February 23, 2010

The Princess and the Frog Review

The Princess and the Frog
Disney Pictures, Disney Animation Studios
Directed by Ron Clements

Feel-good. Toe-tapping. Something for everyone.

Those are three descriptions you rarely see in a Disney movie (of course, excluding Pixar) anymore, and it's such a refreshing feeling to see Disney going back to that formula once more.

When Disney announced the demise of its 2D animation studio in favor of CGI, there wasn't much mourning; Home on the Range, Brother Bear... those traditional animated movies were not matching up to Disney's better work in the 90s, and that decline of quality was rubbing people the wrong way. In contrast, Shrek was breaking the bank, and Pixar's movies consistently made decent returns as well, so obviously, Disney Animation Studios had to shut down to make room for the extremely brief "CGI era" that Disney ushered in. In that brief tenure, Disney churned out some decent movies, and quite a few stinkers. Of all the good ones, especially the John Lasseter-supervised Bolt, there were a couple of bad ones to match. By then, I was starting to itch for Disney to return to its roots, so when this movie was announced, I have to admit, I was both skeptical and hopeful. And so Disney pulled a Jay-Z, opening up the 2D animation studio once more and hiring back the people that were instrumental to its success in the 90s.

Succinctly, all I have to say is, welcome back.

Featuring Disney's first black princess, The Princess and the Frog is about a humble workaholic Tiana who aspires to work hard to earn enough to open up her own restaurant, something her father wanted to do as well until his sudden death. However, she gets looked down on by her colleagues, as well as, in a not-so-subtle shade of racism, the realtors in charge of the property she wants to buy. Her friend Lotte, a Southern belle who's also the daughter of the town's richest man Big Daddy, wishes to marry Prince Naveen from Maledonia, but things go wrong when all sorts of Voodoo occur when the curious prince and his aide visit the Shadow Man, and this is when the movie pretty much sets up its adventure.

Like any good film, it needs to establish a world, and while I did find myself wanting more of that, the film does a great job in establishing the town's personality, accentuated further by the time period's sensibilities. Jazz music will constantly be heard all over the place, and soon you see more of what New Orleans has to offer. You can feel the atmosphere of every setting that the movie is set in, hell, you could even smell the gumbo or the sea in some places.

The introduction of our main character is also some of the best sequences I've seen in an animated film, as it shows some complexities in the character that more mature audiences will be able to appreciate. However, it would be wrong to expect the entire film to have the same consistent greatness, but in spite of that, Princess and the Frog is still a film that can be enjoyed by many.

There are some genuinely clever lines, quite a bit of the jokes, visual or otherwise, do work, there are moments that subtly tackle on some rather dark subject matter, and the film's morals are both quite whimsical and realistic. "You can wish on a star, but you need hard work to back that up," that's actually quite nice to gain from a modern fairy tale.

Still, there are a few things that block the movie from greatness. The music, while excellent, is not too memorable, some of the supporting characters are two-dimensional, and there are moments in the story that are absolute fluff (and by the end, it becomes all too predictable and uninventive). Maybe I'm nitpicking, but the film also feels rushed by the end. A bit of the resolution in the conflict could've been more inventive, and a bit of the characters could've been more fleshed out, especially Lotte. Also, it could've helped if the movie lingered more on the specific character death it had, the emotion that the moment already had is just skipped Avatar-style and is immediately made into something more symbolically happy. Perhaps it's sugarcoating for the kids, but I'm sure that a bit more of that scene could've granted the movie that much more spirit.

That said, it's a film that's easy to appreciate, maybe a bit nostalgic, maybe a bit shallow, but it's all pure fun and creativity from start to finish, all complimented with timeless handdrawn animation. Maybe a few moments come out cheesy, even predictable, but they're all part of Disney's return to form, and hopefully, it will all lead to a new Golden Age in Disney animation.

Rating: 8.5/10

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