Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Princess & the Frog

Transmogrification central!  Can you feel it?  You're changin', you're changin', ou're changin', all right!  I hope you're satisfied, but if you ain't, don't blame me.  You can blame my friends on the other side! -- Dr. Facilier (Keith David)

In late June of 1994, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Troy State U, I met up with Tonya Windham in Enterprise, Alabama.  Our purpose was to take in a viewing of Disney's latest movie, "The Lion King", the fifth (out of the ten) movie in the fabled Disney Renaissance.  For the most part, there is no better person to see a highly anticipated movie with than a good friend, which Tonya was, and we laughed at the antics of Timon and Pumbaa's fart jokes, we marveled at the brilliant animation of the wildebeest stampede and were both shocked at the death of Mufasa.  And we loved the film.  I still do, all these years later.

"The Lion King" was truly the first Disney film I could remember watching in the theater... this isn't to say that I didn't see "Aladdin" or "Beauty and the Beast" at the movies, cause I might have, but I don't remember it.  I know when I was about 7, I was taken to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" when it was re-released to theaters, but I don't remember anything about it... except for the fact that I wanted to see "Jaws 3-D".  But I do remember "The Lion King".  What I didn't realize at the time, though, was that I was watching a classic.  I was bearing witness to one of the most successful, critically acclaimed film of all time (currently 19th on the Biggest Movies Ever list), and was watching characters--Simba, Nala, Timon, Pumbaa, Scar, Mufasa--being presented that will live on forever... my kids will watch Simba grow from a cub to a king, my grandchildren will do the same. 

And this is what I thought about as The Lovely Steph Leann and I sat down to watch "The Princess & the Frog" this past weekend.  I'd heard nothing but stellar reviews over the weekend from people, including Bo Peep, a fellow CM at The Happiest Place in the Mall who had seen it at midnight the day before.  Before the movies wide release, it had been garnering raves in its limited runs in NYC and LA, and I had high, high hopes for this film... and it didn't let me down.

Plot in a nutshell, its a Disney twist on the story of The Frog Prince, the story that has a girl kissing a frog who turns into a handsome prince.  In this tale, however, Naveen, the handsome prince, has been turned into a frog by the voo-doo man, Dr. Facilier, and when he convinced our heroine Tiana to kiss him, she turns into a frog herself.  Hijinx, hilarity and romance ensue as they, along with Ray the Cajun Firefly and Louis the jazz playing crocodile, try to find Mama Odie to help them turn back into humans again.

The question isn't "What did I love about this film?", the question is really "What didn't I love about this film?".  The answer is only two-fold... first, the songs might have been a little longer.  I was totally digging both Dr. Facilier's villian song, "Friends On the Other Side" and Mama Odie's huge gospel choir-infused "Dig a Little Deeper", and both ended too soon.  Secondly, Dr. Facilier, the bad guy, is a great bad guy... and they give him the Darth Maul treatment, that is, they show him off, he gets a few winks and nods here and there, and then he'd dealt with and done.  Not enough of the mean doctor... voiced by Keith David, he comes across not really as evil, but as a big, selfish jerk.  (for those of you who don't know who Keith David is, he was in Sandy Bullock's "All About Steve", he narrates "City Confidential" on A&E and he was the stepdad in "There's Something About Mary"--he was the one who sees Ben Stiller's predicament and says, "Well, which is it, son, the frank or the beans?")

The animation is stunning.  The film is beautifully drawn, and to its credit, its done so much so that there's no way this film could have been a computer animated feature--it would have lost most, if not all, of its charm.  Tiana is a heroine who is working hard for her dreams to happen, not waiting around for someday, her prince will come, and that is to be admired.  Much has been made about Tiana being the "first black princess", and yes, that's true, but this film definately takes liberties with history--she's best friends with a rich debutante named Charlotte, which alone is an impractical thought in the time period this film is set in.  I didn't get caught up in that, though, and you shouldn't either.

The supporting characters, including Charlotte, are wonderful, and never get annoying.  Ray the Cajun Firefly turned out to be my favorite of the bunch, with his cay-joan accent and missing teeth, though watching Louis, the gator who just wants to play jazz on his trumpet, also makes for great laughs.  There are a few scary scenes, though, when Dr. Facilier sends The Shadow creatures out to re-capture the escaped Naveen, and I even told The Lovely Steph Leann that if I were 5, I would have been terrified... today's kids are a little more desensitized to such frights, though, so you can decide for yourself if your crumb cruncher can handle it.

One thing to be aware of when watching this film... you are witnessing the birth of a classic.  This is a movie that, no matter how successful it will end up--and it will end up successful--that Campbell Isaiah and Lorelei Addison will watch, and their children will watch as well in 2040 on whatever home video format we're up to then.  This is a movie that will be released in Blu-Ray and DVD in April of 2010, and will disappear into The Vault in June of 2011 or so, not to be available for 7 to 10 years. 

This is the birth of a true Disney Princess, one that we'll be seeing with the likes of Cinderella, Belle, Ariel and Aurora for a long, long time.  The last time we saw a true Disney Princess emerge?  Mulan.  The last time we saw a true Disney classic not-named-Pixar unfold before our eyes?  Yep.  "The Lion King".  That was the last movie heralded and beloved enough to go into The Vault (well, "Fantasia 2000" also is in The Vault, coupled with "Fantasia", but that's kinda another story)...  For me, and perhaps I'm the odd case, this is exciting.  I'm thrilled that Disney has finally broken through the ceiling they put on themselves with "Dinosaur" and "Brother Bear". 

I was discussing this film briefly with Hurricane Rhett, who simply said, "2-D animation is dead."  After bearing witness to atrocities like "Home on the Range" and the poor storytelling of "Treasure Planet", I could see where the argument could have been made.  Its the same argument I'd heard for ten years now, and with Disney shutting down its hand-drawn animation studios in Orlando, and even going as far as to say that they were done with 2-D animated films, it looked like 2-D animation was truly dead. 

I, however, had always contended that if the story was good, people would go see it, be it 2-D or computer animated. "Lilo & Stitch", one of my favorite Disney films, was completely 2-D, and was one of Disney's biggest hits sans Pixar this decade.  It had a great story.  "Valiant" or "The Wild", both computer animated films, were bombs, and rightly so.  I've seen part of both, and both were pretty terrible... its important to note, though that neither are techinically Disney films, because Disney only distrubuted them and had no hand in making them. 

I make no illusions that this film is the next "The Lion King", or even "Aladdin"... and after second and third viewings, I cannot tell you that I'd rank "The Princess & the Frog" above "Hercules", an only moderately successful Disney film (on the tail end of the Renaissance) that I absolutely adore... but for now, "The Princess & the Frog", is fantastic... great jazz music, incredible color thats perfectly timed to the scene in progress (watch how the colors around Mama Odie are somewhat muted until you find out she's one of the good guys, then the color explodes brightly), two very likable main characters and at its heart, a moral of not just wishing and dreaming, but working hard to make those wishes and dreams come true. 

So which Disney flick did I like better this year, "Up" or "The Princess & the Frog"?  That is a great question... almost like asking me who I rank higher, The Goddess or Amy Adams, whom I'm in love with.  Both films will be ranked in The 100 Coolest Things of 2009, coming in January, so perhaps you'll get your answer then.  To both questions. 

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