Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Moving Forward (Part 2)

In the first part of "Moving Forward", I took a look at two Disney animated features that marked the beginnings of the comeback of one of the greatest American animation studios of all time after years of disappointing audiences and critics alike. Those two films were Meet The Robinsons and Bolt, which I reviewed while also taking a look at how they performed and what the outcome was for both of them.

Here, I take a look at Disney's The Princess and the Frog, the successor to these two films and the studio's return to hand-drawn animation, a medium they ditched six years prior to its release.

The Princess and the Frog
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Written by Ron Clements, John Musker and Rob Edwards
Produced by Peter Del Vecho
Released on December 11, 2009

With the changes made at Disney in 2006, hand-drawn animation was going to make an immediate comeback amidst the glut of computer animated films. Fox’s The Simpsons Movie and Disney’s own Enchanted were the first stabs, along with the Goofy short film How to Hook Up Your Home Theater. The Princess and the Frog marked Disney’s full return to hand-drawn animation, and the animated musical format, which they hadn’t done since Home on the Range.

At first glance, The Princess and the Frog (terrible title, should've stayed as The Frog Prince) seems like an attempt to recreate the much-lauded Disney Renaissance. It has a love story, a big bad villain and big production numbers. It actually isn’t, it’s just an attempt to make a good, heartfelt musical in the vein of classic Disney musicals, from any decade of Disney's history. The Princess and the Frog does not go for some epic plot like most of the Renaissance films do. In fact, it’s a simplistic plot that’s very character-driven. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) and Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) are both the polar opposites, who both learn about the most important things in life on their journey.

Tiana is the textbook example of a workaholic, chasing a seemingly impossible goal. She puts her job and hard work before everything, rejecting spending time with her friends or getting married and raising a family. Her mother Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) wants her to follow in her deceased father’s (voiced by Terrence Howard) footsteps. Tiana believes she is, by fulfilling his dream. A hardworking man he was, he still made time for his family, something Tiana fails to realize. At the same time, Prince Naveen is cut off by his family for being a lazy schmuck. His valet, the whiny Lawrence (voiced by Peter Bartlett), tries to ram that point home by telling him to either marry a rich woman or get a job. The Maldonian prince (fictional location) doesn’t seem to care, he just wants to live life.

Enter Dr. Facilier (voiced wonderfully by Keith David), a voodoo witchdoctor whom they make a deal with. He's not a big bad powerful villain like some of the Disney Renaissance villains (Jafar and Scar, anyone?), he already has some power, which proves to be his undoing. He has no relationship with the main characters, he's just a con man. He's a threat because of Naveen and Lawrence, he's not a threat from the get-go. A recreation of the Renaissance films? Think again. Facilier grants them a better future, but it ultimately backfires on Prince Naveen. He’s turned into a frog, whereas Lawrence is magically transformed to take on the appearance of the prince, as long as the prince’s blood isn’t used up in the voodoo charm. Tiana meets the frog prince on a balcony during a masquerade ball. The prince tells her that a kiss will undo everything, but it only turns Tiana into a frog. The two find themselves lost in the Louisiana bayou, as the second act goes into full throttle. The two embark on a quest down the bayou to get to a voodoo lady named Mama Odie (voiced by an outrageous Jenifer Lewis) with the help of Louis (voiced by Michael-Leon Wooley), a jazz enthusiast alligator and Raymond, a Cajun firefly (voiced by voice actor veteran Jim Cummings).

At first, these two come off as the typical Disney sidekick characters. The ones that are there to provide comic relief. There’s nothing with this, but Disney had so many annoying sidekicks in the 1990s that popped up in serious moments to lighten the load for children that weren't really necessary. In this film, they aren’t. They’re important to the story, which does get a bit muddled towards the end when the gang meet Mama Odie. Despite some messy odds and ends, the third act climax solves this all without haste. Everything locks together perfectly. Supporting this colorful story are a screenplay that never panders or pulls any punches and musical numbers that ooze with confidence. Randy Newman's New Orleans jazz-infused songs soar, and his score captures the setting of the film quite wonderfully. You can feel the energy that went into this film, it’s quite exciting to experience.

Take “Down in New Orleans” for example, it’s fast and directed with such verve, it pulls you right into the story. Dr. Facilier’s surreal production number, “Friends on the Other Side”, is reminiscent of the outright madness of “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo mixed with a psychedelic voodoo nightmare. Tiana’s dream song, “Almost There”, is set to a beautiful Art Deco style scene. The animation style shifts, much like it did for the “Barking at the Moon” montage sequences in Bolt.

The other songs are satisfying, though some are better than others. The thumping zydeco tune “Gonna Take You There” (sung by Ray) is a bit flimsy, but Mama Odie’s “Dig a Little Deeper” is bombastic and exciting. “When We’re Human” is like “I Wan’na Be Like You” from The Jungle Book in the Louisiana bayou, it’s a lot of fun. Ray’s love song to a star, “Ma Belle Evangeline”, serves as a love ballad for Tiana and Naveen, much like “Kiss The Girl” and “Tale as Old as Time”.

While moving the story forward with songs that define the characters and situations (not production numbers for the sake of having them), the writers tried incredibly to balance a lot of subplots here, especially the ones concerning Dr. Facilier, Lawrence and Charlotte (Lottie), a wild and obnoxious debutante who is close friends with Tiana (voiced by a hyperactive Jennifer Cody). This is why the story does get a bit inconsistent towards the end of the film, but everything is wrapped up nicely.

The Princess and the Frog’s only other problems are some of the similarities to the older Disney films, but it never feels like they are trying to revive the same old hat tricks. Instead, they’re breathing new life into these Disney traditions. Also, the film does have some unnecessary slapstick, mainly a very cartoony scene involving three swamp hunters, which starts out funny but turns sour when the violence emulates a Warner Bros. cartoon. Slapstick is fine in animation, but when it really goes against the realism of a film, it's a problem.

Best of all is the animation, combining the vivid beauty of films like Bambi and the Golden Age films with the softer style of the 1950s Disney films like Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, while also having the style change (“Almost There”) and adding other surprises along the way, such as flashes of Tim Burton (particularly with the scenes with the friends on the other side), Richard Williams ("the cards... The caaaards!") and others. The bayous look lovely, much like the forests in Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The design of New Orleans itself is pretty to look at, as said before, it has a Lady and the Tramp feel given the turn of the century setting.

The character animation shines, always vibrant and energetic. When it comes to hand-drawn films from Disney, always expect the character designs to be great. The characters move swiftly, and they all have unique designs. Tiana and Naveen may draw similarities to other Disney couples, but then you got Dr. Facilier whose sleek design suggests his snake-like nature. His shadow is creepy, resembling something out of a Tim Burton film or The Haunted Mansion. Lawrence comes off like Cogsworth, but his design is actually rather sinister. Lottie's design is off the wall, going along with her crazy character. Mama Odie's design is hilarious. The frog versions of the two protagonists are fine, but a bit lacking. Louis and Ray? Great designs, especially Ray. You can tell the animators had a field day here.

The Princess and the Frog feels like the studio has gotten their confidence back after years of executive interference. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker essentially delivered the classic Disney musical (after all, they directed Disney's The Little Mermaid, which felt more like a genuine Disney film than the few that came before it) with traces of the other Disney films from every era, but with fresh new twists. It’s a real treat.


The Second Coming of Disney?

The Princess and the Frog was chosen for the studio's first hand-drawn film since Home on the Range, most likely because Disney hadn't adapted a classic fairy tale for years. It was announced that this would be the return to hand-drawn animation as far back as July 2006, when projects like American Dog and a Rapunzel adaptation were still in the works. Of course, these two projects would become Bolt and Tangled. When early concept artwork was shown sometime around early 2007 (with the title The Frog Princess), it got criticism from all across the board, directed at the character designs, the setting and the title itself. Changes were made, but the writers kept the idea of having the film be about an African-American princess and it being set in New Orleans (being John Lasseter's favorite city). Originally, Alan Menken was going to write the songs, but the job was given to Randy Newman instead. Disney legends Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) were to direct the film, with Peter del Vecho as producer.

The first trailers began popping up in 2008, but the marketing kicked into full gear a year later. It's too bad that the film's trailers and TV spots didn't sell the movie as an event (I didn't want to see it back when it came out, the ads made the film look lame). Despite the fanfare, positive critical reception and its wonderful performance at the two theaters in both Los Angeles and New York respectively (on Thanksgiving weekend), it took in a disappointing $24 million on its opening weekend. Disney apparently felt that releasing the film a week before competition like Avatar and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel was a good idea. So, with it disappointing, what happened after that?

People liked the film, despite families being suckered in by the dreadful Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel, they went to see it as the holiday season ended. It crept up to $104 million domestically, not bad for a film that opened so low. It grossed less than Bolt though, and worldwide, it only took in $267 million, against a $105 million production budget. The executives blamed everything on the film having "princess" in the title. However, Disney was at least happy with how it did in the long run (add huge merchandising sales to that). Production on a hand-drawn animated film every two years was a go, rather than being every year. Soon after, a hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh film was announced for 2011.

The Princess and the Frog did well on Blu-ray and DVD, deservedly, as it found new audiences. Like Bolt and Meet The Robinsons, it's one that people are going to discover over the years.

So that wraps up Part 2. It was originally going to include Tangled and Winnie the Pooh, but those were saved for Part 3. The Princess and the Frog's qualities and the fact that it was the big return to hand-drawn animation (not financially, of course) for Disney called for its own part.


  1. Great article, Kyle - as per usual. I agree about 'Princess and the Frog', real turning point. I loved 'Bolt', but it felt a little... Pixar-wannabe-ish? Whereas 'Princess' felt classically Disney; same with 'Tangled' and 'Pooh'.

    'Wreck-It Ralph' looks more Pixar like, but, honestly, it's looks so great that I don't care.

    1. Interesting how you say "Bolt" is Pixar-wannabe-ish. In a way, Pixar is pretty much the Walt Disney of today, IMO. "Bolt" being Pixarish is a good thing for me, but
      at times it does feel like Pixar made it and not Disney.

      Again, thanks! Part 3 will be up tomorrow. Part 1 has also been improved and expanded. :)