Actual conversation I had with Alex yesterday.
Me: Do you want to see The Blind Side?
Alex: No. Do you want to see The Chipmunks?
Alex: What?! You want to see The Blind Side, but not the Squeaquel?! What's wrong with you?!
Me: Yeah kid. I'm the insane one.
We saw The Princess and the Frog instead and I'm glad we did. Here's the thing: I was never, ever going to dislike The Princess and the Frog, just by dint of it being a new traditionally animated Disney film, but I am thrilled and relieved that it turned out as well as it did. It's not the second coming of The Little Mermaid (also directed by Ron Clements and John Musker), but it is nevertheless an engaging story told with bravado and full of enjoyable, well-crafted characters. Its musical numbers are entertaining. It has a surprising lack of awful comic relief. It is beautifully animated. It pays tribute to many great moments in Disney's past while breaking away from some of the most rock-ribbed traditions of that past. In short, it is a perfectly satisfying entry in the long history of Disney feature animation, one that will, in due course, join the ranks of the middle-tier classics.
Of course its not your typical princess movie. ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: it's the first of Disney's princess films - indeed, the first Disney animated feature, period - with an African-American protagonist. Two things I believe can be absolutely stated about this development,(1) the (white-male) executives, (white-male) directors, (mostly white-male, I'd wager) storymen thought that they were doing something really swell and progressive here, and (2) this was a decision at least partially driven by marketing concerns, because there was no black princess to hawk at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques.
Given Disney's inglorious track record on self-conscious political correctness (oh, Pocahontas) a lot of people were justly concerned about the delicacy with which the studio would handle this brave new world. When it was announced that the heroine was Maddie, a rich white girl's maid, there was, justifiably, a lot of hell raised. "Maddie" is much to close to "Mammy", and a maid has way to much historic baggage... So she was renamed Tiana, and made a waitress with aspirations to opening her own restaurant. From there the movie generally ignores the race question, save two nicely placed scenes. I think - and I'm a white female, just we're all clear - that for The Princess and the Frog to merely present a portrait of race and class in New Orleans in the 1920s, in a very passive and G-rated fashion, is the only way that it can still work as a drama. Message pictures tend to make for bad movies (Pocahontas). The movie could be more aggressive, but I don't think it could have been without destroying the story.
Tiana is an inordinately progressive depiction of female empowerment for Disney. Her goal is not to find and nab a prince, she wants to open a restaurant, having been given the cooking bug by her father, and that drives all her actions in the rest of the movie. Sure, she falls in love, because that is a generic convention, but she absolutely does not sacrifice her ultimate goal for her man (as we could argue that the other major progressive Disney heroine, Beauty and the Beast's Belle, tragically does) Instead, (because he isn't doing anything productive with his life), her prince helps her in realising her dreams. It's a bit miserable that in 2009, this should count as noteworthy, but Disney animation is ever prosaic in its gender representations.
Not to be left behind, Prince Naveen, shockingly, actually has a personality to speak of. Disney princes are noted above all for being blocks of wood, but he actually has a past and an attitude, and when you really take a good look at the story, he goes through much more of a transformative arc than Tiana does. By the way, what is his ethnic background???
Great. We have two heroins who aren't brain dead, but its really the villain, Dr. Facilier, that I would pick as the stand out character. Keith David's silky and wicked vocal performance is the best in the movie. The very concept of the character is delightful. His shadow is an animate, sentient object that can interact with other shadows, thus affecting those casting them. Facilier has a distinct X-factor, a creepiness that pushes right up to the edge of the G-rating. He's designed with a really fantastic color palette of purples and blacks (the natural colors of a Disney villain) and a lankiness that recalls a great villain like Jafar. Personal note: As the mother of a complete scaredy cat, I really appreciate the fact that the movie is at times spooky, but never terrifying.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out something else about the movie: it is chockablock full of big production numbers. I'm half-tempted to say that every song gets a big choreographed dance, but it's not true. Still, The Princess and the Frog probably has more such numbers than any other Disney film. And that's why I want to cry that the songs aren't better. (Can we fire Randy Newman already?) Oh, it's not that they aren't great in the film, they very much are. But compared to your Kiss the Girl, your Be Our Guest, they just don't have that much vitality as songs that you'd want to listen to for decades to come. Take Facilier's big statement of intent number, Friends on the Other Side. It works outstandingly well in the context of the movie: a roaring, dramatic number that gives us an instant idea of just how much this guy is bad news, like Poor Unfortunate Souls in The Little Mermaid. Great moment - sounds awesome, looks beautiful. By the time the end credits were rolling, I couldn't have hummed one bar of the song if you put a gun to my head. Outside of maybe the tremendously Newman-esque Down in New Orleans, the jazzy number that opens and closes the movie, none of these are toe-tappers.
Just two more points from the story that are departures from the traditional Disney formula. There's a character, who we like, who dies - who actually dies. I almost couldn't believe that the little guy didn't pop up all well and healthy, but the resolution to that death is exquisite and touching. There's also the tiny matter of the film's theme, which we might define as "When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true - as long as you put in plenty of work to help the star do its job".
Ay me, this film. It comes out of one of the longest, most difficult and richest traditions in American cinema. It suggests that despite all the proclamations over the years that, this time Disney animation is really dead, there's a whole lot of spark left in the magic. To hell with anyone who thinks that Disney is just playing the same old tricks. Why should they have to reinvent the wheel that has produced master pieces? This film has a lot of inside jokes, but there is a particularly great one near the end, one that hardly anybody who isn't a complete psycho for Disney films will get. It's a reference to the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a 1950s Dixieland jazz band made up of a handful of Disney animators. I kind of started crying when that joke popped up. Because it proved that somewhere, someone is still keeping the faith alive. For all they're hokey, musty stories and weird gender issues, the old Disney classics still work. It's like having a cup of tea and listening to classical music on the radio, sometimes you just want to have something comfortable, soft and inviting. That's Disney animation for me. The Princess and the Frog, with its sometime imperfections, is going to be one of the ones I come back to. Sometimes you can just tell when you meet an old friend for the first time.