Saturday, 30 January 2010

Pucker up, baby!

The Princess and the Frog

Traditional 2D animation is back courtesy of the rejuvenated Disney Animation Studios. The original hand drawn art form, which created Disney and made it what it is, makes a welcome and long overdue return after the virtual standardisation of filmed animation as 3D CGI. It is perhaps ironic then that the people who were arguably responsible for that trumping by 3D are the ones who have brought the original 2D style back to us. And so Disney Animation, under the overall stewardship of John Lasseter and the wizards at Pixar, gives us The Princess and the Frog, a movie that takes its audience back to Disney basics with a charming, funny, magical, musical fairytale adventure in the best traditions of the genre.

It’s New Orleans in the 1920’s and Tiana is a young woman who wants to follow her father's dream by opening her very own restaurant. She works hard, two jobs, non-stop, giving up any sort of fun or chance of a wider life by being solely focussed on achieving her one and only goal. Love and romance is the furthest thing from her mind. It’s interesting that Tiana is a very modern and career driven ‘realist’ Disney 'princess' – which makes her rather different from her previous Disney kin. Anyway, Tiana gets mixed up with visiting Prince Naveen who’s financially broke and in New Orleans looking for a rich bride to marry for her money. Except that when Tiana meets him, Naveen has been turned in to a frog by the wonderfully sinister voodoo sorcerer Dr. Facilier as part of his evil plan to gain control of the city and appease the dark forces from ‘the other side’ whom he owes bigtime. Frog Prince Naveen, mistaking Tiana for a real princess at a fancy dress ball, asks her to kiss him to break the spell (as in the old fairytale). Tiana is repulsed, but, seeing an opportunity, she makes a deal with the frog prince: if she agrees and he returns to human form he’ll then help her to get her restaurant. Naveen agrees. And so she lays a smacker on him…with unexpected results for them both. The frog pair then head off together on an adventure in to the bayou to find a way to break the spell and return them both to human form. Along the way they make some new friends, get in to various amusing scrapes with hunters and wildlife, and learn more about each other, themselves and what it is they both really need from life, which is likely different to what it is they each might want. As with all Disney fairytales The Princess and the Frog is full of strong and positive messages for kids with the prime one here being about being open to life and all its possibilities, to take time to look around and see what you might be missing. To keep an open mind and embrace new things that might come along. Basically to chase your dreams but make sure you live life while you do.

Technically The Princess and the Frog is top notch. The film looks beautiful. There is something about hand drawn animation and painted backdrops even the best CG can’t quite capture. There is a soulful, human feel to it. And the design and animation on show here is top quality. The depiction of New Orleans and the surrounding countryside looks and feels wonderful and very atmospheric with the film using many of the city’s real locations including Bourbon Street and the creepy and evocative Lafayette Cemetery. Of course, being Disney, it is a heightened and overall ‘nicer’ representation of the real city and the time period (racism doesn’t seem to exist here.) But for this film that approach feels right and can be forgiven. The character designs are mostly realistic with humans looking human and not particularly stylised or with exaggerated features. The designers have more fun with the non-human characters such as Louie the trumpet playing Alligator and Reggie the Cajun firefly.

Now, being a New Orleans set musical, jazz is gonna have to play a major part. And it does. The jazz styles of the time pervade almost every aspect of the film and virtually every tune, which range from big band and trumpet driven numbers to more soulful southern ballads. The songs by Randy Newman are all very good and help tell the story and sell the characters while making for some uncontrollable toe tapping. Then there’s the voice cast. They are all spot on. I especially loved Jennifer Cody as grown up Charlotte, Tiana’s rich, flighty, shallow yet kindly friend since childhood. She has a wonderfully funny scene with her daddy in the cafĂ© Tiana works in where she’s not letting her ‘big daddy’ get a word in edgeways. Then there’s Ritchie Montgomery as Reggie the Cajun firefly who longs for his one true love Evangeline. He is also great and helps provide Reggie with the films’ most heartfelt storyline, which forms part of the motif for the entire film and also harkens back to a previous Disney classic of old. And a special shout out goes to the great Keith David as Dr Facilier, the downright creepy and evil voodoo dude. He looks like Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die and gives the film a really cool, dark and scary edge. He even conjures up some shadow demons from the other side to hunt down our froggy heroes. I could see some young kids being kinda freaked out at these nasties as well as by some of the other weird and scary imagery on show here. And that’s great. Just what a proper fairytale should be.

Being a big kid I really enjoyed The Princess and the Frog. It knows exactly what it is and does what it sets out to do beautifully. The script is familiar and traditional yet always interesting and fun while providing a nice modernist edge to its heroine. As with the best of Disney it also gives us some wonderful and memorable supporting characters. The film looks lovely and the old style jazz inspired music is catchy and often infectious in its energy. The film may not have the same depth or emotional impact of Disney and/or Pixar’s absolute finest but The Princess and the Frog is still a darn good family film made with real care and love. It also reminds us of the wonderful artistry and atmosphere of traditional animation, of just how special that medium is and how it should never be lost to film. And to think it took the intervention of a 3D animation company to remind us. Nice one Pixar.

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