Disney kisses a frog, but is it magic?

Posted: Thursday, December 17, 2009

'The Princess and the Frog'

Walt Disney Animation Studios

1 hour, 37 minutes

Disney is a behemoth. What was once a family-friendly entertainment haven for children the world over has become a gargantuan corporation with annual revenues exceeding that of most third-world nations. They're like the Wal-Mart or the McDonald's of the entertainment industry, swallowing up the competition and promoting the homogenization of America.

That said, there is one division of this mighty megacorp that has not been doing so well lately. Animation. Traditional, hand-drawn animated movies like "Snow White," "101 Dalmatians," and newer classics like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," are the reason for the company's success, but in the last decade those types of films have begun tanking.

Some would blame the brilliant technological innovations and clever storytelling of Pixar, which Disney wisely gobbled up, for ending the era of the classic cartoon, but more likely the reason is simply that the quality is no longer there. The last serious effort from the company was 1998's "Mulan," and since then we've gotten mostly duds like "Atlantis," "Treasure Planet," and "Brother Bear," as well as a slew of straight to video sequels. There was the vaguely entertaining "Lilo and Stitch" thrown in there, but it paled in comparison to Disney's previous glory. With that in mind, Walt and Co. decided it was time to dust off the pencils and sketch pads and return to their roots, bringing back the spectacle, the pageantry, and most of all, the storyline that shepherded them through eight decades of animated films. "The Princess and the Frog" is supposed to be Walt Disney's magnificent return to hand-drawn animation. So why does it feel so ordinary?

Our titular Princess this time around is Tiana, a young black girl living in Jazz-era New Orleans. She's not really a princess, but rather a poor girl with a head full of dreams. It's a restaurant and upscale club she wants, but with a deadline to produce the money rapidly approaching, things don't look good. Enter Prince Naveen, fun-loving monarch-to-be of far away Maldonia. Cut off from his funds, Naveen arrives in New Orleans with hopes of marrying a rich girl in order to continue his life of leisure.

Barely off the boat, our spoiled young man runs afoul of Dr. Facilier, a creepy voodoo practitioner otherwise known as The Shadow Man. A little bit of curse and a little bit of con, and Naveen finds himself trapped in the body of a frog. Soon he escapes and comes across Tiana at a costume party dressed as, you guessed it, a princess. Certain it will break the spell, Naveen talks a kiss out of her with promises of money to purchase her restaurant. Not being a real princess, however, the spell backfires and Tiana winds up with a pair of long green legs herself.

The rest of the tale follows a fairly typical path -- chases, escapes, wacky sidekicks, fairy godmothers, and true love, all done up Louisiana style. The animation is very pretty, certainly evoking older Disney movies, though with a little more style and a little less attention to detail. There's been a great amount of talk concerning the fact that Tiana is Disney's first black princess, but to be honest, it would have never occurred to me. The "controversy" seems more like a ploy to drum up tickets than anything real.

I should say that, despite the fact that it doesn't live up to the hype, there's nothing particularly wrong with "The Princess and the Frog." It's cute, has catchy music, and should hold the attention of the average third-grader with no problem. I took my 2-year-old, and he stayed engaged for almost half of the movie, which is saying something.

It just doesn't feel like anything you haven't seen before. Is that because the movie is lacking, or is it because I, now in my mid-30s, am seeing it through different eyes? When Disney had it's last resurgence in animation, 1989's "The Little Mermaid," I was 16 -- not really a little kid, but young enough to still get excited by a big screen cartoon. But was that movie really all that great? I wonder what my parents thought -- if it was basically the same way I felt about "Princess." Did they think, "Eh. It's good enough for kids, but certainly not something I'm going to run out and see again."

As you might imagine, "The Princess and the Frog" topped the weekend box office, and I imagine it'll go on to make plenty of money. Movies like this, even the bad ones, always do. I'm happy to recommend it to anyone with children, with the caveat that even though you've seen this fairy tale story a thousand times, they haven't. It's a harmless entry into the Disney lexicon, but perhaps a pointless one, as well. With Pixar's influence spreading over the rest of the Disney Co., as well as across to other studios as well, going backward, at least in terms of storytelling styles, seems like an odd move. After all, the old movies will always be there.

When you think about it that way, what makes "The Princess and the Frog" anything more than a quirky gimmick -- a hand-drawn cartoon in an age of computer generated images?

Clever, but without a stronger or more unique story, little more than a quick money maker.

Grade: B-

"The Princess and the Frog" is rated G.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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