There's a lot of pressure on this film and on the filmmakers, and under the circumstances, I'm amazed that the film works at all. After all, how would you feel if the Walt Disney Company asked you to not only bring back the 2D hand-animation that the company was built on, but also to try to recapture the lightning in a bottle that made the early '90s run of hits so explosive for the studio?
That's no small order, and yet somehow, "The Princess And The Frog" makes it all look easy. Family audiences in New York and Los Angeles are in for a treat over the long holiday weekend, and once the film goes wide, I expect Disney's going to celebrate the Christmas season with a whole lot of green.
Toshi and I went to the Disney lot in Burbank last week to see the film, and afterwards, Disney rolled out the full experience that ticket buyers will have if they go see the film during its limited flagship runs starting today. After the film, all of the families who were there were led to a soundstage where there were actors dressed as all of the Disney princesses, as well as games, a play area, and a number of displays designed to emphasize the filmmaking process.
It's no surprise that they'd throw such an elaborate party for the film... most of the great early '90s runs at the El Capitan featured similar events themed around each release, and it takes the sting out of the extra ticket price that families pay if they want to see the movie right now. Toshi had an amazing time with it, and he was particularly taken with the film's bad guy, Dr. Facilier, also known as The Shadow Man, voiced by the great Keith David. I love it when Disney villains are actually scary for the young audiences, and The Shadow Man is a perfect example of that. David gives a spirited vocal performance in the role, and brings nuance to what could easily be a pedestrian one-note example of evil.
That's actually a word that I'd use to describe most of the major creative choices made on the film: nuance. The classic Disney archetypes are represented in the supporting cast, but given new and subtle spins, and none moreso than the Princess itself. Tiana, as voiced by Anika Noni Rose, is one of the most appealing role models of any Disney Princess, and Prince Naveen, voiced by Bruno Campos, has way more to do than most of the traditional Princes in Disney's past.
It's only fair if I'm going to talk about my problems with the way Bella Swan is written in the "Twilight" films, and specifically my concerns about her as a role model, that I also look at how I think this film approaches its responsibility to the younger viewers who are going to see it. The reason it's more important to do this with girl-themed films is precisely because of the way the media talks to girls overall. The media sends very different gender messages, and little boys are serviced in totally different ways than little girls. I am troubled by the way little boys are fed messages about violence and its consequences just as much as I'm troubled by the way little girls are indoctrinated to their roles as secondary people, defined entirely by their men. And when you add the potential complication of dealing with race in a more direct way than Disney's used to... well, you see what I mean about pressure.
"The Princess and The Frog" pretty much nails it in terms of both gender politics and race, and it does it casually, without making any of it central to what you're watching. Ron Clements and John Musker have what seems to be the largest overall hand in the film, co-directing and also serving as writers alongside Rob Edwards, Greg Erb, Don Hall, and Jason Oremland. The script for the film is a little bit straightforward, without much dramatic tension to speak of, with every problem resolved with minimum friction. It's a minor observation, though. The problems that have to be solved and that get wrapped up are the supernatural ones involving the kiss and the curse and the voodoo priest, while the real-life problems of Tiana are treated with more sensitivity. Those are the things that are harder to wrap up, and the film doesn't advocate easy answers here. There's no supernatural fix for the things that are keeping Tiana from her dream of opening a restaurant, and that's as it should be. Tiana may go through the entire cycle of Princess to Frog to Princess, but the larger issues are harder to address. And Tiana's lifelong friend, the spoiled and man-crazy Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), is revealed to have more depth than is immediately apparent, and more heart than we're led to believe, so even she ends up proving herself morally complex.
Once Tiana and Naveen have both been changed into frogs, they quickly pick up their supporting cast, and this is where much of the early cries about possible racial insensitivity came in, since people got just a glimpse of Ray (Jim Cummings) and Louis (Michael Leon-Wooley). Ray is the Cajun firefly, and as unlikely as it is looking at him visually, the character is gentle and sweet and funny. His infatuation with a secret girlfriend named Evangeline and the revelation of her identity is a strange little digression, but it's one of the things I liked most in the film. One of Randy Newman's best songs in the film is "Ma Belle Evangeline," which is Ray's theme, and it's more soulful than you'd think.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Randy Newman would do strong, appropriate work for a musical set in New Orleans. He lives and breathes this stuff, and his songs here are all pretty solid, with a few of them sort of jumping out. "Almost There," "Dig A Little Deeper," and "Friends On The Other Side" all deliver as big numbers, and it's one of the ways Musker and Clements shine. At a screening of the new Rob Marshall musical "Nine" the other day, a friend was explaining to me that he likes the classic Hollywood definition of a musical, replete with big numbers that are shot like big numbers. The Busby Berkley stuff. That's certainly not what Marshall's up to in his films, so I can see why my friend wouldn't like them. He might like "The Princess and the Frog" a lot, though, because so many of the songs are staged right. It seems to be something that filmmakers either innately possess or they don't, staging big production numbers, and these guys prove that they have a real knack for just how to sell a song.
Visually lush, the film strikes me as the most American of the Disney Princess movies, using uniquely American iconography to paint the fairy tale. In a way, this film's success could open the possibility of "Song Of The South" finally seeing a release on domestic home video again. Maybe Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard, who play Tiana's parents in the film, can introduce "Song Of The South" and set a little historical context for when the film is made. If so, they can pay tribute to the Academy Award winning work of James Baskett as Uncle Remus. When I was a kid growing up, Uncle Remus was a huge part of the fabric of the Walt Disney universe. They were proud of him, and I grew up loving the character and loving the performance the same way I loved the Gene Wilder performance in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." The people who have a problem with Uncle Remus and "Song Of The South" these days are the people who haven't seen the film, or who have a distant memory of it. The same is true of "The Princess and the Frog." The conversation about the film's racial material was only valid until people actually saw how well-handled it is, how richly imagined Tiana is. I'm sure part of the appeal is the enormously winning vocal work of Anika Noni Rose. She was one of the secret weapons in "Dreamgirls," and she's incredibly good here. I have a feeling we're still just learning who this performer is, and we'll be seeing a lot of her in the future as she's given more opportunities this big, delivering work this good.
I don't think this is the best of the Disney films, or that it's the best of what Disney is capable of, but I do think it's a movie that treats its target audience with uncommon respect. One might argue that the hand of John Lasseter, the film's executive producer, can be felt in the way the film treats its audience. After all, Pixar's built the brand out of treating the audience well. But to the credit of Lasseter and the Disney animators, this doesn't feel like the film has been "Pixar"ed. It's still recognizably a Walt Disney animated film, and the mere fact that this film drops so recognizably into the archetypes is comforting, an itch scratched, a momentary detour corrected now. Walt Disney is making hand-animated feature films again, and by the evidence of "The Princess and the Frog," I'd say they're just as good at it as they've ever been, and that it should be exciting to watch them stretch as they try more of these in the future.
"The Princess and the Frog" opens today in Los Angeles and New York, and in theaters everywhere on December 11th.
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