Nonetheless, the Princess and the Frog is pure, well-intentioned, and fun. It's not grand, it's not spectacular, it's not haunting, and it's trying to resume the legacy of movies that were all of these things. But in spite of its shortcomings, its release is still the best news that's come out of Disney in a long time.