Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review of 'The Princess and the Frog'

Disney's return to hand-drawn animation is a welcome ray of light in a sea of 3D and motion capture. While I love Pixar-produced films and everything that comes out of Walt Disney Animation Studios, I will always hold a special place for the world of classic animation, made in the style of the films I grew up with: Pinocchio, Aladdin, and Lady and the Tramp. The Princess and the Frog certainly deserves a seat among these animated greats, and I am very glad that this style of animation has made its comeback after over 5 years of absence. (Spoiler Alert!)

The Princess and the Frog is the tale of Tiana, a girl from New Orleans, who dreams of owning her own restaurant. Her philosophy is that you can't just dream on the evening star to get what you want--you have to work hard. Her dream, however, takes a turn for the worse when she is greeted with a talking frog that want to be kissed. The frog is actually Prince Naveen, a worthless layabout who came to New Orleans to marry a wealthy girl after his parents kicked him out. The prince and Tiana's adventure to become human again is one of great New Orleans atmosphere, a very scary villain, an amazingly animated, trumpet-playing crocodile named Louis, and a Cajun firefly named Ray.

The animation is beautiful. The animators captured the perfect style to achieve the feeling of New Orleans during the Jazz era. The characters' exaggerated features make them true works of art, and I especially loved the landscape scenes in the Louisiana Bayou. I cannot imagine how Disney, at one time, vowed to never make this type of film again. CG has its place, but so does the warmth and style of hand-drawn animation--after all, Disney wouldn't exist today were it not for hand-drawn animation.

Another way that the filmmakers really nailed the style of New Orleans was in the music. And the music is great. While there aren't any songs I'd consider equal to the soundtracks of Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, I love the jazz style that emanates from Newman's score and soundtrack.

Academy Award-winner Newman, as you know, has composed music for the Toy Story series of films, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., and plenty of other great films. He certainly has another winner on his hands with The Princess and the Frog. With a score that sits in the background but subconsciously makes the action have more impact and the emotion more deeply felt and a soundtrack of tunes that are both catchy and make for glorious scenes, I'll most definitely say that I loved the music of The Princess and the Frog.

Although it is a great movie, there are some things about it that I am less than thrilled about. First, the plot seemed very formulaic. It was almost as if the story guys sat down in a room with a generic outline of fairy tale films and just plugged in character names and locations, occasionally having to come up with plot devices to keep things interesting.

In addition to feeling very cliche, I think that the plot was also somewhat rushed. There are parts in the movie (like when the two frogs fall in love) when you think "How and when did that happen? They've known each other for about a day and they've already fallen in love? Tiana hated him in the beginning..." That being said, I didn't realize any of this until I looked back on the film. And, after all, most of the original Disney films are very formulaic, but, I guess what makes Disney uniquely Disney is how they hide their formulaic plots with stunning animation, original and great soundtracks, pitch-perfect scores, and wonderful characters.

In fact, The Princess and the Frog did several things plot-wise that I thought were very good and unexpected. I am glad, first off, that they get the message across that you need to do more than just wish upon a star to make your dreams come true--you have to work hard. It's an important lesson, and, surprisingly, it goes against almost all other Disney films that preach the practice of wishing upon a star, then sitting back to let the magic happen.

Another lesson that gets across (due to a song sung by Mama Odie) is that you have to think hard about what you want and what you need--these things are different, and it's important to focus on what you need. The other unexpected twist in the plot was the death of a sidekick (the firefly Ray). Disney rarely kills the characters that are created for comic relief and that we become emotionally invested in through the course of the movie, but it was a welcome plot twist since it offered more emotion to the audience.

The Princess and the Frog is a great film. It perfectly captures the style of New Orleans during the height of Jazz with its swingin' score and soundtrack, beautiful Bayou landscapes, and stylized, well-animated characters. The animation is gorgeous, the character acting is hilarious, and the humor is very funny and fitting for the plot. I'd place The Princess and the Frog in the same category as the original Disney classics. I will certainly watch it again and again and even buy the soundtrack. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements made the return to hand-drawn animation and fairy tales wonderful, and have made me excited to see just what classically-animated film will come next.


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