Monday, 28 March 2011
The Princess and the Frog
It's no exaggeration to say that this film was Disney’s rebirth. It didn’t make many headlines, but the disaster of Home on the Range and the failure to produce a successful cell animation since…well, since Mulan, really, meant that Disney Animation closed its doors, the company intending to rely on its CG branches. Seems strange that it was already six years ago.
So really, this film is more of a milestone than many people seem to realize – a make-or-break for Disney’s traditional animation department. And, happily, it looks like the biggest and most important animation studio of all time are going to be able to stay on their feet and make more traditional animations, hopefully returning to a more experimental, whimsical and risk-taking strategy.
The Princess and the Frog is far from the best Disney film ever made, but it is a very good one, well worth seeing with or without knowledge of the milestones left for the company. The hook that’s been used to pull people in has been the fact that this is the first film with a black ‘princess’ character – and yes, that’s well overdue, but to be fair to Disney, the last three have been other minorities (Mulan, Pocahontas and Jasmine), the rest are all derived from very old fairy tales, and if Nala hadn’t been, y’know, a lion, she would come very close to counting. However, the setting of New Orleans was an excellent choice for the reimagined story here, taking Disney back to their rich association with jazz, neglected since…well, probably since The Aristocats, or possibly Oliver & Company, which I haven’t seen.
I went in suspecting that Disney would be rather desperate to prove how progressive they are, making the black characters perfect and the white ones hideous, and to be honest, it came close, with most white characters weak-willed or grotesque and one surprisingly terrible English accent on display, but it had more depth than that. Race is central to this production, because of the publicity machine, because of the fairly brave in-film allusions to racial inequality and because some rather idiotic critics have suggested that Disney is as white-supremacist as ever because the bad guy does voodoo and because Disney finally feature a black princess and have her spend much of the film in another form altogether. But if anything was racially insensitive, it was the way it was packaged as a bone thrown to a community, although let’s face it, it would have been worse if it was presented as nothing important because society is now ‘colourblind’. Inequality still prevails, so bringing the issue to the fore is good. The voodoo criticism is daft because a virtuous character also does it, and the Facilier character was more interesting, more vulnerable and human, while also more basely callous, than most Disney villains. Similarly, the rather grotesque spoilt white belle character was also a friend and a confidant, a character not out of stock, bridging comic relief, rival, best friend and facilitator roles. The prince was charmingly roguish beyond his silly accent and Tia was genuinely likeable.
The plot was also pleasingly freewheeling and unpredictable, much more aligned to the Pixar formula than traditional Disney. The general outline could be predicted, perhaps, but if anyone expected the incidentals, the surreal image of a crocodile drawn in the customary Disney style being deeply concerned for his good friend the firefly, without any suggestion of hip irony or self-consciousness, then I’d be very surprised. Risks were taken with animation, too, and it was great to see a musical number in 20s art deco style, the sort of thing usually reserved for a title sequence. Disney is revived and revitalized. Great news.
(originally written 25.2.10)