A lot of people from my generation like to complain that traditional animation methods such as 2D cel animation and stop-motion have been replaced by less-worthy 3D counterparts. We’re all a little nostalgic for the oldschool stuff, but I think it’s a little unfair to suggest that 3D is somehow inferior or that it somehow takes less work. Sure, the time and effort it takes to draw every single frame of a character animation may have become a little under-appreciated, but those in the offended camp probably under-appreciate the time it takes to model, texture, render and rig a 3D character animation. Appreciation aside though, I did think it was a damn shame when Disney closed down its 2D animation branch after the disastrous Home on the Range movie, and was amongst the hopeful when the company later turned around and decided to make a return to its roots.
The periodic trailers and behind-the-scenes looks released for the Princess and the Frog all looked amazing. The character designs felt like they would have fit in well with the Disney movies of the early 90’s and the animation was similarly nostalgic. In addition to being a throwback to the animated features I grew up with, I was happy to see another film focused on a slice of American history and culture, in this case, the French Quarter of New Orleans before and after World War I. The music and musical style were less of a concern for me since movies like Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch and the Emperor’s New Groove worked perfectly fine without much, if any, bursting into song. Still, the last Disney musical was Mulan, and Mulan was all kinds of amazing, so anticipation remained extremely high for this film. I finally got to see it yesterday.
STORY – Walking into the movie, I knew I was going to be in it more for the technical aspects than anything else. The princess movies had never been amongst my favorites of what Disney had to offer and I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by the story in Princess and the Frog. As such, it was no surprise that the movie’s plot was basic, cliche and a bit predictable: girl has dream, girl works hard to achieve dream but it’s just out of reach, girl then gets caught up in some crazy nonsense, falls in love with boy and somehow this results in the dream also getting realized. It’s a typical, romanticized children’s tale storyline. But despite that that was pretty much what I had expected, I was still a little disappointed.
Part of it was because the villian(s) aren’t nearly as prominent and the obstacles the protagonists faced weren’t nearly as dangerous or thrilling as they could have been. Tiana and Prince Naveen spend very little time actually facing the bad guys. The main, immediate problem the protagonists struggle with is the fact that they’ve been cursed into frogs. Sure, there is the Shadow Man that put the curse in place, but neither protagonists spends all that long with him. Instead of fighting him directly, they journey through the Louisiana swamp looking for another voodoo capable person to help them. Almost all the characters they meet along the way are friendly and work to help them along. And there is no build up to an epic final fight because there really isn’t a final fight. Compare this with the various hurdles Jafar sets for Aladdin. And their final fight. Pretty disappointing.
It wasn’t all bad though. I was very impressed at how the classic tale was reworked to fit the setting and characters. 1920’s New Orleans isn’t the first place you’d think to set an adaptation of a princess story, just like 1980’s New York isn’t the first place you’d think to set an adaptation of Oliver Twist, but damn if Disney didn’t make it work. Obviously, there were no real princesses in that time and place, but the Princess and the Frog played around and made it work in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion; I was especially pleased at how the traditional princess and curse-breaking tropes were toyed with at the end. It made me smile.
CHARACTERS – The movie’s main protagonist, Tiana, is very much the archetypal strong-willed woman. She knows what she wants and is hyperfocused, working single-mindedly towards her goal. She isn’t easily threatened, but can be distracted by the intensity of her own dreams. She is quick-witted and adaptable, as well as sympathetic and a good role-model: the ideal character to lead a movie like this, but really not that interesting to an older viewer like myself, especially since she doesn’t really change during the course of the movie. She just falls in love. (In like, two days.)
Prince Naveen is similarly stale, though he’s also accompanied by some unfortunate logical flaws. Growing up as royalty, he was spoiled and never had to do anything for himself. For some reason though, he desired “freedom” (from what?) and for some other reason, he was disowned by his family (why? Wikipedia has some reasons, but I don’t think the movie ever said anything specific), so he ends up in New Orleans penniless and intending to marry a wealthy girl for money (and thereby grounding his own freedom again? what?). Predictably, Naveen learns a bit of humility and gains a little usefulness during the course of the movie. Predictably.
Dr. Facilier, also known as the Shadow Man, had the potential to be the most interesting character in the movie, but this is hindered by not quite enough screen time or backstory. He has a few lines of complaint here and there, but there doesn’t seem to be a point in his past where he was morally offended by something or someone that spurred him to want domination of New Orleans. His interesting relationship with people “on the other side” is also never fully explained, which was supremely disappointing considering their awesome musical number together. There were so many things that could have spiced up both Dr. Facilier and his collaborators’ roles, such as giving some of the shadows (aside from Dr. Facilier’s own) personalities and giving Lawrence, Naveen’s backstabbing servant, some ulterior goals.
The secondary cast was not particularly notable; they were there, occasionally humorous, but too simple to be called good or bad. I saw the movie with several people though, including a New Orleans native who was apparently upset at some of the stereotypical characters portrayed in the movie. Personally, I don’t think the portrayals were necessarily unfair since all regions have their stereotypes and most of them are grounded in some sort of reality, including the bumbling backwater hicks. I doubt anyone will really come away with a negative impression of the area, in any case. I mean, I wasn’t offended by the hilariously stereotypical gender roles presented in Mulan since you know, they’re kind of true.
ART & ANIMATION – Everything was gorgeous, just like I thought it would be. Seriously, you don’t realize just how different 2D animated characters look until you go a while without seeing them and are suddenly sent back. Disney was amazingly successful at recapturing a number of styles it had left behind, and Princess and the Frog included several short sequences animated in a simpler, blocky color, storybook style, such as for the song “Almost There.” But while all the characters were animated traditionally throughout the movie, most of the backgrounds had been painted digitally and there were some digital special effects. This was really fine though, especially since it allowed for some really visually interesting scenes involving Shadow Man’s shadow and shadowy minions. The digital backgrounds complimented the characters fine and didn’t detract from the film in any way.
The character designs were pretty standard. Tiana is pretty much what anyone might have thought of given the prompts “African-American” and “Disney princess.” Prince Naveen is just the next in a long line of Disney princes, though his frog form reminded me a lot of Warner Brother’s Michigan J. Frog. In contrast, Dr. Facilier actually has a pretty fun design and reminds me vaguely of a cross between Jafar and Jack Skellington. This compliments the uniqueness of his character, but while his personality and backstory aren’t really given the attention they could had have, Facilier’s design is bold and has many clever little elements, such as his skull mask. Like their personalities, the secondary characters didn’t leave a big impression visually either, but despite that, I was very pleased with both the art and animation in this movie.
MUSIC – As with the animation, the Princess and the Frog attempts to capture the musical success of its 90’s predecessors with music by Randy Newman and lyrics by Glenn Slater. Maybe I’m just a little out of touch with musicals, but some of the film’s songs felt a little awkward and forced. As a sort of opening song, “Down in New Orleans” wasn’t too bad, but the beginning of Tiana’s first solo, “Almost There” didn’t seem to mesh very well with the scene it was placed in. Thankfully, as the song progressed, the tune became catchier and more attractive and the end of the song seemed to suit the scene much better. Dr. Facilier’s solo, “Friends on the Other Side” was probably the best song in the movie; it was a lot of fun both lyrically and visually and is one of the main reasons I wish the character had gotten more attention than he received. “When We’re Human” seemed like a pretty typical Disney song. “Gonna Take You There” and “Ma Belle Evangeline” were both fairly decent and more nostalgic feeling in mood and style. “Dig a Little Deeper” reminded me somewhat of the “Morning Report” song Disney inserted into some DVD re-release of the Lion King… which is not a compliment.
I really don’t feel like Princess and the Frog benefited from being a musical, but I guess it really didn’t detract from it that much. Either way, Anika Rose’s “Almost There” won’t be the next Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” or Christina Aguilera’s “Reflection.” Newman’s general score for the movie was pretty okay, but come on, Alan Menken would have been a much better choice of composer.
OVERALL – If an older someone were to watch the Princess and the Frog after all the Disney feature films of the 90’s, they might be dismissive and unimpressed. As a simple movie aimed at children, it’s very solid, but even then, compared to the previous decade’s most popular hits — Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, the Lion King, and Mulan — and Disney’s beloved classics, the Princess and the Frog is really nothing spectacular, especially in terms of story and character. The cultural aspects are fun though, and animation is surely on par. I actually really like that they still included digitally painted backgrounds in their highly anticipated 2D revival. Disney’s demonstrated that traditional animation can still be used, but further suggests that they’re still experimenting with different ways to animate and to cartoon. Their upcoming Rapunzel movie for 2010 is a testament to this as they’re trying to make a CG movie not look like a CG movie. I look forward to it, but I do hope that Rapunzel’s struggles will be a little more interesting storywise than Tiana’s.