Saturday, December 8, 2012

D52 - Week 49 - The Princess and the Frog

It's at this point in the D52 that Disney reminds me of Mega Man.
The first side-scrolling Mega Man games were consistently well-made, but the main problem with Mega Man 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and to an extent 7 and 8, and maybe even X through X-however many X games there were, is that each of them was too similar to the previous one(s). I remember that being the only negative criticism of them at the time, that there were all essentially the same game. So it's no wonder that the Mega Man games took a different direction after 8. There was the RPG-ish one, a card-battle-system-thingy, spin-offs with Zero, and such. Whether or not those games were worse or better is beside the point here. The point is that time would pass and years later, Mega Man 9 would be released. And praised! What did all the fans love most about it? Why, that it was so much like all of those earlier ones, of course! I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this kind of reasoning; it just strikes me as funny. Basically this is what Disney has done with The Princess & the Frog.
It's so obviously a call-back to the best of 90s Disney animated films (which themselves were partly call-backs to much, much earlier Disney animated films). It follows the formulas to such precision that it might well be taken as a parody of movies like Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast, and The Lion King. You got the handcrafted animation with a glowing quality (boy howdy does this one love glowing things), loveable and/or wise-cracking animal sidekicks, the corny sight gags, the peppy musical numbers, all that jazz. But I kind of like it for that, and imagine I would've appreciated it just as much if it came out while I was a kid (the movie wishes it was released back then). Could it be just because it's newer and it hasn't worn on me as much as The Lion King has? Surely it helps that it doesn't rely as heavily on the likeability of Robin Williams Genie as Aladdin seemed to. If anything it does follow everything the Disney "Renaissance" did right, while correcting those pesky annoyances. Imagine how highly I could praise it if Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote the soundtrack! Or, if I'm bringing up half-deceased dream teams anyway, what if Ashman and Menken collaborated with the Sherman Brothers? Too many cooks spoiling the broth....or mind-blowingly amazing?
Even its characters are like DR era characters, in that they're clearly more substantial and interesting than, say, Snow White and the evil witch, yet still not quite perfectly fleshed out when you...yes, dig a little deeper. Let's take Tiana, who as a black Disney heroine suffers from the same fate as the Pochahontas Native Americans, in that they're all too politically correct to the point of being made boring. Every main character needs a flaw, and Tiana's flaw is that she works too hard. Oh, geez, what a horrible person! I'd hate to be or be around someone like that! I'm being sarcastic here. Maybe I'm missing something. I've seen this movie a couple of times already and I still can't put into clear times what exactly it is that Tiana learns by the end of it. She says aloud a vague epitome about knowing you have people who love you and loving them or something, but ...I don't know. From the beginning I never got the impression that she didn't appreciate her loved ones.They all seemed very happy with each other. She loved her father; her father loved her; she presumably loved and was loved by the others. Don't see any problem there. Maybe if we saw scenes of Tiana spending too much time working up until the point where her father died, and if she concentrated more on working towards the restaurant than actually spending time with him, then that I would get. But my interpretation was that she worked hard for the restaurant after he died, to honor his memory. I don't get what's flawed about that. Unless the movie was going for a lesson about coping with a loss by remembering the good times instead of focusing too much on what could have been? If so, it didn't do a good job at that. Another certain Disney-released movie a couple years later would pull that off much better...
But if anyone can explain to me Tiana's lesson, I am all ears. In the meantime I can at least say that her co-stars at least had clearer flaws and motivations. Prince Naveen reminds me of Pépé LePew, but without the perviness. He's lead a charmed life but is at least willing to acknowledge it as a problem, openly confessing that he's never learned to do anything because of it. Oh, I don't know. He's learned how to dance and play the ukelele, at some point. That was probably after he left his parents, though, wasn't it? I can't imagine wealthy parents choosing the ukelele as the musical instrument to push their son to learn at as young an age as possible. So I figure, even if he had never met Tiana, he might have earned a living playing in a ukelele-and-banjo double act when he met another frog lazily strumming on a southern river. 
Would it be digging too deep into the race issue to notice that even the "bad" qualities any of the dark-skinned characters have are played up in a "good" way? What I mean is, is Prince Naveen lazy and arrogant...or is he relaxed and suave? Is Mama Odie crazy or just delightfully sassy? And the Shadowman is creepy, but in a cool way. I'm just wondering if, at any point, the character designers had a specific reason for Lawrence to be, um, not white. Could it have been to avoid having an irredeemable goofy doofus of a black guy? Was there anything wrong with Mulan having an Asian character as goofy as Chi Fu as long as he was outnumbered by respectable depictions? These as questions I do not expect to be answered, as I might be putting too much thought into it anyway.
Skin color scrutiny aside, they're well-crafted characters. Facilier/Shadowman, as I said, is pretty darn cool. I think a prequel would be justifiable as long as it's about him. Ray the Firefly somehow manages to make a snaggle-toothed stalker very endearing. By the way, if you think a person pining after a love he's never met is weird, consider that he must've taken it upon himself to make up his own name for her, and call her that lovingly. "She's beautiful! I wonder what her name is. Hmmm...Evangeline? Yeah, that sounds good. How I love you, Evangeline." Hey, with Ray, it's okay, 'cuz awww, he's just this cute li'l guy.
Speaking of glowing beautiful things, the animation is top-notch. I might've asked for a bit more stylization, but at least there's plenty provided with Charlotte (alternate voice casting of the week: Kristen Chenoweth)'s exaggerated mannerisms, Louis et al's hammy comedic distortions, and the various musical numbers.
The's Randy Newman, but at least it's Randy Newman as sung by people who aren't Randy Newman.

Favorite character: It must be Facilier, because I find myself wishing he'd been in much more of the movie.
Least necessary character: Louis, you didn't do anything to help move the main story along in any way, did you? There was even a point about how Tiana and Naveen were going the wrong way because of you, which means you did the opposite of progress the story! tag-along B-story you.
Overall: A carefully calculated attempt at recreating thought-to-be-lost Disney magic that...actually does work very well. I'm glad it was made.


Princess and the Frog wasn't a home run, but it was definitely a baseball game that your kid is in and you attend to support him, but it's at the varsity high school level, so it's still pretty competitive, and you still have a genuinely good time watching it, and it's hosted at the local pro stadium to help the athletic fundraising, so the parents are allowed to drink, and you get to have your whole family in a photo with the pro team's mascot, and it turns out great because they took all the pictures before the kids started playing, so they aren't all covered in dirt and sweat.

It's just one of those movies where the good so heavily outweighs the bad that you have to be a bit of a complete stick DEEP in the mud to really try and down it.  It's not to say that the bad isn't there at all, mind you.  I mean, the songs were all a bit repetitive and purile, but not all of Newman's work is going to be Toy Story (1) and at least he didn't sing them this time.  There was the half a sentence of Emeril's cameo appearance that no one recognizes because it gets lost in the action of the moment.  And for me, there was the homage paid to every New Orleans and Louisiana thing that ever was to the point that it becomes just cliche.

There.  DEEP in the mud. Now then.

I'm intrigued by the villainous plots of Dr. Facilier.  I find it interesting to think that he's not really the main villian here.  It seems to me like his friends on the other side are the real bad guys and he's just a poor pawn for them trying to work off his debt and most unfortunately having to do bad things to be set free.  He doesn't control them.  They're just the mafia and he's just the guy that got in too deep with the bosses.

I also really enjoy the complete lack of "love at first sight" in this movie.  Tiana and Naveen actually take what I see as the normal progression from strangers to friendship to love.  And it's clearly not just a physical attraction like in Little Mermaid.  They actually appreciate that each has something that would made the life of the other a little bit better.  I enjoy the little couples' counselor they get in Raymond and the skewed but tender love that he has for Evangeline.

In generally I think that what they got right here that was lacking in a number of other recent flicks was the sincerity of the emotions that characters were feeling.  Their reactions made sense if not to everyone else in the film, than at least to the audience and to themselves.

Favorite Character: Dr. Facilier... if only for his voice actor Keith David.  Nooooice.
Least Necessary character: The three swamp dudes.  Did that third guy seriously have to be drawn with just two fingers?  I mean, I'm sure it happens in real life in the bayou, but that seems like a rather bizarre distinction to make for his character.  Why not just call him Mumbles? He did that too.
Overall: I liked it. Eeyup.  I did.

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