Sunday, December 27, 2009
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG - MY REVIEW
I don't usually go to Disney movies, mainly because they aren't what I remember growing up. I came of age on Disney fare like 101 Dalmatians, Lady & The Tramp, Pinocchio, The Jungle Book, etc. Since the success of The Little Mermaid Disney has taken a different approach to both animation and songs with their releases. With that in mind I was less than amped about going to see The Princess And The Frog but you'd be amazed what you're forced into by extended family during Christmas. What I expected were some chuckles, a couple of toe tapping numbers and maybe a movie I didn't hate. What I didn't expect was a thoroughly charming and exceedingly entertaining film that harkened back to the Disney I grew up with.
The Princess Frog centers on Tiana who, through a series of only-in-a-Disney-movie circumstances, becomes a frog after kissing real life Prince Naveen who was reduced into his own amphibious stature by voodoo witch doctor Dr. Facilier. From there it's a whole lot of jazz inspired songs and kooky characters that help the two try and become human again. Princess And The Frog takes several departures from the more recent Disney fare starting with the animation. Instead of the bright colors and clean backgrounds of movies like The Lion King or Beauty & The Beast, Princess and The Frog opts for a darker look, more shadows and more mystery. The characters themselves have that old school fluid look, one that screams it came first from the imagination and then through the pen of a Disney animator. Think of Baloo from The Jungle Book and you'll understand what I mean.
Disney also returns to their darker themes in Princess And The Frog. The bad guy her, Dr. Facilier, is really evil and the imagery used along with him has a tone that might even be too strong for young children. It's much more in the vein of the evil witch in Cinderella or the haggard old woman who hands Snow White the apple than the buffoon like nature of Tarzan evil hunter or the mean-but-witty style of The Lion King. Disney really shows how Facilier is involved in the dark arts and the price you pay for mixing it up with voodoo demons.
The Princess And The Frog is also a much more personal movie from the characters to the musical numbers. Instead of over-the-top celebrity voiced caricatures these are much more subtle and human (irony noted) personalities. For instance the jazz loving, horn blowing friendly alligator Louis could have been played to the hilt thus making him annoying. Instead he's played just grasping the edges of too much and that allows him to be endearing. Same with firefly Ray who has to be one of the most fun characters Disney has had in a while. You even manage to create a soft spot for Tiana's spoiled, rich best friend Charlotte La Bouff who could've been played as so spoiled you hated her more than the voodoo priest. Instead she's a sweet girl who is just a little off center and you can't help but laugh with her.
I was impressed with how personal Disney even kept the musical numbers. Sure they're big and involved but they aren't the show stopping, all encompassing, money shot musical hoe-downs that Disney has been churning out for the last ten years or more. I think part of what makes the Princess And The Frog such a personal and muted film is its reliance on Jazz to build not only the soundtrack but the story. Creole, southern New Orleans Jazz is some of the warmest most personal music ever made. When you center a story like this around that kind of warmth there's nothing you can do but make a film that echoes that type of personal connection. Something like "Under The Sea" or "Hakuna Matata" would never have worked if blown from a dirty New Orleans Jazz trumpet.
There are so socioeconomic problems with The Princess And The Frog that have to be addressed. The much touted "First Black Princess" isn't a princess at all, at least not through 97% of the movie. Instead Tiana is a poor black girl who can only work as a waitress to make money or cook for her rich white best friend. Her dreams are impossible for her to reach until she has the help of a big strong man. That seems a little surprising from a girl who has Oprah voicing her mother. None of this is anything that makes the film bad or unenjoyable but I would be remiss if I didn't mention it. The only bizarre vibe to the movie is it feels like Disney was trying to sidestep the whole "First Black Princess" thing which wasn't necessary. Regardless of all of this I enjoyed the movie immensely and was happy to be brought back to my childhood if only for a couple of hours.