Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The Princess and the Frog" Review

I would never have guessed it last summer, but Pixar's 2009 effort has, by my estimate, already been bested twice this year. I preferred "Ponyo" to "Up," which is the latest and unofficially last film by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and can now, however surprisingly, knock the airy adventure film down another peg, courtesy of the triumphant return of Disney traditional animation. It's admittedly been a great year for the medium, and I haven't even seen "Fantastic Mr. Fox" yet.

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the masterminds behind two of the best Disney cartoons of the early nineties ("Aladdin" for the boys, and "The Little Mermaid" for the girls--though to be fair, I love both), "The Princess and the Frog" is a film that bleeds nostalgia, and resonates with me for the same reason "Enchanted" did two years prior; this stuff is ingrained on my childhood. As a tyke at West Coast Video, if anyone even remembers those, parental requests for my film selection would invariably come back, 'Lady and the Tramp,' though with a more toothless diction. "Aladdin" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" are a couple of the first movies I remember seeing in theaters. And I know I'm not alone in having had to fast forward through the parts in "The Little Mermaid" that featured the terrifying octopus, Ursula. "The Princess and the Frog" is not a revelatory piece of visual storytelling, but it so nearly mirrors the style, presentation, and ebullient energy of the classics that I couldn't help but fall in love. The music by Randy Newman, which encompasses a diverse range of New Orleans flavor, is catchy and the song sequences are inventive enough to rarely feel shoehorned into this modern family film. The magic is there, and more often than not it just feels right.

The hand-drawn animation is equally stunning, though occasionally suffers from overuse of an ugly computer-shading technique, and jazz age New Orleans springs to life via chugging steamships, sparkling cityscapes, murky bayous, and the brilliant costumes and colors of Mardi Gras. The Big Easy sets the stage for a twist on the classic 'Frog Prince' fable, which not only posits that a kiss from a princess will return a frog to his formal royal glory, but that a kiss from anyone but will spread the amphibious curse. Inasmuch, the majority of the film, and the love story between our protagonist Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) and the handsome prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), takes places between two frogs. The premise sounds anything but compelling, but the sequences prove too charming and clever to feel like a generic animated animal film.

The film has been the target of PC debate since Disney released the first concept sketches featuring its heroine, auspiciously the corporation's first black princess, a while back. The trailer also incited allegations of racism for its loose allocation of black stereotypes in certain characters, most obviously the lightning bug, 'Ray,' who's voiced by Jim Cummings, a white man. These claims are understandable based solely on the promotional material, but the film in earnest depicts its cast as immensely likable. In the same way any of the above films have poked fun at Middle-Eastern or European stereotypes, "The Princess and the Frog" is never guilty of more than gentle jest towards African Americans.

In revisiting these films from my childhood, I've developed an infatuation with the catalogue of Disney villains, including, reluctantly, Urusla. From "Sleeping Beauty's" Maleficent to "Aladdin's" Jafar, it's these characters that I can still unashamedly call 'cool,' and "The Princess and the Frog" has a great one. Enter Dr. Facilier (Keith David), also known as the Shadow Man, a voodoo witch doctor who consorts with his 'friends on the other side' to turn Naveen's slimy disposition into handy profit. David is brilliant as the dark doctor, whose scenes are smattered with popping purples and greens, and of whom my only request is, 'more, please.'

"The Princess and the Frog" tells a timeless story in style, and stands a gorgeously well-meaning and engrossing audience-pleaser that all but the most calloused cynics should enjoy. I suppose those who have either outgrown or never enjoyed the canon of classic Disney animated films will find few redeeming qualities here, but for the rest of us, "The Princess and the Frog" is a blast from the past complete with the warm and fuzzy feelings of Disney at its most magical. Enjoy.


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