It's a busy year for animation at the Walt Disney Studios. The company's Pixar division has the critically acclaimed and box office smash "Up," it released Hayao Miyazaki released his third English-language dubbed masterpiece "Ponyo" and Richard Zemeckis has collaborated with the studio to bring Charles Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" to the world of motion-capture. Flying a tad under the radar, however, is Disney's long awaited return to traditional hand drawn animation, "The Princess and the Frog."
After reviving the animation division in the early 1990s with such modern classics as "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," Disney started a gradual decline in the quality of hand drawn films as CG toons such as "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life" got moviegoers attention. By the time 2004's bomb "Home on the Range" was released, the studio had completely disbanded the hand drawn putting all its efforts into computer animated flicks such as "Chicken Little" and "Meet the Robinsons." When John Lasseter took over the animation division three years ago after Disney acquired profitable Pixar, he pledged to bring the art and technique of hand drawn back. The result of that promise is "The Princess and the Frog" which opens in limited release next month before expanding nationwide on Dec. 11. A new interpretation of the classic story of a prince turned into a frog who needs a princess to kiss him to return him to his handsom form, Disney has tweaked the fairy tale by setting it in New Orleans during the Jazz age. The studio recently presented an extended preview of "Princess" to a select number of writers including Awards Campaign.
[Check out some brand new images from "The Princess and the Frog" here.]
Before our preview, Disney was kind enough to take us on a tour of the company's well-guarded archives. Not open to the public, this facility is responsible for storing, cataloging and preserving all of the original drawings, matte paintings, models and animation cells throughout the history of the company. Currently in the middle of a long term digitization process for educational and historical purposes, our tour guide took us into one of the building's many climate controlled vaults and pulled out some original hand drawn sequences as well as original concept studies for the groundbreaking feature "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." The facility is a testament to the company's legacy, but it is also a reminder that these treasures should be on display full time at a museum -- and not just a two-room gallery at Walt Disney World or Disneyland. Once the economy turns around maybe someone will convince them to do so. In the meantime, the point of the presentation was to convince us that the studio is banking that "Princess" joins the ranks of those beloved hand drawn features.
Moving to the studio's daunting animation building, we sat down to watch four scenes from the picture. Two had already been shown at this year's Comic-Con and one was made public last month. So, only one clip was really new.
"Friends On the Other Side"
This scene finds the human Naveen and his valet Lawrence seduced by the story's villain, Dr. Facilier in the fantastic song "Friends on the Other Side." A big musical number in the vein of "Under the Sea" and "Be Our Guest," it is one of the most artistically daring animated sequences shown so far. In fact, you wish the song would go on a bit longer.
In this scene, Naveen, changed into a frog by Dr. Facilier, attempts to break his curse by kissing "Princess" Tiana. They both quickly learn what happens when you fool with magic. It's a little slapstick, but charmingly played out. Watch it embedded in this post or watch a larger version here.
"When We're Human"
This was probably the most disappointing scene we were shown. With Naveen and Tiana trapped both as frogs and in the Louisiana Bayou, they meet a jazz trumpet playing and friendly alligator named Louis (as in Louis Armstrong, get it?) who knows where the Voodoo priestess Mama Odie lives. It turns out Odie might be the key to transforming our hero and heroine back into human beings again. And for Louis, who just wants to play jazz with a real band, she might make him human too. The song is intriguing, but boy is it hard for the word "human" to flow lyrically.
"Dig A Little Deeper"
A great surprise, this rousing, gospel-inspired song is a solo for Jennifer Lewis' Mama Odie and the one completely new scene we were previewed. It’s a fun tune that will be one of the most memorable tracks after moviegoers leave the theater. And needless to say, this would be one great song to see performed on the Oscar show (are you listening Mr. Shankman?).
Now, having already reviewed the excruciatingly nerve wracking Best Animated Feature race, "Princess" is facing some heavy competition to make the final cut of five nominees assuming the category expands from three this year as expected. If it doesn't, it would be hard at this juncture to see three Disney films -- "Up," "Ponyo" and "Frog" -- all getting in. "Coraline, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" or "Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs" are all going to be heavy competition. With five nods "Princess" will be most likely battling it out with the surprising "Cloudy" to make the cut and will have to be a significantly bigger critical and box office hit to knock it out. And with "Cloudy" slowing down in theaters, that's entirely possible.
One area where "Princess" should find lots of Oscar love is the Best Original Song category. With the nominees based on their context within the picture, "Princess" could be looking at up to two different nods this year. It's hard to judge without seeing the complete picture, but both "Dig A Little Deeper," "Friends On The Other Side" and "Almost There" (a solo for Rose) could be intriguing candidates. The bigger question will be which songs Disney decides to push. Their best bet is to push all three and see what sticks. That strategy has worked for "Dreamgirls" and "Slumdog Millionaire" which both nabbed two of the three Best Original Song slots the year they were eligible .
Moreover, the one gift "Princess" could be giving moviegoers this holiday season is a movie to bring their kids too. Seemingly a familiar mix of magic, musical numbers and a good old-fashioned fairy tale, little girls (and little boys) may have found their "Mermaid" for a new generation.
At least that's what Disney is hoping for.
"The Princess and the Frog" opens in special engagements in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 25. It expands nationwide on Dec. 11. Find out more about the limited release here.