Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Whiff of a Renaissance: A Look at The Princess and The Frog

Already, I’m breaking my commitment to the coming Yule, but how could I let this go by without a word?

It’s back. I knew it couldn’t and wouldn’t stay away long. Hand-drawn animation. Anybody who knows me knows I am a huge Disney fan, particularly of the animated movies. I’ve been fascinated by the animation process since I saw my very first Behind the Scenes documentary at the ripe old age of four. When I first heard back in the early 00’s, that Disney—in a move driven by Pixar-envy, defeatism, and all-out stupidity—had decided to shut down its hand-drawn animation studio, I was devastated. They figured that since Pixar’s movies were so successful, it could have nothing to do with story or characters. It had to be the computer animation. It apparently wasn’t enough that the Disney channel had to devolve from a groundbreaking blend of The Wonderful World of Disney, PBS, and Turner Classic Movies to a mini-American Idol factory; that my beloved princesses had to be plasticized and repackaged as new age Barbies; that a new straight to DVD sequel kept bouncing off the conveyor belt every six months. Nope, now they had to axe hand-drawn animation, the art form that gave birth not only to the Disney studios and corporation but animation as we know it today, computer generated or not. Once I had cried my tears and swept up the salt, I told myself that this was probably just a phase and that it wouldn’t be long before wiser heads prevailed. At the time, this might have just been my characteristic denial talking, but in typical Disney fashion, my wish came true. And now we have The Princess and the Frog.

I have done my best not to include spoilers.

I was so excited and so nervous when I arrived at the theater last Friday night. The Princess and the Frog did not have an easy birth and has been fraught with controversy since the studio announced that it would feature their first African-American princess (read: heroine) after almost 75 years of primarily white characters. I hoped against hope they would do a good job not only with their leading lady but with everything—the songs, the animation, and of course, the story, a twisted take on the Grimm Brothers’ The Frog Prince (actually titled The Frog King or Iron Heinrich), largely inspired by E.D. Baker’s novel The Frog Princess. I grew up in the 90’s during what is now known as the Disney Renaissance—a period when movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King were practically an annual guarantee. During the last ten years, however, they broke with their traditional “fairy tale musical” formula and though this led to some great things (why oh why haven’t more people seen The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch, or Treasure Planet?!?!?!?!?) it made me homesick for fairy tales. And I know I’m not the only one. So when the lights went dark and that new-fangled Disney logo appeared, I held my breath and waited.

Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (who also directed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) and set in New Orleans in the 1920s, the story follows a young woman named Tiana who has wanted to own her own restaurant since she was a very little girl. Her dream is a continuation of her father’s who died (in World War One) before he could make that dream come true. In a heart-warming prologue, her father tells her that while wishing is important—everything starts with a wish, after all—it will only get you so far. You’ve got to work hard to make your dreams come true. It’s a lesson Tiana takes to heart and one that pushes her to work two jobs and save every penny, even while her friends are out having fun. Meanwhile, a prince has come to visit New Orleans. Prince Naveen of Maldonia (which I cannot for the life of me find in my atlas) is a ukulele playing, free-loading, fun-loving ladies man who has been recently cut off by his royal parents and must marry a wealthy young woman in order to continue living his desired lifestyle. The lady Naveen has his eye on is Charlotte, Tiana’s friend and the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the city, who wants nothing more than to marry a prince so she can be a princess. Overseeing all is the dastardly, charismatic voodoo practitioner, Dr. Facilier (also known as the Shadow Man) who sees Naveen’s arrival as the key to gaining control of New Orleans. Long story short, Naveen gets turned into a frog, one misunderstanding after another sends him to Tiana for help, she turns into a frog too (it makes sense in context) and they set off through the Louisiana bayous in search of a spell to make them human again.

The characters were the highlight for me. I loved Tiana. I related to her very much. Anybody who has ever worked hard to achieve a goal can relate to her. There’s never been an entrepreneur Disney princess before and now we have one. Her song Almost There gave me happy goose bumps and her relationship with her father is very moving. She’s beautiful but she doesn’t define herself by her beauty and neither does anybody else. She can sing but only because this is a musical and everybody can sing. Nobody falls in love with her at the sound of her voice. She teaches the prince a thing or two but is also open to change in her own life. And she can make a better gumbo than anybody else in the dang movie. Luckily, this movie broke the current trend of casting a name celebrity in every role. Tony winner Anika Noni Rose provides Tiana’s voice and she does a stupendous job. Her singing and acting are both spot on and she brings a real heart and soul to the character that made me love her all the more.

As for his highness, Prince Naveen tickled me to the core. Imagine if Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty and Dmitri from Don Bluth’s Anastasia had a love child, raised him in Brazil, and occasionally let Gaston from Beauty and the Beast baby-sit. That child would grow up to be Prince Naveen. And, like his fathers, he’s a hunk. Even as a frog. Like Tiana, he has an arc and develops as a character. He is arrogant without being off-putting, charming but not slimy (except for when he's secreting mucus, that is), and overall, lovable. I’ve decided that Bruno Campos (who provided Naveen’s voice) must be in more movies, animated or otherwise. His performance had me cracking up through out.

Charlotte, Tiana’s friend, is a hoot and gets some of the best lines. For example, “I’m sweatin’ like a sinner in church.” I did not expect to like her fearing that she would be the archetypal spoiled rich girl who treats Our Heroine like dirt. She is spoiled to be sure, but she is not mean and she genuinely cares for Tiana. She is also a very subtle parody of Disney princesses of yore. More than anything else, she wants to marry a prince. And it’s pretty much all she talks about. Jennifer Cody (who performed in Broadway’s Urinetown) must also be in more for the same reason as Bruno Campos.

Dr. Facilier is a great villain—funny, charismatic, genuinely menacing, prone to bending others to his will by tempting them with their fiercest desires. All that good stuff. And his shadow minions are terrifying. I used to have nightmares about shadows that looked exactly like that. In the tradition of great Disney villains, he gets a great song, Friends On the Other Side. This scene might be my favorite in the film. Keith David’s vocal performance is wonderful and the animation is jaw-dropping. We get to see the transformation from Naveen’s point of view as he changes from human to frog. In song! Talk about ideal for animation. This moment cried out to me on so many levels—as an animation fan, as a fairy tale scholar, and as a writer who has written the same scene in her own version of The Frog Prince. In the fairy tale, it’s never revealed why he was turned so it’s up to the imagination of every reader and interpreter. And this one’s good. It’s fantastic. A fantastic song and scene. And a great villain.

There are many more great characters but they should really be met on their own, not spoiled by me in a fangirl rush. One is further proof that Jim Cummings is a truly great vocal performer.
Can I ask for three cheers in honor of the fact that Disney has reacquainted itself with sexual innuendo? I am happy to report that it abounds in this movie. Not in an obnoxious dick and fart joke way either. Just a few good adult laughs.

The songs by Randy Newman are very good, though not quite up to the standard set by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. This is an unfair complaint though. Menken and Ashman’s songs were so instrumental to the success of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin that anybody who has written a song for a Disney movie since has been compared to them (usually unfavorably). I did love the music here. I’ve been listening to Down in New Orleans, Almost There, and Friends on the Other Side almost non-stop since I saw it. But there’s no Part of Your World. Of course, this could also be nostalgia talking. Ask me again when I have 20 years of memories connected to these songs.

The movie isn’t perfect. The third act gets a little convoluted (and dark even though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing). I’ve seen the thing twice now and I’m still not exactly sure what Dr. Facilier was trying to accomplish by turning Prince Naveen into a frog (suggestions are welcome). Also the character of the prince’s downtrodden manservant, Lawrence could have used a little more development. Not only did I resent that he was all that remained of Iron Heinrich (the frog prince’s best friend and faithful servant in the fairy tale) but I felt this could have been a potentially complex character who instead had to serve as comic relief. The ending lacks a certain something, even though it features one of the best, hilariously inappropriate lines (courtesy of Charlotte). But I wasn’t crying and I was pissed off that I wasn’t crying. It should be noted that I choked up several times during the movie, but not at the fricking end! The hell, Disney?

I wish that Tiana didn’t have to spend most of the movie as a frog. I’m not alone here, I know. She’s such a cool character and so revolutionary in terms of both race and gender that it felt almost like a waste for her to be written off as an “animal” character. Of course, this is still an improvement over some of the past heroines. Consider that Tiana is human in her movie longer than Aurora is awake in hers. I can see the moviemakers’ dilemma. The fairy tale can be potentially difficult to adapt faithfully. The princess is a brat, the frog’s behavior borders on sexual harassment, and she turns him back to a prince not by kissing him but by chucking him angrily against the wall. Also it requires a lot of padding. Add in the factor that it is basically a Beauty and the Beast story. Girl meets animal. Girl falls in love with/gets passionately pissed at animal. Animal turns out to be a boy. Girl and boy live happily ever after. And they made that movie two decades ago. Too well to do it again. Some kind of twist was necessary. But still…

Growing up, I didn’t have to look far to find a Disney princess with my color hair, eyes, and skin. It was something I was able to take for granted. Princesses are not all sparkly dresses and rosy cheeks. They represent something to the little girls who latch onto them, something primal and important. I was by no means a girly girl during my childhood but I still clung to the princesses like nobody’s business. I felt like a misfit a lot of the time growing up, as I’m sure everybody does. I looked to Belle, also bookish and solitary, as a kind of role model. I too wanted “adventure in the great, wide somewhere” and somebody to share it with. And it didn’t hurt that I often wore my light brown hair up in a ponytail. They aren’t characters to be written off as stupid plastic dolls who occasionally sing and marry the prince in the third reel. Tiana is a great role model for girls of all skin colors but she also represents growing diversity and provides African-American girls with a princess who looks like them. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction that won’t be soon forgotten.

Last but not least, the animation. I did not give enough credit to the animation. Did I mention it’s old-school hand-drawn animation? Because it is. I had forgotten how beautiful hand-drawn animation looked on the big screen. It’s magical. I don’t mean to take anything away from computer generated animation. Pixar deserves all its praise. Hell, I went to see Up in the theater three times. But I have always been partial to hand-drawn, and I've always thought they could peacefully coexist. Apart from the transformation, I really loved a shot where Tiana is describing what she wants her restaurant to look like to her mother. And as she sings (of course, sings) it comes to life around her in the dilapidated old building she hopes will be her location. And then when the song ends, we return to reality and the golden roof disappears beam by beam and turns back into shafts of sunlight pouring through the holes in the roof. It’s such a moving moment—hopeful and sad at the same time—and beautifully animated.

Something I especially loved about this movie was how it portrayed New Orleans. It is very much a love letter to New Orleans and the Louisiana bayous. The movie introduces its setting with “in the South land, there’s a city, way down on the river,” making it sound as mystical and magical as any storybook land. Disney fairy tales usually take place in fairy tale worlds. Even Beauty and the Beast, which takes place in France, still has an enchanted castle sitting at the top of a mountain. But New Orleans is a real place. A real American city with a very raw recent history. It's romanticized here but hopefully that will make viewers want to get to know it better.

Go see this movie. Please. It’s a good movie. A very good movie. Fun and flawed. The whiff of another Renaissance, perhaps? Hopefully.

And no more sequels, Disney. Please.

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