Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

In retrospect, it was the height of ignorance to think that because multinational corporations abandoned drawn animation, the medium would die. It may not have been as visible in North America as it once was, but smaller studios were happy to keep making drawn films as if nothing had happened. The Princess and the Frog is the third drawn feature I've seen this year (after Miyazaki's Ponyo and Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells) and had circumstances not prevented me from going to the Ottawa festival, I would also have seen Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip.

Of the three I have seen, I'm sorry to say that The Princess and the Frog is the least interesting. Disney's return to drawn animation is also a return to Disney clichés. With the exception of race (and I want to come back to that), there's nothing in this film that Disney hasn't done before.

The truth, as everyone now acknowledges, is that people weren't tired of drawn animation, they were tired of being served the same stories over and over. That's why it's so disappointing that Disney has gone back to those stories. Without going into spoilers, the film is a gumbo of Broadway show tunes, Disney mysticism, lightweight romance and cartoon slapstick. The tone lurches all over the place and the film looks over-worked; it's as if the crew was so desperate for a hit that they pushed everything too far.

Except for one thing. One of my problems with Disney is that they choose settings for their art direction possibilities and then ignore everything else connected to the setting. This film is set in the 1910s and '20s in New Orleans. Racism was pervasive, not only on the personal level but also on the institutional level. It was in 1896, in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, that the United States Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites was constitutional. In reality, the facilities (including schools) were most definitely separate but never equal. There is no question that African Americans of the time were victims of a white society that used the law and violence in order to maintain a class system based on race.

I would suggest anyone interested in the truth of New Orleans during this time period read Louis Armstrong's autobiography My Life in New Orleans (and what an opportunity the film makers missed by not using Armstrong's recording of "A Kiss to Build a Dream On"). Armstrong's triumph over poverty and racism is far more interesting than this film. But let's be clear: this film doesn't exist to reveal any truths. It exists to capitalize on an under-served market segment: African-American girls who want a princess of their own.

I hope this film makes money because so long as Disney continues to make animated films, there is always the chance that a good one will result. A box office success will result in more employment for artists. But this year, besides Ponyo and Kells, I'd say I also prefer Sita Sings the Blues, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Mary and Max to this film. All five of those films are more individual and more emotionally engaging than The Princess and the Frog.

If nothing else, this year has shown that animated features are bigger than just the multinationals, and the so-called "death" of drawn animation was not only exaggerated, it was also an opportunity for new voices to be heard. Perhaps this year we have entered a post-Disney or post-multinational age of animated features. Wouldn't that be nice?

23 comments:

Eric Noble said...

Sorry to hear that. I may still see this film in order to judge for myself. However, the concern of your about the racism in 1920s New Orleans was on my mind as well. I'm sorry to hear Disney is not giving us anything new. Well, hopefully they will make something better.

Brett McCoy said...

I enjoyed the film quite a bit, although the question of the segregation issues from the time period did stay at the back of my mind during the entirey for the film. I enjoyed it mostly for the music and the animation, more than anything else.

Interesting, too, that the Prince was not white European, but apparently of a fictional Mediterranean extraction.

I think I liked the villain most of all -- as the animator described him, the spawn of Captain Hook and Cruella Deville

Thad said...
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Thad said...

What's most offensive to me is the color styling in these movies. The muddy Mississippi blue-green, the bayous are saturated yellow at night... whaaaat? Pick up a National Geographic for crying out loud.

The film is just more of the same crap, and another chapter in the book of problems the Disney name has had for the past 40 years.

The solution is to just do what made the early Disney movies great: study and draw from live actors and real life - not just other cartoons.

Eric "Spillz" Angelillo said...

I havent seen it, nor did i plan to pay to see it in theatres, however I have this to say:

I've heard a lot of fellow students talk about how no matter what it will help 2D animation in that if it's a success, other studios may follow suit and therefore there will be more traditional animation jobs.

However, I feel that if Princess and the Frog is nothing but a jumble of cliches and nothing truly new, it will in fact hurt the animation artform as a whole. I think it's because of films like these that animation remains in the realm of "mere children's fare". Whereas films Persepolis or Mary & Max (from what I heard) push the boundaries of what an animated film can be.

Pete Emslie said...

I haven't seen the film yet, so I won't speculate on its merits or failings. However, I do want to state that there are many of us who are simply happy for the return of Disney hand-drawn animation (which I refuse to call "2-D", by the way.) Additionally, I'll be happy to see a Disney animated feature that has a song-filled score, even though I'm a bit leery of Randy Newman's music, but I'm a proponent of musicals in general and do not want to see them die out altogether.

Frankly, I don't expect or demand that every Disney feature be something completely different from past efforts. In fact, I take comfort in the familiar nature of their films, including music, character design, etc. Disney has built its legacy on delivering films that appeal to the eyes and ears, and when they've strayed from that course, as I feel they did with "Atlantis" and "Treasure Planet", their fan base has responded in kind.

For those who don't like what Disney has always done or is likely to do, I'd suggest that they seek out other studios and independent animators to produce the more edgy, "rock and roll" mindset type of films that they seem to want. Disney has gotten rich doing what they do well, so why should they give that up? I agree that they should explore more diverse stories aside from just the fairy tales ("101 Dalmatians" being a prime example), but good old-fashioned Disney entertainment drawn in the house style still has a massive audience. Fact is, for those of us who love that kind of entertainment, Disney animation seems to be the only place to find it, as Hollywood in general doesn't much want to cater to those of my ilk, what with their slate of edgy and ugly crap making up the majority of contemporary mainstream live-action releases.

DJ Dyer said...

Disney has not only been recycling the same stories for years, but the same animations, as this clip clearly illustrates.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzyLZYYb2qk

Michael Sporn said...

I was hoping for a bit deeper review from you , Mark. But I can understand all the reasons you might not want to.

The primary problem with this film is that all the rules are broken will-nilly. For example:
- characters are introduced an hour into the film (with just a third of it left to go) that we're supposed to care about.
- The songs are all of the same ilk. They want a musical but you can't just add production number song after production number song. Songs have to have a structure and a reason for their being there. I assume from this arrangement of songs that Randy Newman (and the writers/directors) don't know of or understand that structure.
- the characters are designed as if they come from several different films without a solid unity behind them: realistic Tiana, stylized lightning bug, cartoony Louis alligator. The blend doesn't quite work for me.

There are problems galore. However, just seeing new and fresh full animated movement (regardless of clichés) was glorious to see again. I'm so tired of the little doll, computer minipulated animation I get from most films, and, in comparison, this animation just felt so free in form.

The film is a mixed blessing.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the film yet. But personally, I don't think I fancy the new stuff people are doing in general out there at all. Secret of Kells is alright but I fell asleep in the middle of it, Mr Fantastic Fox was too ugly for me to even want to go watch it. Ponyo was the same thing Miyazaki does ALL the time, little girl taking control, squiggly weird monsters/ creatures, at some point the characters doesn't speak a lot and behaves very determinedly to get something done, for a long time.

I would rather Disney go back to doing their 1940's stuff because those characters have charms that lasts forever in decades.

I keep watching shorts and wonder why don't studios do those anymore. Hell, even on TV shows where 2D 'is cheaper' to produce, The 80s - 90s magic are all gone. We have junks like Phineas and Ferb. Possibly the ugliest character design I seen coming out from Disney.

Disney's stuff is not for everyone, but there are others who like what they used to produce that are 'cliche' yet extremely likable. It still come down to the characters themselves. Tania and Naveen are not VERY remarkable designs to me at all. Both human and frog wise. I'm just not sold to it.

Just my 2 cents.
-S

filmkaravan said...

Bring Sita home with a DVD of
SITA SINGS THE BLUES

Buy on Amazon: http://amzn.com/B002G50002
Rent on Netflix: http://tinyurl.com/ybbqd7b



Sita is a goddess separated from her beloved Lord and husband Rama. Nina is an animator whose husband moves to India, then dumps her by email. Three hilarious shadow puppets narrate both ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the Indian epic Ramayana. Set to the 1920's jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw, Sita Sings the Blues earns its tagline as "the Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told."

Need another reason why? Check out Roger Eberts Review! http://tinyurl.com/ebert-on-sita

Thad said...
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Thad said...

I have to give an enthusiastic "YES" to most of the Anonymous "S." comment.

Disney has built its legacy on delivering films that appeal to the eyes and ears, and when they've strayed from that course, as I feel they did with "Atlantis" and "Treasure Planet", their fan base has responded in kind.

But they 'stayed' on the course with lots of other features too, which is why the second half of the nineties is littered with gems like HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, HERCULES, and TARZAN. Earlier on we have such classics as THE ARISTOCATS (a ripoff of a superior Famous Studios cartoon), ROBIN HOOD, and THE RESCUERS, films that a fellow student and I decided warrant no further a critique than "lame". I won't deny that the Katzenberg-era movies were popular, so there may be something to them I don't see. (Though I think ALADDIN and THE LION KING were terrible.)

Pete, it might surprise you that some of us do love the best of what the Disney filmography has to offer, and that's precisely why many of us think much of the new stuff stinks. The earliest films all adhered to this course you speak of while at least offering unique takes on acting, comedy, and design. The brand name has since receded to the point where the animation and acting is formula/copied and the art direction (an issue sorely overlooked regarding these things) is just bad.

It's the result of staring into the mirror too much, and no new ground is broken.

I hope one day a hand-drawn animated feature is made that truly gives the business the kick it needs. It certainly won't be a film Disney makes. That decision was laid in stone fifty some years ago.

And can someone tell me what the alligator from ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN is doing in a Disney film?

Floyd Norman said...

Traditional animation has been on life support the past few years. Was this the time to "swing for the bleachers?" Maybe.

However, these weren't independent film makers eager to innovate. Let's face it. Disney is a huge corporation where the bottom line is everything. One more hand drawn disaster would have been the final nail in the coffin.

While I'm anxious to go along with those who wanted more - I can't help but be aware of the real world I often work in- and the compromises that often have to be made.

This is a business after all. This saddens me - but it's true.

Russian Insider said...

It is always funny to read commentaries kind of "I didn't see this movie but certainly condemn it!"
Go and see it!

As to Disney's cliches sorry but there are FAR MORE cliches in Miadzaki's animated features. His films and characters are all the same! And still they are masterpieces. Sorry but I see some double standarts here.

Mr. Semaj said...

Frankly, I don't expect or demand that every Disney feature be something completely different from past efforts. In fact, I take comfort in the familiar nature of their films, including music, character design, etc. Disney has built its legacy on delivering films that appeal to the eyes and ears, and when they've strayed from that course, as I feel they did with "Atlantis" and "Treasure Planet", their fan base has responded in kind.

As Lilo & Stitch showed us, which turned out to be one of Disney's most original animated features, people don't mind Disney trying something different if it's something that can gain their interest.

I have stated before that Disney had to walk the line between going back to the basics and trying something new with The Princess and the Frog. You're bringing back a medium that shouldn't have been abandoned in the first place, AND appealing to a latent demographic. Familiarity of the former is the film's advantage if all else fails. Given the importance of both in this case, some of the more commonplace critiques from the animation quarters are completely irrelevant.

Oscar Grillo said...

"A Kiss to Build a Dream On". A true musical masterpiece!

ChrisW said...

http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=princessandthefrog.htm

Numbers don't lie. It's well on its way to making a clear profit.

A profitable hand-drawn film from Disney means more hand-drawn films getting produced. No doubt about it. A profit on this one is all it takes to get the next one greenlit.

More drawn films getting produced means more classically trained animators working, and putting food on the table for their families.

scott Caple said...

"Except for one thing. One of my problems with Disney is that they choose settings for their art direction possibilities and then ignore everything else connected to the setting."
Ouch!Yes! nailed like a bug! Even the art direction possibilites are wasted! As a layout and background guy on several Disney features, it was intensely frustrating to have a great historical, geographical setting that was then underused. Hunchback, Mulan, even Treasure Planet completely missed the boat for portraying the lovely complexity of a rich historical (or fantasy based on history) setting. Again, leave it to Mr. Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke for example, to really depict place, time and atmosphere!

Rick Roberts said...

"Disney's return to drawn animation is also a return to Disney clichés."

"It exists to capitalize on an under-served market segment: African-American girls who want a princess of their own."

These are the two things I have been saying since before the film came out.

Pete:

I must admit I don't have too much of a respect for Disney animation, not nearly as much as the comics. I think the best theatrical animation deserves credit in their variety. Dumbo, Bambi, The Three Caballeros, Fantasia, were all finely crafted works that had much variety. However those best years are long gone the Disney of today simply wants to imitate the weaker, un-interesting human animation of their fairy tale films. They did a bold thing with Lilo and Stitch, abandoning all the same cliches and launching a hilarous ad campaign. It was one the most ambitious projects since Fantasia. There is absolutely no reason why Disney has to rely once again on the princess tripe when they could sell the public something better.

Rick Roberts said...

Also Pete, I continue to be shocked how much you like the late 60's and 70's output of Walt Disney feature films. JUNGLE BOOK, ARISTICATS, 101 DALMATIONS, and the rest I find the very worst of Disney. I think their magnum opus was Song of The South. Sadly, that film will never be properly released due to NAACP and other PC folks who claim the film is a negative depiction of black people and yet they don't mind BET.

Erik D. Martin said...

Man I feel the exact same way.

as an artist, I think we naturally want to see the medium pushed to new limits. Disney has the talent to make incredible things ;however, producers /focus groups always get in the way.

We can only hope better things may come.

Anonymous said...

According to imdb.com (as of December 27th), the film is in the sixth slot with 63.4 million dollars made, so far. The estimated cost of the film is 105 million. Let's hope the DVD sales are phenomenal. Does anyone think there will be any straight to DVD sequels?

Anonymous said...

"According to imdb.com (as of December 27th), the film is in the sixth slot with 63.4 million dollars made, so far. The estimated cost of the film is 105 million. Let's hope the DVD sales are phenomenal."

There's no way to put a good face on it ... so far the film is definitely not performing as strongly at the box-office as it needed to perform to be proclaimed an instant hit.

As of Dec. 29th the box-office gross for PATF is $70 million. It will probably make it to about $100 million domestic box-office before it closes. (hopefully a bit better than $100 million)

PATF has yet to open overseas. We'll have to wait and see how it looks when everything is totaled up from both the domestic and foreign box-office.

Something to keep in mind: one of the later Disney films, "Brother Bear" (2003) is usually perceived as an under-performer (if not an outright flop) . "Brother Bear" cost $85 million to make. It made $85 million at the box-office in the United States. Not good. Didn't break-even based on the U.S. box-office. But then it went on to gross over $165 million in the rest of the world, so it's cumulative worldwide box-office was a respectable $250,397,798 .

BUT here's what you might not know : "Brother Bear" went on to earn an additional $169 million in DVD sales and rentals, becoming one of the biggest money makers in video for the year 2004 (And this was after certain Hollywood moguls had proclaimed "2D animation is dead" ... well, gosh, someone out there sure was buying up a lot of DVD's of that dead art form. And other Disney animated films continued to be strong sellers in the home video market)

So , money is money , whether it comes in at the theater box-office or via DVD sales or rentals. Someone is making a profit on films like "Brother Bear" , which cost $85 million to make, but ended up bringing in around $420 million all told, with the worldwide theatrical release and home video release combined.

(and Brother Bear was apparently considered popular enough -- even though 2D was dead at that point -- for a direct-to-video sequel which also sold very well on DVD. All this from one of the lesser-known and less-respected Disney animated movies . )

So, yeah, the DVD/Blu-Ray sales and rentals for The Princess and the Frog will be important.