Friday, June 28, 2013

2009 - The Princess and the Frog

All right, Disney is back! Princesses! 2D animation! Musical numbers! It’s all just like it used to be! Aren’t you excited? OF COURSE YOU ARE! THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT!!!!

That was my impersonation of the marketing for this movie. So the movie kind of set itself up to be a disappointment for a lot of people. I remember when it came out, the prevailing opinion was “Well, it’s good. But it’s not Beauty and the Beast”. Nor should it have been. Really, there was no reason to expect it to. Part of the reason Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and the Lion King and the films surrounding them were so good was that they were a surprise. They weren’t an attempt to revive an older era, and to the minor extent they were trying to bring back the ‘50s, the audiences and critics that went to the theaters for those weren’t the same ones going to the theaters 40 years later. But this was not only a very direct “Hey, remember the 90s” move, but only 20 years at the most and a VASTLY increased home media presence made the Disney Renaissance far more recent to 2000s kids than the Restoration was to 1990s kids. So not being able to reach those impossibly lofty goals was not a surprise. But now that it’s a few years down the line, how does the film look? Free from the burden of hype, does it look better? Or without the magic of anticipation, does it falter and fade even more noticeably? So stir up a pot of gumbo, and let’s talk about The Princess and the Frog.

As befits a film with such high expectations, the production was fraught with executive input, market research, and focus groups. As a result, the movie comes across as very structured, very studio-driven and executive-driven. Disney wanted a return to fairy tales, they wanted a new princess for their merchandising bonanza, they wanted her to be African-American to appeal the brand to a wider market, and they wanted it set in New Orleans so they could promote it in that section of Disneyland, New Orleans Square being the only place in the park without a princess at the time.

But working with set goals in mind doesn’t necessarily have to have bad ends and in this, case, it didn’t. I’ll be honest, though, not great ends, either. The movie holds together very well, and it’s really well-made, but the plot is kind of thin. A slacker prince, cut off by his parents, tries to marry a wealthy American girl, and is turned into a frog by local magician/con artist Dr. Facilier, the Shadow Man. When attempting to kiss a princess to turn back, he mistakenly kisses a waitress, and turns her into a frog. Wacky hijinks ensue, magical technicalities are exploited, and Twoo Wuv saves the day in the end. It’s pretty basic stuff, and it’s easy to see the twists coming, but the story is really just a vehicle for the animation, songs, jokes, and acting. It’s rather reminiscent of Aladdin that way (The films share a directing team).  So while there’s no denying a sort of veneer of artificiality on the whole thing, it can largely be overlooked because of the quality of the result.

Newsies 2: The Newsening

Okay, the good stuff: Let’s start with the music. The music and lyrics were both by Randy Newman, who I generally like, but don’t love. But Newman lived in New Orleans as a child, and really nailed it with this, pulling influences from Cajun music, Dixieland jazz, and zydeco to make the best all-around soundtrack I’ve heard from Disney in a long time. The Academy Award-nominated “Almost There” is a particular standout. After years of “I’m wishing for the one I love to find me,” and “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” and “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere,” we finally get a princess who is actually doing something. “I know exactly where I’m going, getting closer and closer every day.” The opening number is performed by New Orleans legend Dr. John, and the rest of the songs are performed by the actual actors, with not one singing double in the cast.

And those actors are phenomenal. The casting directors forewent the ’grab the big stars’ impulse that takes over animated films these days, and went with a Rennaisance-style mix of Broadway talent and quality character actors. Tony Award winner and From Justin To Kelly supporting player Anika Noni Rose plays Tiana, the waitress/princess-to-be of the title, and does a fantastic job. Brazilian actor Bruno Campos plays Prince Naveen with a frankly ridiculous amount of charm. Apparently the final casting was done by polling the ladies of Disney and asking which actor had the sexiest voice. He doesn’t have the sexiest voice in the entire movie, though, as the villain his played by voice acting master Keith David, who oozes with confidence, suaveness, and a general sinister ooze.

Supporting cast is great. Tiana’s marriage-crazed friend Lottie is played with unchained enthusiasm by Jen Cody, who is balances out nicely by her Big Daddy, played by John Goodman. Big Daddy, as the nickname implies, is a booming, loving collection of Southern Gentleman stereotypes straight out of Tennessee Williams, and Goodman owns the part. Oprah Winfrey plays Tiana’s mother, reminding us all that she’s a really good actress as well as a media titan. Over on the magical side of things, we’ve got my two favorite performances in the movie. Michael-Leon Wooley, who I saw on Broadway as the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, plays Louis, a friendly, if somewhat neurotic, alligator who dreams of playing trumpet in the great jazz clubs. As the Audrey II, Wooley was tasked with creating a voice monstrous enough to be scary, but charming enough that people would go along with its intentions. In this film, he twists those same two traits to make a voice undeniably friendly and loving, but with an undeniable “I am a gigantic alligator” boom to it. There’s also phenomenal work from perennial bit player Jim Cummings as Ray the firefly, his biggest role in a Disney movie since Aladdin. Ray is a Cajun, a difficult accent to pull off, but Cummings lived in New Orleans as a riverboat deckhand and Mardi Gras float builder, and it’s no surprise that a voice pro like him picked up the Yat perfectly. The part was apparently largely improvisational, with Cummings supplying the accurate New Orleans slang to the laid-back and helpful bug. Shout out also to Jennifer Lewis as the boisterous voodoo queen Mama Odie, about whom more will be said later.

"This is working out so much better for me than when I gave a ride to that scorpion."

Two performances that didn’t do much for me conveniently are for the two characters that didn’t do much for me. First is Terrence Howard’s brief appearance as Tiana’s dad, which seemed really phoned in and underwritten. He dies before the story proper gets started (a photo of him in a WWI uniform and a Distinguished Service Cross on Tiana’s nightstand is all the explanation we get), and I can’t help but think it would have worked better if he was totally unseen, or just left to silent flashbacks. The other is Peter Bartlett, the poor man’s Timothy Spall, as Naveen’s put-upon manservant Lawrence, who is magically disguised by the Shadow Man after Naveen is befrogged. Lawrence is a weird part that suffers from really bad plot-induced inconsistency. When needed, he’s servile or he’s rebellious; he’s conniving or he’s stupid; he’s gleefully going along with the evil plan or having to be bullied into it; he’s a smooth and slick liar or he’s a nervous, stammering wreck. He strikes me as less of a character and more of some lazy plot glue holding the show together. He’s played as a “sissy villain” type, the biggest I’ve seen since Prince John, but I imagine that was to make the fact that he was seducing Lottie under falce pretenses as un-rapey as possible, so it’s coming from a positive place, I guess.

I'm just saying, the vision of his dream future involves fabulous purple tights, sniffing flowers with his pinky out, and the prince bending over.

Lawrence is also animated inconsistently with the rest of the cast, which is annoying. While the human characters are generally kept to realistic proportions, Lawrence is a tiny, fat, cartoon ball of a man, and he doesn’t fit into the world of the other characters. Dr. Facilier and Big Daddy are also leaning toward the cartoony end of the spectrum, but in a way that compliments the style. Facilier’s independent, intelligent shadow makes for a really nice bit of animation. For the first time, the animation was done entirely on computers, with Toon Boom Animation software taking over from the now venerable CAPS system. It’s still traditional animation, not CGI, it’s just all done on Wacom tablets now instead of being done on paper, and scanned in, and it looks wonderful. Really beautiful stuff.

Before I wrap up, I‘d like to discuss the role of Voodoo in the movie. Warning: It’s about to get anthropological up in here. First of all, I’d like to state that there’s a difference between Voodoo, Vodou, and Vodun. Many well-meaning people use one of the latter terms when referring to Voodoo, but they’re often wrong. Vodun is a widely practiced polytheistic and animistic religion along the West African coast. Many slaves came from that area, and in Haiti, the new religion of Vodou was formed, a highly syncretic variation of Vodun that takes elements from other slave religions, most notably Yoruba and Taino beliefs, and Catholicism. Vodou is widely misunderstood, and has been stereotyped by Hollywood into a crazy, evil religion of zombies and voodoo dolls, the end result of a campaign of marginalization by colonists who were afraid of the possibility Vodou had to rally the common people. There is, however, a third form, Louisiana Voodoo. Voodoo is an even more syncretic adaptation of Vodou, with stronger elements of Catholicism, and a healthy influence from Hoodoo, or conjure, an African-American system of folk magic, which itself adds Native American practices, European spiritualism, and Freemasonry to the list of influences.

"Look, I just think it's a little insensitive-" "Shhhh." "I mean, you're dressed like an actual religious figure-" "SHHHHH!"

I bring all this up because this movie got a lot of flak for having a Voodoo practitioner as its villain, and I think a lot of that flak -  not all of it - was unwarranted. While there are plenty of films that do use Voodoo or Vodou as the scary “other”, like Live and Let Die or The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Princess and the Frog goes out of its way to showcase greater accuracy, especially as it relates to Louisiana Voodoo. The white-clad Voodoo queen Mama Odie is shown as a completely benevolent figure, and the sinister Facilier explicitly mentions Hoodoo and “things I ain’t even tried” as sources of his magical power. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t go as far as I would like in not doing the “’ethnic’ religion = magic” trope, but it’s a damn sight better than Pocahontas with that, and since invocation and conjuration is such a major part of Voodoo, it works reasonably well. The animators also went out of their way to avoid any visuals that would associate with any specific rituals, and Mama Odie is a ‘good guy‘ Voodo queen dressed in the traditional white. Dr. F makes a Voodoo doll at one point, which was a focus of a lot of the complaints, but Louisiana Voodoo does make dolls, and Hoodoo uses them for curses (this element being taken from European witchcraft superstitions, namely “poppets”.) On the other hand, Hoodoo is mentioned only once, whereas Voodoo is discussed constantly, and Facilier dresses at one point as Baron Samedi, an actual Voodoo god, which are symptomatic of the typical Hollywood Voodoo problem. Actually, though, Samedi is a god of death, resurrection, and magic, and also kind of a crazy party animal, so he'd probably get a kick out of it.

So, short version: The history of Voodoo is incredibly complex and intertwined with itself, and while The Princess and the Frog isn’t perfect, it’s better than most attempts to use it in film, and a sight more accurate than people realize.

So that’s The Princess and the Frog. It’s quite good, and the casting, animation, and music are the best they’ve been in at least a decade. But when it comes down to it, story is what makes a film work, and this story is just meh. Suitable, but the most interesting thing I can say about it is a lengthy digression into one of my own interests. It’s a good movie, but not the return to classics that the company and the fans were hoping for. It was, financially speaking, what I have started to call a Disney Disappointment. As TV Tropes puts it, it was only a massive success, but they wanted an overwhelming success. It was, however, beat at the box office by Alvin and the Chipmunks 2, and only the fifth highest-grossing animated movie of the year, and that has to hurt. Oddly enough, part of the blame was given to the word “princess” being in the title, and an odd shift was made to their next movie… But we’ll get to that.

This scene was so funny already, I don't have a caption that can do it justice. 


* I just LOVE that the moral of the story is the wishing on a star is basically useless. Take that, Jiminy Cricket.

* Naveen is probably the best catch of any Disney prince. The filmmakers took great care to show that although he was something of a slacker, he had a lot going on. He’s musically talented,  creative, speaks at least three languages, is immediately friendly to everyone he meets regardless of race or class, and once he commits to Tiana, is more than willing to forget about his fortune hunting and work hard to make their lives work.

* Speaking of Tiana’s hard work, there’s definitely some good-looking food in this one, and after watching it, I started putting Tabasco on everything. I do not regret this.

* According to a newspaper at the beginning, the movie takes place on a Friday/Saturday in June, which is weird, given that the Mardis Gras setting is so important, and that would be a Tuesday in March.  Considering that we wouldn’t even notice if the paper had no date on it, it seems odd that they put that in.

* Mama Odie has no teeth and no eyes, and at one point, a jar full of teeth and eyes is seen in her cabin. That’s pretty weird.

* Naveen’s dad’s got a pretty sweet mustache. I think all cartoon dads should have mustaches. All fictional dads, in fact. Imagine how much better the epilogue of Harry Potter would have been if Harry, Ron, and Draco all had big Magnum dad-staches.

I was going to put a picture of Naveen's dad here, but I  found this while looking for one, and I couldn't let it go.

* Favorite animators check-in: Mama Odie was animated by Andreas Deja, and Louis by Eric Goldberg, who got an Annie award for his work. Facilier was animated by Bruce W. Smith, who shows a strong influence from Deja’s excellent villain work of the ‘90s, as well as his own independent work as the creator of Nickelodeon’s ‘The Proud Family’. Smith has done a lot of work for a lot of different studios, and we’ll be seeing him a few times in Volume 2 of this blog.

* Louis intimidates people by roaring at a few points, leading me to wonder if alligators do, in fact, roar at all. After some research, it appears they are known to bellow, but only when mating. Puts a rather different spin on the scenes where he roars and everyone runs.

* During the song “Almost There”, the animation does a sudden shift into a simplified style patterned after the advertising of the Jazz Age, and it looks phenomenal. They’ve done this sort of thing, occasionally before, most notably in the beginning of Mulan’s “A Girl Worth Fighting For”, but it’s never worked this well.

1 comment:

  1. Cool, I love this review! This movie was THE best; it had a little bit of everything good, from likeable, memorable characters to fantastic music, to a great villain, to great music, to plenty of good music. I easily rate it five stars. :D