2D is still groovy ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, December 17, 2009

2D is still groovy

The Princess and the Frog
My rating:

I watched Aladdin only about a year ago. That'd be the 1992 Disney animated version, the one that came between Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Yes, I'm quite the slow poke, but I have to say I didn't much like it. Beauty was gorgeous and sweeping, Lion King was epic, but I found Aladdin kiddish and cliched. I've watched only a couple more Disney traditionally-animated films since then, and while I enjoyed them, I wasn't too upset when they announced that 2004's Home on the Range (which I didn't catch) would be their last movie to employ hand-drawn animation. Of course it was dumb of them to blame an entire medium for their last few movies' lack of success, but it wasn't just the medium; Disney's entire approach to animated storytelling had just become too tired and formulaic.

The Princess and the Frog proves there's still life, not just in the medium, but in the formula itself.

It is 1920s New Orleans, and Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress who cares only about working hard and saving up to fulfill her late father's dream - opening her own restaurant. When Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) visits the city, her wealthy friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) is excited at the prospect of becoming his princess, but Tiana couldn't care less. Unfortunately, the fun-loving and irresponsible prince runs afoul of Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo witch doctor who turns him into a frog while Naveen's servant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) impersonates him as part of Facilier's plot to take over the city. And when the frog prince meets Tiana and persuades her to kiss him... she too turns into a frog. Now they must travel together through the bayou to meet voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who can help remove the curse, aided by jazz-loving alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and lovesick firefly Ray (Jim Cummings).

Credits to Ed Catmull and John Lasseter - president and chief creative officer, respectively, of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar - for reviving the hand-drawn animated film. And especially to Lasseter, who acts as producer here and whose experience making some of the best 3D-animated films of all time for Pixar must have surely influenced this movie. For those who saw the mid-'90s Disney renaissance come to an ignominous end, the improvements are obvious: a strong and independent heroine, no cute animal sidekicks (Louis and Ray are characters, not cliches shoehorned in for the cute factor), a decent dramatic conflict, an engaging plot, likable characters, and an emphasis on telling a story instead of simply throwing things at the screen to keep the kiddies in their seats.

But it's not like all that is anything new. This is very much the Disney formula through and through, right down to the Broadway musical-style songs (penned by Randy Newman) - it's just executed well. And as my viewing of Aladdin proved, I'm not a big fan of the formula. Frankly, I found the opening scene cloying and sappy, with an oh-so-cute young Tiana and her oh-so-loving family and their oh-so-heartwarming dream. Pixar would never be this corny. And I think I've confirmed once and for all that musicals are my least favourite film genre. I dunno, I just can never suspend my disbelief whenever the characters break into song and start cutting the rug.

So it helps a lot that the song-and-dance sequences are lively and filled with lots of funny sight gags. Which is one thing the Disney formula has always been good at, and this time credits go to directors John Musker and Ron Clements, veterans of Disney traditionally-animated films. The film improves greatly once the plot gets into gear, and Musker and Clements steer it with sure hands and keep the proceedings fun and fast-paced. It's too bad that none of the music is especially memorable; two hours after leaving the cinema, I couldn't remember any of the songs anymore. Randy Newman does a solid job, incorporating jazz, gospel, zydeco and other native New Orleans music - but if you ask me, the last really good soundtrack and score for a Disney animated film was Beauty and the Beast.

But another thing this film gets right is the casting - as in, not getting carried away with stunt casting or letting any particular actor's performance overpower the movie (*coughRobinWilliamsEddieMurphycough*). All the actors do fine work, in both the acting and singing departments. I bet it was tempting to cast some A-list comedians in the comic-relief roles of Louis and Ray, but Michael-Leon Wooley and Jim Cummings are great; Cummings' Cajun accent especially is a hoot. And there's been much ado about the fact that Tiana is Disney's first African-American "princess" - which is apparently some marketing label that targets young girls - but it makes no never mind to us Asians.

So yes, welcome back Walt Disney Animation Studios' hand-drawn animation unit. It's good to know you haven't lost the knack for making films that are funny, thrilling, heartwarming, romantic, and greatly entertaining - in other words, the Disney formula. But even though they've breathed new life into it, I wonder how long they can keep it going. Even if this starts a new Disney renaissance, how long can they make it last before another Treasure Planet or Brother Bear or Home on the Range brings it to an end again? 'Cos after all, it's not the medium that's the problem, it's the stories. And you can't keep telling the same story over and over again.

Expectations: James freakin' Cameron wooo