Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Princess and the Frog

Hello, Space Monkees.

This is going to be a hard post to write.  I actually saw this movie two weeks ago, and I've been avoiding penning this commentary.  No less than three times did I open up a new post window, and three times did I delete everything out of dissatisfaction with what I wrote.  Now here begins Try #4.  Let's see how it goes.

If I were in the target audience age bracket for "the Princess and the Frog", I would not have gone to see it, that much I can assure you.  If I were five to twelve, or whatever that arbitrary range the sales people at Disney had came up with, I would have immediately done a gag noise if I were asked to go see it.  Because this is a "girl's" movie, made entirely to fulfill the Princess Dream that all little girls have at some point.  As a child, my dream was to fly an X-wing and fight T-Rexes; not to put on lace and marry Prince Charming.  Being an incredibly immature person, I cannot help but suffer a bit, knowing that I have not stayed true to the person I was once.

But no matter.  These days its so hard to find classic 2D animation movies outside Miyazaki, I simply had to go see this movie out of the hopes that it could bring back "the good ol' days".  I remember being a little kid playing with mountains of plastic Disney VHS movies at the foot of Mommy and Daddy's bed.  There were so many great cartoons then:  "The Little Mermaid", "Aladdin", "The Lion King", "101 Dalmatians", "The Jungle Book", etc. etc. etc.  I could keep on naming these things until the end of the post if I so felt inclined.  So while Disney made this movie to expand their "Disney Princess" line into another shade of the politically correct racial rainbow, I'm here to celebrate a revival in the glorious tradition of 2D animation.

Obviously the fact that this movie tries to turn Black culture of Jim Crow New Orleans into yet another attraction in Disney's history gloss-over theme park means that its destined for endless controversy.  And where can I even stand in such a battle?  I have no clue.  The movie generally ignores pretty much all of the racial tensions of the time, moving them into the background of the painting.  Except for the state of the heroine, Tiana's economic position and one single throw-away line from a racist real estate agent, you might think that Jim Crow never happened at all.  Which is, suffice to say, a weird sort of choice.  There are all sorts of powerful stories that could have been told in this environment, only expanded to be more kid-friendly with some magic and Princess motifs.  Being "kid-friendly" should not mean that our history needs to be ignored because its unpleasant.  Then again, some of the more insane protesters for this movie are just looking for things to complain about.  "Tiana isn't dark-skinned enough!  The Black princess is turned into a frog, the White princesses stay human!  The main villain is a voodoo priest!"

I don't think Disney really ever intended for anything prejudiced.  They were just trying to be more inclusive with the Princess Club, and they found the Jazz Age New Orleans of the 1920s to be a visually and musically inspiring backdrop.  Its all really innocent, we should remember that.  So having navigated the minefield, I can now actually do a review.

Plot time!  Tiana, despite the title, is by no means a princess by birth.  Her father was a good, humble man with great dreams of opening a world-renowned restaurant named after his daughter.  Unfortunately, he's killed in WWI, with his dream far from being completed.  With her father's extremely vague advise of "remember what's important" Tiana takes up his mantel and works hard to save up the money, sacrificing the frivolous games of youth just so that she can get a few more dollars.  In the process she becomes a brilliant Cajun chef, and all this hard work does not at all spoil her good looks, naturally.  Thanks to her wealthy White girlfriend's need to impress an incoming prince (who may or not be African, his ambiguous skin color and Pepé Le Pew voice do not help at all), Tiana manages to finally get enough money to buy an old sugar factory.  But then those racist real estate agents I mentioned earlier ruin those dreams.  Desperate, Tiana decides to return to a childish idea:  wish upon a star.  (The lack of a "Pinocchio" music queue at this point is one of the movie's biggest missed opportunities.)

By the way, at some point here Tiana is supposed to have a character flaw.  I'm not sure what it is, and its one of my biggest complaints with this movie.  Its made incredibly clear that she needs to learn something fundamental, but whatever the heck it is I never figured out before or after her big adventure.  When faced with greater adversity, Tiana decides that she needs to work even harder, which causes the movie to let out a big ol' sigh of "she's not getting it".  Getting what?  I find her tenaciously and work ethic to already be a good role model already, I don't see what she's missing.  I really do hope that the answer here isn't a man, Disney.  I really do.  Having balance between career and life is a good thing, but when the situation is as slanted as Tiana's, does she really have room for a penis?

The penis in this movie is played by Prince Navi  --I mean, Prince Naveen a freeloading party goer who has so disgusted his royal parents that they've cut him off.  Naveen is luckily not just a pretty face Prince Charming, he has a character of his own.  Namely he's Pepé Le Pew with a conscious, so to speak.  So in search of money, he goes to New Orleans to marry Tiana's bratty White friend.  He also runs into a voodoo wizard played by none other than our old friend Mr. Keith David, the guy who almost saved "Dissidia Final Fantasy"!  Naveen is turned into a frog, and a doppelganger is put in his place.  Frog-Naveen runs into Tiana, who is in a nice dress on loan from Bratty White Friend.  Thus begins the movie's central irony.  After a kiss, Naveen is not turned into a human, but rather Tiana is turned into a frog too.  So they must go on a magical adventure across the bayou, run into a few annoying comic reliefs, fight the rednecks from "Deliverance", fall in love, save the day.

On the one hand I'm charmed by a Disney movie that's foward enough to make it obvious that its the man that needs to grow in order to get the woman.  He doesn't deserve her, that's obvious, so he must grow as a character.  But on the other hand that weird unmentioned character flaw that Tiana has really bugs me.  I'm pretty sure its somewhere where "staying true to what's important" is located.  I don't know what that is either, so the entire premise is lost on me.

On the other hand, the movie is quite good to look at.  This is what so-called "traditional" animation can do these days.  I really do not think in the slightest that we need to treat it as "old fashioned" or "yesterday's animation".  It still has a place in this world, I'm sure of that.  3D is nice, but it certainly does not need to be the only style.  At one point, Tiana gives her mother a tour of her future restaurant, all done in a style of 20s Art Deco advertisements.  Its a ever nice, striking style, and I can't help but wonder if this movie could have been improved if the entire thing was done this way.  Musically the movie keeps with the Disney standard, though I really can't actually remember much of it weeks later.

So now that we've reached some kind of wrapping up, let me give the final word.  Its an okay movie all around, a little shaky by its premise, but done quite well.  The fact that such an important plot point was lost on me is a real failing, as is the by and large avoidance of the Jim Crow situation.  I would have liked to see some Southern racists get whats coming to them, and Tiana to overcome them, magically or otherwise.  Is it as good as the classic Disney movies of my childhood?  Honestly no.  Pixar still has all the magic, but this is a small spark from the dying world of Disney animation.  Hopefully its a stepping stone to a greater renaissance.

Update:  Thinking back on this movie, I just realized something I didn't notice the first time. After a firefly character dies (for real, not a Disney Death), he is reborn as a star right next to his beloved North Star, which he calls "Evangeline".  So the ultimate conclusion here is that Timon from "The Lion King" was right.  Yes, the stars actually are fireflies that "got stuck up there".  There are probably more references to other classic Disney cartoons hidden in here, which is totally awesome.  "The Princess and the Frog" gets five points on the non-existent review scale.

1 comment:

  1. Here's hoping Disney will cut their current crap and do okay with this movie, when I see it. Where do you get the money to go to the movies like 4 freaking times a month, Blue? >_<

    Anyway, I'd laugh or not know what to think if this movie was included in a future KH title after BbS.