Monday, December 21, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

A grown-ass man I may be, but there is a specific run of Disney films I love with unapologetic glee and that still revert me back to childhood wonderment in a heartbeat: the brilliant 1989 - 1994 cycle of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. I don't know whether it's because of the impressionable age I saw them at or because they're legitimate masterpieces (probably a little of both), but I'll defend those four flicks to the death. But then came the horrible Pocahontas in 1995 to ruin all our fun, and since then, Disney's in-house, non-Pixar animated features, with the sole exception of the pretty good Mulan, have ranged from nonoffensively harmless (Tarzan, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bolt) to just awful (Dinosaur). The spark seemed gone, the shark long since jumped.

But in a retro tribute to the fairy tale flicks of old that I didn't realize the Walt Disney Company had in 'em, and more specifically and more importantly from directing duo Ron Clements and John Musker, who gave us The Little Mermaid and Aladdin nearly twenty years ago, comes The Princess and the Frog, and I'm happy to report that aside from Mulan and a couple of live-action successes (i.e. Pirates of the Caribbean and Enchanted) it's the best thing the studio has made since I was in elementary school; a flick with genuine spark and life and charm to it. Who would have thought? The trick to making a creative and rich film was, paradoxically, to fall back on the oldest clich├ęs in the book and make something that would have fit seamlessly had it been released in the late 80s or early 90s.

The formula is clockwork: there is a "princess," in this case a hardworking lower-middle class New Orleans waitress named Tiana who dreams of opening her own restaurant, and there is a more literal prince, the stuffy and pompous Prince Naveen who is basically Aladdin when he was in disguise as Prince Ali except without the being in disguise part. Naveen is turned into a frog by a voodoo witch doctor named Dr. Facilier as part of a ploy for Facilier to get rich and entrap some souls for his hungry pagan gods, but Naveen escapes and attempts to kiss a princess to become human again. Things go awry when Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess at a costume party and ends up turning her into a frog too, and the pair go on an adventure to revert the spell, thwart Facilier's plans, and (spoilers, but not really, if you're not an idiot) of course overcome their character flaws and fall in love along the way to the chorus of a big musical number every six to ten minutes.

Of all of Disney's fairy tale features, this might just be the one most tweaked and embellished from its source tale, which as far as I can recall starred a real, rich princess, took place in generic European-esque fantasy settings, and had no villain, let alone one who was a New Orleans witch doctor. But it works like gangbusters. Tiana is an instantly likable and relatable protagonist, an independent and spirited woman in the spirit of Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine (and far superior to the immensely overrated Cinderella). And while setting a fantasy in Louisiana may not sound appealing, the sheer novelty of it really works, not the least because of the wonderful sense of time and place the directors create, all jazz and bayous and drawling accents and good southern comfort food. You can almost feel the humidity and smell the gumbo just watching the film.

And of course there's Dr. Facilier. For me, a good Disney villain is every inch as important as a good Bond villain, and Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, and Scar are more than a little bit of why The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King rule. Dr. Facilier is flamboyant, charismatic, nasty, powerful, and has no qualms with killing or kidnapping, in short, everything a quality Disney villain should be. That he's from the same directors who gave us Aladdin isn't immensely surprising, because when it comes down to it he's strongly reminiscent of a black Jafar, but Jafar is one of my favorite baddies ever, so that's a compliment. His villain song is also pretty decent, one of the better tunes in the picture.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that this is the one area where The Princess and the Frog falters: its songs are just kind of there. There's absolutely nothing even close to on par with, well, any of the songs in the modern classics I discussed before. The best song in The Princess in the Frog is less memorable — far less memorable — than the worst song in Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. I saw the movie like two days ago and I can't remember the melody or the chorus of a single one of the ten or so showtunes that make up nearly a quarter of the film's runtime. You might be saying "But, Tim, that's because you have nostalgia for those old songs," which is true, but then again, I saw Disney's Enchanted only once over two years ago and I still remember the melody and chorus of "True Love's Kiss," "Happy Working Song," and "That's How You Know," so I'm forced to conclude that The Princess and the Frog just doesn't have particularly great tunes, which holds it back from the top echelon of Disney classics.

Nonetheless, I really liked the movie and have absolutely no hesitation recommending it to anyone who loves and misses the heyday of 2D animation, and especially anyone with specific fondness for retro Disney. I should also briefly discuss the controversy surrounding the film. As Disney's first black princess, Tiana has been something of a lightning rod for criticism, almost entirely from guilty whites, about perceived racism in the film, namely her working class job as a waitress, her spending a lot of the film in the body of an amphibian rather than her black self, the New Orleans setting dredging up memories of Katrina, the voodoo, and her love interest Prince Naveen having caucasian features. I suppose I should put my two cents into this debate: I DON'T GIVE A SHIT. I don't give a shit about this criticism coming from whites or non-whites. It's a movie, people. It's a fuckin' movie. Relax.

3 Stars out of 5

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