Because I am still trying to get my head around A Single Man, I thought I would post a few thoughts on The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s attempt to re-energise their hand-drawn animation division.
I have always adored Disney’s animated films. Memories of them go down deep – Peter Pan is the first film I remember seeing in the cinema. Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, Bambi… I can remember each of these films intimately. I think their late 80s to mid 90s renaissance was an astonishingly successful creative run. Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin are two of my favourite films – both of them are wonderful musicals, with great characters, and a great balance between drama, romance and comedy. Even in its twilight years, Disney could still pull off a wonderful piece of entertainment like Lilo and Stitch and criminally under-rated The Emperor’s New Groove.
I went in to The Princess and the Frog (hereafter referred to as TPATF) with high hopes, especially after the generally excellent reviews from the States. So it is with the tiniest bit of regret that I say that I wasn’t quite as blown away by the film as I hoped to be. It was surprisingly well written, featured some fantastic voice work and is one of the most beautifully animated films I have seen in years, but it feels like its missing some element that would elevate it to more than the sum of its parts.
A few quick notes;
- The central couple of Tiana and Prince Naveen is one of the most appealing in any of Disney’s films. Both characters are well written, have a believable and interesting dramatic arc and more importantly, fall in love for reasons other than “the script says so”. This has often been a problem with traditional Disney princess films which tended to bland out the male lead in particular. Tiana and Naveen reminded me of Beauty and Beast and Aladdin and Jasmine in the equitable way that their characters are treated by the film.
- While not exactly emphasising Tiana’s poverty, the film does an effective job of highlighting the very real economic and class distinctions which prevent Tiana from realising her ambition and potential. What the film doesn’t really address is race – it tends to use class as a signifier instead, which is understandable if also cowardly and unrealistic.
- The voice work is, as in most Disney films, first rate. The supporting roles are hugely entertaining. I particularly loved Jennifer Cody as Charlotte, who gave a breathlessly entertaining whirlwind of dizzy blond ambition. However, it's Anika None Rose, who was unfairly over-shadowed in Dreamgirls, who deserves the most praise and gives one of the strongest female vocal performances in any Disney film.
- Disney gets scary again – its about time. Dr Facilier and his Voodoo shadows are actually really creepy and recall such memorable Disney villains as Maleficent and Ursula.
- The two areas that the film stumbles on are the music and the comedy. Randy Newman’s score has some nice tunes, but I couldn’t hum a single melody coming out of the film and the lyrics are particularly weak. The animators make a huge effort to spice up the big production numbers with some gorgeous visuals, but they can’t do much with the actual score. Likewise, the comedy is surprisingly weak, despite the strength of the voice cast. I think it’s these two elements which prevent TPATF from soaring to the same heights as the greatest of the 90s output.
Despite these caveats, if you love Disney and love the art of animation, I think its definitely worth seeing the film. The Little Mermaid had a lot of problems too, but it still worked, and more importantly, paved the way for a significant advance with Beauty and the Beast. I think the elements that work for TPATF are those which are the hardest to get right, and I really hope that John Lasseter (aka The Pixar Genius) continued to develop the work of the hand drawn division at Disney