Dec 19, 2009, 9:47 AM
Do you remember Disney’s singular grand vision for the future of animation, to lead its studio into the new century? It was not plastics, though it might as well have been.... it was 3-D computer production of all their animation. Sell the desks, close down the Orlando studio, and buy a bunch of computers- we don’t need no stinking hand-drawn animation any more; we have 3-D! We haven’t heard much from Disney's grand 3-D experiment since then, have we? Disney- perhaps through its PIXAR-dominated management- has now decided to return to its roots, and has released its first hand-drawn film in the last 6 years… but is hand-drawing a film enough to make it good, or perhaps even great?
The Princess and the Frog as Roy's Swan Song
First, don’t labor under the same mistaken assumption The Disney Company made, that somehow the way a film is made makes the film. In late 2001, Disney watched (in horror) as Dreamworks cleaned up with its release of the 3-D film Shrek. Dreamworks was now a player, a highly profitable animation upstart, and the heir apparent of the Disney legacy. Disney management at the time was nothing if not short-sighted, and immediately pounced upon the new production method as the one true source of all profit for the future. (This is the same management team that earlier the same year thought Lady And The Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure was a good idea.) Out went the animators' pencils and in came the CAD workstations; computer-generated films were here to save the bottom line.
Only that’s not quite how it worked out.
First, that pesky Roy E. Disney was there, making noise and calling for a stockholder revolt. If the 3-D films had made money, that is all Roy would have been: a pesky noise. But they didn’t, and he wasn’t just, and the rug was pulled from beneath Eisner’s 3-D behemoth. Second, PIXAR stepped in and infused a real filmmaking ethic back into Disney. Just as it took four years for Eisner to completely kill off hand animation from the Disney studios, it took a similar time to work it back in… and The Princess and the Frog is the result of that reintegration.
The process does not make the film, and that is apparent in all the films of Disney from this decade. Just as the 1990s were a renaissance for Disney animated films, so this decade has become a wasteland of Disney animation. Just as people eagerly anticipated the release of the Disney films of the 1990s, it is also just as hard to recall more than a handful of this decade's Disney animation. This is not just a result of the shift to (and ultimately away from) computer animation. It is a result of this decade's overreliance on formula, of prequels and sequels, little emphasis put on creativity over just making a buck, and over-interference from too many in upper management. It is no wonder these films could not find an audience: they were the product of massive production schizophrenia. To appeal to Disney’s management Hydra, story had to be cut to bare essentials and lowest common denominators. Hardly the way to make memorable films.
So mid-decade, in steps, Roy Disney and the PIXAR crew began to remake and refocus the Disney machine and return it to the classic Disney animation approach, and to regain the magic of the past. PIXAR only knows its computer-driven animation style, so it has no input in method and manner. Where PIXAR was really instrumental was in its razor-like focus on story and storytelling. Every movie it produces breaks new ground, creates new characters and worlds, and completely redefines what a PIXAR film is. Disney films, on the other hand, had been regressing in every film to the point it released a feature film version of a 1943 Silly Symphony. PIXAR gave Disney the hard kick in the story department the studio had needed for ten years, (re)teaching the animation giant that the story is the thing.
There is no doubt that Roy Disney is not just a symbol of the company because of his name, but a personification of its soul and spirit. In 2005, perhaps more than ever, Disney needed a Disney. Roy has always been known as the White Knight of the animation department, riding in when he was most needed. In 1984, Disney championed the reinvestment in and revitalizing of Disney’s animation department. Roy was famous for fighting for artistic freedom for the creative personnel. He was known to take on Eisner when needed, to fight for artistic integrity. His belief in the artists, and in what Disney Animation could do, set the stage for the Disney renaissance of the Nineties. The Princess and the Frog is equally the direct result of Roy’s refocusing the animation department beginning in 2005, and his desire to return to the roots- and the triumphs- of classic Disney animation.
So what of the film itself? I was not expecting much when I went into the theater. The film opened nicely enough, on a pregnant evening in a New Orleans mansion. We are introduced to our heroine Tiana, her friend Charlotte, and Eudora, Tiana’s mother. For no apparent reason, this scene took me back to the nursery scene at the beginning of Peter Pan. Tiana grows into a hard-working, driven girl with a dream to open her own restaurant.
When a disinherited Prince rolls into town, a local palm reader and Voodoo practitioner sees his chance to make it big, and soon, we have our frog. Along the path to restore his Frogness, we meet Ray the Cajun Firefly, and Louis the jazz-infused gourmand gator. These are not just cardboard characters, just simple sidekicks created to just be comic foils to Tiana. These are fully-realized characters in their own rights. And there is our first big difference I noticed- characterization. What a surprise to see some in a Disney film.
There is humor, sadness, singing, dancing, and a lot more you expect from Disney films. Like so many of the best of the classic Disney films, we are also treated to some scary scenes. Remember Snow White running through the forest as the trees reached out to trip her and rip her clothes? We have that scene’s equal here when the underworld comes to help Dr. Facilier find the feisty frog.
Something we are not so used to seeing in Disney films of late are morals and lessons in the story. Not the in-your-face, heavy handed eco-preaching of Happy Feet, but a much more subtle underscore of hard work and personal responsibility, and the importance of family and love. It is sewn into the story nicely, and works into and around many of the important plot points of the film.
As in any well-conceived and written story, The Princess and the Frog has many layers. My daughter enjoyed the main story as presented, and I was happy to see this all wrapped up with themes of important life lessons. Like her PIXAR cousins, Princess is written to a higher level, to include foreshadowing, parallelism, and the main characters visibly growing and learning from their experiences as the story progresses. In a carefully conceived balance, the story never seems forced, contrite or saccharine.
The artwork is amazing; deep, rich and full of life. It is impossible to tell by watching what is hand-animated and what is computer, other than to know the limits of each technique. The animation as a whole is so fluid and seamless, you just know it is computer-assisted… but the pacing, weight and motion are in a manner that can only be done by hand. The hand animation and the computer all come together to become something Walt could have only wished to see, back in the day. Characters even have color-matching ink lines, a golden age touch I have always appreciated.
There is a stylized sequence in the first act, much like “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” from The Lion King, that is just a pleasure to behold. The fireflies in the bayou are delicately gossamer. The artwork truly shines in Madame Odie’s tree schooner, with her candles and glass bottles shimmering and glistening.
Though this film owes much to its '90s Broadway-type predecessors, conspicuously missing is the “Be Our Guest” musical production number. The film does not suffer from this omission. I am not sure it is auspicious or just good planning, but The Princess and the Frog is written and directed by the same two men who kicked off the last Disney renaissance exactly twenty years ago with “The Little Mermaid.”
I came out of the film impressed by more than just the tour de force of animation; every aspect of this film shines as the apogee of filmmakers' craft. It is every bit as good a story as the PIXAR films have been, and the music is top-notch.
The real surprise of The Princess and the Frog is how the whole film comes together, to create a feeling and an experience not very unlike the classic Disney films. The synergy of the parts sort of sneaks up behind you, and suddenly you recall the magic, the joy and excitement that once was the hallmark of a Disney film. It holds children in a state of awe, expectation and wonder, and entertains adults with art and story, and neither age is left wanting. And it was certainly nice to see the names of some old friends in the credit rolls. Everything came together here to make for a great cinematic experience.
Disney, in this film, has finally found that proper point of balance for both 2-D and 3-D in its films. The Princess and the Frog proves that 2-D production can stand on its own in these modern times, even compared to the likes of the Shreks and the Nemos. As for 3-D, Eisner was right that the Disney films needed a third dimension, he was just wrong as to exactly how they needed it. It was not the production technique that needed the upgrade, it was in story. Princess demonstrates a third dimension in the story, the plussing that draws the audience in like nothing else the studio has done in the last decade.
I think Roy Disney was proud of this film; I do not know that, I have not heard that said, and I daresay it is a bit presumptuous for me to attribute this to him... but I think it. I do not know how involved he was in this film, if even at all. I do know that this film personifies all Roy stood for at the studio- artistic freedom, fine artwork animated by the best animators in the world, telling the best story they could. This film is a fitting finale to his life at his namesake company, a shining, cinematic epitaph for the man who championed so long for the level of artistic freedom that he now leaves behind as his legacy. This film firmly and definitively marks a return to what Disney once was. Because this film reminds us again just how good Disney can be, when it is allowed to do what it does best: tell stories.
(This post was edited by eminovitz on Dec 20, 2009, 2:37 PM)