Sunday, 3 January 2010

The Princess and the Frog (U)

For nearly a decade I have awaited Disney’s long overdue return to quality filmmaking. After 1999’s Tarzan, the absent-minded Eisner and his army of suits tightened their hold on the already troubled company for which, much like a certain boy wizard, dark times most certainly lay ahead. In subsequent years top-notch flicks such as Fantasia 2000 (2000) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) proved Disney hadn’t completely lost the proverbial plot, but the ever diminishing box office receipts had the final word; for every Lilo & Stitch (2002) there was a Brother Bear (2003), a Home on the Range (2004) and (shudder) Chicken Little (2005). With the big turnaround in 2006, a magnificent reformation occurred and piece by piece each division was restored to its former glory. Each division, that is, except the one that really counted. Until now. So after years of prematurely exclaiming that “Disney’s back!”, I can finally say with absolute confidence that this time, they truly are.

Ask any animation fanatic about The Princess and the Frog and he’ll undoubtedly wax lyrical about the similarities between this and The Little Mermaid (1989), a sort of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) redux that helped usher in the second golden era of animation. On the surface it may appear to be nothing more than fanboy rhetoric, but on closer inspection the parallels become uncanny. If The Black Cauldron (1985) was The Foul-Up of that particular decade, the noughties should bestow Chicken Little with the same title. Meet The Robinsons (2007) showed a sliver of hope just as Basil, the Great Mouse Detective (1986) had two decades previous and by the time both animal friendly Oliver & Company (1988) and the underrated Bolt (2008) made their appearance, the studio appeared to regain its heart. The Princess and the Frog then, like The Little Mermaid before it, reveals a charm and warmth largely absent in modern ‘toons and while neither are overly ostentatious, they do exhibit all the necessary ingredients of a classic Disney recipe.

In regards to TPATF, it’s genius lies in the way in which it embraces tradition, yet simultaneously usurps it. The Prince is a bankrupt womaniser, the Princess not really a Princess. It’s not Shrek –like cynicism we’re dealing with here, but neither is it Sleeping Beauty (1959). The beautiful and head-strong Tiana, arguably one of Disney’s most endearing leading ladies voiced pitch-perfectly by Anita Rose, dreams of getting her restaurant, not Prince Charming, while the latter (in this case the genuinely likeable Prince Naveen) cares only for snagging a rich Royal to line his empty pockets. Needless to say, this mismatched pair is brought together by that fateful kiss and the ensuing adventure demonstrates a refreshingly deft and mature chemistry between the two leads.

The surprisingly endearing firefly Ray and his cute but forgettable crocodile chum fulfil the role of the obligatory sidekicks, although they lack the appeal of a Timon and Pumbaa. Dr Facilier also is somewhat of a letdown, a villain who lacks the dramatic presence of previous baddies and falls short of his potential – which is unfortunate, as his character design is flawless. Invoking the spirit of Jafar and the like, Facilier has that classic look which children should come to both love and fear: a face, in other words, destined for merchandise. Of course, much the same can be said of every character. The gorgeously animated world is simple but elegant, the characters flowing upon the screen with natural finesse. It’s a subtler style than the norm, but it’s the right one. There are no 3D glasses or dazzling CG effects, just plain old-fashioned drawings which, when combined with the heart-warming score, instil in the viewer a sensation not felt since childhood. Randy Newman’s upbeat and infectiously catchy tunes fit the New Orleans milieu like a glass slipper and if the songs fall short of classic status, they’re still more than worthy of restoring faith in musical animation.

Is it a perfect film? Not quite. A late appearance by the underused Madam Odie – a sort of black Fairy Godmother if you will - fails to make the impact she so thoroughly deserves and the third act is a tad(pole) sluggish, with the pace letting up considerably. However, such criticisms come as provisos of the glass half empty crowd, whom, if asked whether or not TPATF is a success, would still respond with a resounding "yes!" Once upon a time the Disney brand was the greatest name in entertainment; in the end it seems wishing upon a star has finally brought it back.


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