THE SCREENING ROOM
By Bill KallayHow do you tell your hostess the meal she made tasted good, and yet deep down inside, you didn't like it as much as you anticipated?
"The Princess and the Frog" is now available on Blu-ray.
It doesn't seem that long ago when Disney owned the animated feature. In its second "golden age," Disney produced some wonderful features from 1989-1996. "The Little Mermaid" (1989), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "Aladdin" (1992), "The Lion King" (1994), and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996) were all excellent. In between those features, and a few after, the studio produced some well-done animated features like "The Rescuers Down Under" (1990), "Pochahontas" (1995), "Mulan" (1998), "Tarzan" (1999) and "Lilo & Stitch" (2002). But there were some serious misfires like "Atlantis: The Lost Continent" (2001), "Treasure Planet" (2002), and "Home on the Range" (2004). They were lost on both audiences and critics. Disney took those losses, as well as the rise of computer animation and DreamWorks Animation, as signs that traditional hand drawn animation was as good as dead. Traditional animation was out, computer and direct-to-video animation was in.
There was a problem with those approaches. One, it's not the type of animation technique or technology that sells tickets: it's the story and characters. Two, the huge number of direct-to-video sequels and prequels the studio made diluted its classics to some degree. The Disney studio audiences looked to for excellence in high quality animation no longer cared about its heritage. If "Cinderella" was fair game, almost anything could be. And three, even in the days of Walt, Disney had dry spells in feature animation. Anyone up for "Melody Time?" But you didn't see Walt shut down his animation studio in favor of UPA-style animation.
With the arrival of John Lasseter, a sense of bringing that traditional animation back to Disney was put on the front burner. The first project out of the gate was "The Princess and the Frog." Beautifully animated, carefully crafted, lovingly drawn, the film is a hard one to judge. It's a hard film to embrace fully in your arms, and it's not lovable like so many of Disney's princess movies. It's not cold like "Pochahontas" or "Mulan," but it's not warm like "Cinderella" or "Beauty and the Beast," either. I found myself not completely lost in its ambition.
The film is strongly directed by Ron Clements & John Musker. I've always enjoyed their direction, even on the much maligned "Treasure Planet." The animation and backgrounds are very fluid and have that handmade quality that made Disney so great. I really enjoyed how Clements & Musker immersed me into the world of old New Orleans. I loved the color scheme of the paddle wheeler and the lights everywhere. This is a lovely film to look at. Randy Newman's score is very good, though most of the songs are forgotten once the movie's over.
As ambitious as the film and its main character are, the film falls down on the weakness of its plot and its lead. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a hard working person with a dream to open her own restaurant. Indeed, she wishes upon a star and she wants that restaurant so badly, she overlooks any potential love that may come her way. That's part of the problem. Tiana is an admirable character in the way she has a desire to succeed. But she never becomes someone we end up having much empathy for. She's focused on working hard, we don't see anything about her personality. As Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) points out well into the film, Tiana is a hard one. Heck, even Snow white and Cinderella took breaks to stop and smell the roses.
Despite the old fashioned notion of Disney princesses waiting for their prince to save the day, I do believe that many modern audiences still like that notion. How does one explain the popularity of "The Bachelor"? Without making the story too much like great grandma's princess movies, Tiana would've been much more likable had she simply had a crush on Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos). Instead, through most of the film, he's treated as an afterthought to her. Their supposed love story turns into an arguing match that becomes tiresome quickly. Between the two characters, Naveen is clearly more sympathetic and we see that he really likes Tiana. For what reason, I'm not sure. She seems to care less about him. She's too busy putting the guy down. At the end of the movie, I thought Naveen turned the corner by becoming a responsible person. Tiana really doesn't seem to. We don't care for her magical happily ever after because in the end, all she really wanted was her restaurant. Perhaps the film should've been titled "Tiana's."
The strongest points in the film come from the sidekick characters. Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) is a ditzy Southern belle living off daddy's money. At first, I was a bit annoyed by her voice and overall character. But she grew on me and turns out to be warmer and funnier than Tiana. I thought she actually made for a potentially stronger princess than Tiana. She's much more defined and approachable.
The biggest surprise is the Bayou lightening bug, Ray (Jim Cummings). Here's a character who's charming and funny. He isn't pretty, but he's got a heart of gold. Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) is also funny as the jazz playing alligator. I also enjoyed the ode to old Looney Tunes shorts with the bungling frog catchers. Naveen is treated as a secondary character, as have most Disney princes. It's too bad, because once we get behind the rich prince facade, he's likable. His suave voice and cheesy lines to woo Tiana are funny.
The Blu-ray picture is nothing short of excellent, though I find even the hand drawn animation (which still goes through a computer process) is too sharp. Before the hand animated process was streamlined by computer, it was done on cels and shot eventually on film. That analog method could give the animation a softer and sometimes grainer look. Those "imperfections" and hand drawing lent to the craftsmanship of animation and gave the overall look warmth. As pretty as this film is, it still feels a bit cold in high definition. But that's how the film was shot, so this Blu-ray is faithful.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent with lots of toe-tapping songs and crisp clear dialogue. Newman's songs are nicely presented.
The film did moderate business at the box office, and will probably sell tons on DVD/Blu-ray by virtue of it being a Disney animated feature. I won't say it's the best Disney feature in years, because it isn't. I won't say it's the worst, because it's not. Rather, it's a decent attempt to revive Disney animation. What Disney needs is for Clements & Musker to go back to the drawing board and find us a great story and a great princess again.
Thanks for the meal. But next time, can you add a little more spice to the recipe?
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © Disney. All rights reserved.