Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog

Let's get this out of the way: The Princess and the Frog is, among other things, a triumph of animation, a beautifully crafted film, and a return to an art form many feared dead.

But so was The Little Mermaid, and we've little interest in seeing that again.  Sure, this is the best 2D Disney animated movie since The Lion King, but there hasn't been much competition in the meantime.

The question was never whether this would be a good movie: the question is, "How good was it?"  And the answer is somewhat complicated.

The Princess and the Frog was created to accomplish two interconnected goals: to create a "classic" Disney-princess movie, and to do so with a black princess, the first in the company's history.

It was a noble aspiration.  Not quite as noble as it would have been in, say, 1950, but better late (even very late) than never.  Unfortunately, the film's portrayal of race was clumsy and awkward.  It doesn't so much come off as racist (as some have suggested) as it seems... timid.

The movie exerted a great deal of effort informing us that Tiana, its lead, has overcome a great deal of adversity.  But, frankly, we never see that adversity (at least not in a mundane, non-magical form).  With the exception of a pair of bankers, every white character in the film is respectful, compassionate, and friendly towards Tiana.  While the wealthiest characters are white (not to mention stupid), they aren't cruel or dismissive.  The black characters are, overall, less affluent, but they seem content.  What's particularly problematic is that there's no acknowledgment that there might be a reason for the economic disparity.  This is, frankly, a troubling omission that could easily be misinterpreted.

Similarly, the movie's attempts at feminism come off as double-edged.  While it's nice finally having Disney princesses who are allowed to fight their own battles, the relationship between the prince and Tianna has troubling implications.  Self-obsessed princes are nothing new - not even to Disney movies - but this one is a hedonistic womanizer.  We're not entirely comfortable with a generation of girls being told they should find such men and expect them to change.

Even so, the movie did an admirable job of developing his character over time.  Messages aside, by the end of the movie there's little question as to why Tiana falls in love with her prince, even in frog form.

Enough about political implications and messages: let us consider the movie underneath.

As we said at the start, it is an excellent picture.  There are some pacing issues, as well as a sequence or two which does nothing to move the plot (but we're seven decades late to start complaining about THOSE in Disney films).

We do want to draw particular attention to a pair of characters: the alligator and the firefly.  From the trailers, we expected to hate these two.  On the contrary, they made the movie.  While these were evocative of Disney characters from the 70's, the hand of Pixar could be felt guiding them to greatness.  The alligator and firefly are the heart and soul of the movie, respectively.  And, make no mistake, they shine brightly.

The music was strong; if anything, some of the songs could have been a little longer and more developed.  The one exception to this was the drivel playing over the gorgeously animated closing credits.

Some have complained that the villain, Dr. Facilier, represents a negative stereotype.  While there's certainly a case to be made, this is still one of Disney's best villains in decades.  Voodoo doctors may not be historically or politically correct, but there's no denying they are awesome.  While it's FAR too early to compare him to the level of Cruella De Vil, he makes Jafar look dull and flat.

And we like Jafar.

We also feel a need to tip our hat to the movie's use of one, particular Disney archetype: the wishing star.  At the start of the movie, Tiana's father warns her that such things can only take her so far, and the movie never abandons this idea.  The movie explores what's become almost a cliche of the genre, and it does so in surprising and refreshing depth.

In fact, there's a sense in which the movie is less a classic Disney movie than it is a movie ABOUT classic Disney.  In many ways, The Princess and the Frog feels more like a follow-up to Enchanted than Snow White.

While this makes for a better movie, it is a little troubling that Disney's first black princess appears in a movie about Disney-princess movies rather than a "traditional" Disney-princess movie of her own.

But, then again, we may be over thinking this.

Against the five stars of Sleeping Beauty - the greatest of this genre - The Princess and the Frog receives four.  While we may have minor issues and complaints, there's no denying it feels good to see a fantastic hand-drawn Disney animated feature once more.

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