By Adam Roche
For all their good intentions, the Disney of today is not the Disney of my childhood. Maybe this is a result of my now being mid-thirties, my childlike naivety slightly more jaded than it was, but the excitement and magic that a Disney film could produce in a young me seems to have disappeared at around age thirteen (year not disclosed…). This was when you could only see a Disney movie if it was on at the cinema, or on the TV, usually around Christmas.
They were all main events, from the still stunning songs of ‘The Jungle Book’ to the spectre of Maleficent’s horned dragon demon in ‘Sleeping Beauty’, from the pure, joyful fairytale brought to life that is ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (a spelling smudge that still makes me shudder) to the pitch black nightmare of Lampwick’s transformation from screaming child to donkey in ‘Pinocchio’. Disney has certainly produced some indelible moments of cinema, animated but nonetheless magical.
Of course, after Walt’s death in 1966, the studio lost its way slightly, and wasn’t rejuvenated until the 90’s, which saw critical and box-office triumphs such as ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Beauty And The Beast’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’ going some way to erasing the memory of ‘The Black Cauldron’, ‘The Fox And The Hound’ and ‘Oliver and Company’. However, complacency once again set in, and soon we were asked to love ‘Brother Bear’, ‘Hercules’, ‘Home On The Range’ and an endless slew of movies devoted to each of the characters from Winnie The Pooh.
Once Pixar hit it big, Disney decided that hand drawn animation was going the way of ‘Top Of The Pops’, and canned it altogether to concentrate on the newfound money-spinner that was computer generated animation. They jumped in feet first with ‘Chicken Little’. One hopes they landed on something sharp.
However, what Disney didn’t understand was that people didn’t really care how a film was animated, they just wanted a good story. People want to be charmed by Disney, and when they weren’t, they went to the next best thing: Pixar. What sets Pixar apart from other animation houses is that they don’t reach into their bag of technical tricks and fit a story around whatever’s in their fist. They spend months and years crafting stories and characters people want to see, then work their technical magic around creating a cinematic experience from that story. Other animation houses take note.
With Michael Eisner rightly ousted as head, Disney suddenly did a very smart thing. They brought in Pixar honcho and Toy Story director John Lasseter as Chief Creative Officer. He immediately decreed a return to hand drawn animated features. Lasseter is a personal friend of animation godfather Hayao Miyazaki and recognised that reopening this division of Disney would not only herald a new beginning for the ailing studio, but would be an excellent way of spotting and nurturing future talents. The first project announced under Lasseter’s guidance was ‘The Princess And The Frog’.
Although the above prologue is a rather lengthy piece of history, it’s also a necessary one. It has to be understood how important this film is in Disney’s history. This isn’t just The New Disney Movie. This is a company embracing its heritage and taking one on the chin, admitting it’s errors and trying to put things right. This film is an apology for all the guff it’s produced in the name of innovation, holding up its hands and saying ‘You know what? You were right. Why change a winning formula?’. For that reason alone, ‘The Princess And The Frog’ deserves your attention. But that’s not the only reason.
Set in 1920’s New Orleans, the film follows a prince named Naveen from the land of Maldonia, who is transformed into a frog by an evil voodoo magician, Dr. Facilier . The frog prince mistakes a waitress called Tiana for a princess and has her kiss him to break the spell. However, instead of breaking the spell, the kiss turns Tiana into a frog as well. Together, the two of them must travel through the dangers of the Bayou to reach a voodoo queen named Mama Odie, who may be able to break the spell. Along the way they befriend a trumpet playing alligator called Louis and a Cajun firefly named Raymond.
At first glance it may seem like standard Disney fare: plucky heroine – check; prince – check; amusing sidekicks – check. What you won’t be reckoning on, however, is just how stuffed to the brim with charm and beauty this film actually is. Without any hesitation, I can honestly say that ‘The Princess And The Frog’ is a modern masterpiece. Watching it, I suddenly realised that that child in me that thrilled to those Disney moments never went away. To quote Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, ‘It’s the pictures that got small’. Watching this movie is a truly magical, awe-inspiring experience.
Firstly, there’s the villain. Dr Facilier is evil beyond words. He wants blood, and when the frogs escape, he doesn’t resort to wisecracking. He calls upon his voodoo overlords and conjures a collection of hideous shadow creatures to pursue them malevolently across the Bayou. Voiced by Keith David, he’s as solid a villain as Disney has ever created, right up there with the Queen from ‘Snow White’ and Maleficent from ‘Sleeping Beauty’. What Disney lost sight of in recent years is that scary is good. Kids like being scared. It means they’re invested.
Then there are the songs. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for Disney musicals, especially when the songs are crowbarred in there just because they’ve managed to get Phil Collins to write them. Of course the soundtracks to classics like ‘Snow White’ and Pinocchio’ stand alone because they’re standards, but seriously, can you remember the songs from ‘Brother Bear’? ‘The Princess And The Frog’ has a soundtrack written by Randy Newman (who thankfully doesn’t sing them). Set in the height of the Roaring Twenties, each is a jazz spiced classic, upbeat , joyful and raw. Each is a memorable, toe-tapping piece of starlight that, crucially, moves with the story itself.
And then there are the chances that Disney has taken on the plot. Suffice to say I won’t be giving anything away here, but let me tell you that fans of storytelling are well served here. It’s packed with delightful side characters: Big Daddy the millionaire, who for once isn’t the conniving, greedy stereotype often associated with wealth in kid’s films; Raymond, the lovelorn firefly with the Cajun drawl, who not only provides one of the film’s genuine shock moments, but also a wonderfully realised story arc involving his love for an unattainable night light; Louis, the alligator who longs more than anything to be human so he can play jazz in public; Lottie, Tiana’s spoiled, slightly deranged best friend who yearns for the fairytale life, even though she can’t see that she’s living it already, and who provides one of the film’s most heartwarming laughs at the close of the film.
And how does it look? It’s Miyazaki-Goes-West gorgeous. His influence is clearly felt, especially on the wider, more detailed shots of New Orleans itself and the subtle movement of the characters. For proof, see the detail and dazzling beauty of Mama Odie’s treehouse as the sun spills through in the climax of her brilliant song ‘Dig A Little Deeper’, trickling across and through thousands of tiny, coloured glass bottles, or the way the ornate river steamer slides down the orange evening river towards New Orleans.
Of course there’s more. I could tell you about the wonderful drifts into art-deco style animation as Tiana imagines her dream coming true to the strains of ‘Almost There’, the sight of a gazillion fireflies lighting up the way through the Bayou towards Mama Odie, of how two frogs get three grown men to beat the hell out of each other, of the terrible fate of Dr. Facilier and of the everlasting impression it makes in stone… You must forgive me. For a moment, I was a child again.
If you loved ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’; if you hated ‘A Goofy Movie’, ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ and ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’, you’re going to be happy. What Disney have pulled off here isn’t just a nice new cash cow. It’s a studio in resurrection, completely back on form with a film that easily holds its own alongside the seven little guys and the wooden boy. Charming, beautiful, scary and magnificent, ‘The Princess And The Frog’ is the reason Disney once more rules the roost. Boys, you done good.
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