Ranamation

The Princess and the Frog defied (and exceeded) all my expectations.

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I’d heard plenty of people say that The Princess and the Frog was surprisingly good, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Now I wish I’d seen it sooner, because it’s pretty great.

It was pretty aggressively marketed, and you can see that there was a lot riding on it as the first in a resurgence of hand-drawn animation at Disney, but I get the sense it didn’t make quite as big a splash as people were hoping. That’d be a shame, because this could be exactly the shot in the arm Disney animation needs.

I’d been afraid that in their attempts to make Disney more “contemporary,” that the movie would come out Dreamworksian. That’s definitely not the case; this is a Disney animated feature, almost self-consciously so. It’s got Disney animation in its DNA; it’s practically an homage to the classics, a sampler of all the animation and background styles the studio has used since Snow White.

Did you like the CG-heavy stuff like the ballroom sequence in Beauty and the Beast, or do you prefer the looser and sketchier style of 101 Dalmatians? Doesn’t matter, because they’re both in there. Or the more cartoony and elastic characters in Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove? They’re included in a sequence with a voodoo priestess. Maybe you’d rather have The Jungle Book, in which case a trumpet-playing alligator makes a fine Baloo substitute. Did you like the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp? So did they, so they made a version with frogs. The “Under the Sea” number from The Little Mermaid? Have two of them, Bayou-style. How about Fantasia? Which one: there’s a good bit of the early 20s style characters from the 2000 version, and shadow creatures that evoke the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from the original. And of course you can’t have such a swamp-heavy movie without being reminded of The Rescuers.

That might make it sound like a rip-off, or at best a muddled pastiche of a ton of disparate art styles. But that’s not the case: it all somehow works together, and it feels like a real homage instead of uninspired cribbing.

And while the art stays close to the past, the story does a great job of avoiding the Disney formula. The decision that got all the attention was making a Disney movie with African-American lead characters — that could be a pretty big deal, and luckily it was handled extremely well. The movie doesn’t ignore race, but doesn’t make a big issue of it, either; Tiana’s at a disadvantage because of her lack of money, not because of her race. Even better, her best friend since childhood is a spoiled rich white girl, and she’s never reduced to the villain or wicked stepsister role.

Best of all, the story takes a long-past-due break from the “Don’t be afraid to be different”/”Be true to your dreams” moral that’s become rote in pretty much every piece of family entertainment made in the past few decades. Tiana’s problem is that she’s gotten too attached to her dream, and everybody but her knows it. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a Disney movie with such a fully fleshed-out female character. Especially one who couldn’t care less about being a princess. It’s actually pretty risky to propose an animated movie about a woman whose biggest flaw is that she works too hard to make her dreams come true. Somehow they pulled it off.

Not to mention that the “meet cute” involves frogs being chased by alligators and beating the crap out of redneck hunters.

One of the things I can see keeping it from reaching classic status is that there are no real standout songs. It’s got a Randy Newman-composed, Dr. John-heavy soundtrack that’s fine, but without anything that’s particularly memorable. I have heard two of the songs, “Almost There” and “Dig a Little Deeper,” sung at Disneyland by their own Tiana in New Orleans Square, and I’m genuinely glad to see the movie taking hold like that. But without a real show-stopper, it just has to stand as a good, entertaining Disney movie.

It doesn’t hit any false notes (remarkable on its own), its attempts at contemporary humor actually work, the characters are appealing, the story keeps moving, and there’s enough imagination for something new happening almost constantly. I found myself genuinely surprised in places, which I didn’t think was possible from a Disney movie. It’s hard to imagine The Princess and the Frog becoming one of the most revered Disney classics. In spirit, it’s more loose and fun, much like the movies of the Robin Hood/Aristocats era, but it’s got enough meat to it to keep it from being a lightweight.

6 thoughts on “Ranamation”

  1. Sigh. All of which makes their next project, “Tangled”, that much sadder. I was genuinely excited about it back when it was just “Rapunzel” or “Rapunzel Unbraided”: the Glen Keane was working on it, and was promising a new and exciting way of blending 2D with 3D animation. Glen Keane left, the slippery slope, one thing leads to another and then Disney brass got more and more involved, eventually forcing a title and then tonal change to the movie to make it become Tangled.

    The trailer actually hurts to look at: they got the colors right, perfectly so, you can sort of see what Keane meant by blending both the two and three dimensions of animation, and most of the backgrounds are perfect: but the tone of it is just trying way too hard to be hip and with the kids. I assume these are snotty, snot-filled kids who spend all their time watching E! and have an IQ of 36. I just hope the trailer isn’t a reflection on the whole movie.

  2. I really liked the film (although I wanted more of the New Orleans stuff rather than the bayou adventures), but the character twist I really liked was the best friend – Charlotte? Everything in the opening set her up as being destined to be a rival or a bitchy friend at best, so I loved that when they actually got to the end, she was immediately* ready to do the right thing and be happy for Tiana. Such a refreshing change.

    (* Well, mostly.)

  3. Kroms, you’re not the only one to get upset at the Tangled trailer. Personally, I don’t see the big deal. People get so wrapped up in The Legacy of Disney Classics that they have unrealistic expectations, which results in the Little Mermaid formula. Maybe the reason Dreamworks has had so much success while Disney’s been floundering is that they’re more free to experiment and don’t have to make every single release the next treasure in the Disney Vault. My first impression of Princess and the Frog was way off, so I’ll withhold judgement on the new one.

    Also, the High School Musical/Hannah Montana audience is ludicrously huge, and Disney would be just plain stupid not to capitalize on that. If they can get Kung Fu Panda level success from a girl power movie, why not? The whole Suits vs. Glen Keane is probably too simplistic — it takes more than one person to make an animated feature; there’s no room for auteurs in movies this big.

    Richard, I agree completely; I was really happy with how they handled that character. Not a villain, not a wicked stepsister, but a genuine friend. I don’t know if they’ve ever had a relationship like that in a Disney movie before. It almost passes The Bechdel Test.

  4. Now that I have two daughters, I watch a lot of Disney movies over and over. I really love Princess and the Frog. And it has hands-down the best animation of any of the “Disney Renaissance” movies. In fact it’s astonishing how crude the animation in the Little Mermaid is at points.

    I think your analysis of the greatness of the plotting is spot-on. It quite spiffily (almost subversively) addresses most of the traditional feminist critiques of the Disney princess movies.

    Plus a character actually dies and stays dead! Amazing.

    The only fatal flaw is that the songs aren’t funny.

  5. I would consider myself a pretty big Disney fan, but I have not watched an animated feature since “The Emperor’s New Groove”. They’ve just seemed so uninteresting. It seems like I was wrong about “The Princess and the Frog”, so maybe I’ll be wrong about “Tangled” as well, but still, that movie seems absolutely devoid of conflict. I mean, she has magic hair, is a princess and apparently can get out of her tower whenever she feels like. Why the hell doesn’t she just leave if she wants to? And why does she want to? Tower seems like it has a great location and is roomier than it looks from the outside.

  6. People get so wrapped up in The Legacy of Disney Classics that they have unrealistic expectations, which results in the Little Mermaid formula. Maybe the reason Dreamworks has had so much success while Disney’s been floundering is that they’re more free to experiment and don’t have to make every single release the next treasure in the Disney Vault

    Experiment all you like; I love experiments. Doing the same crap over and over again gets boring, fast. I just meant that it seemed they would not let the movie be itself. They would force jokes on it, they would try and give it black mascara because the kids wear black mascara, that sort of thing. “Oh, add a Linkin Park song here! 14 year olds love Linkin Park!”

    My hope was that whatever the movie did would be natural, and people would love it for it. And they’ve been marketing Tangled a little differently. I don’t know. The title change was done for financial reasons (as to not repel the male demographic). That makes me uneasy.

    Also, the High School Musical/Hannah Montana audience is ludicrously huge, and Disney would be just plain stupid not to capitalize on that. If they can get Kung Fu Panda level success from a girl power movie, why not?

    No reason not to, but I’ve noticed that things go horribly wrong when you try to change the core of something to what it isn’t. The original pitch for Rapunzel had it being a real genuine fairytale: back-to-the-basics, let’s-get-our-hands-dirty-making-a-masterpiece-without-funny-expressions-after-being-hit-by-a-pan kind of deal. But it just seems that more and more pressure has been applied to shape the movie into something else. It’d be like a, I don’t know, Star Wars movie ending with two mechas fighting each other over a metropolis. It doesn’t make sense for the IP.

    Maybe they’ve aimed for that from the start, I don’t know. I heard about the back-to-the-basics pitch ages ago, and it might have mutated ala broken telephone by the time it’d reached my ears. Or maybe they’re marketing the movie one way, making it another. I hope so.

    The whole Suits vs. Glen Keane is probably too simplistic — it takes more than one person to make an animated feature; there’s no room for auteurs in movies this big.

    Aye aye. I don’t have views as simplistic as Artist Vs the Suits. I just meant that I’d have loved to see Keane push animation into an area it hadn’t gone into before. The guy is a master. I’d have loved to see him break new ground.

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