“Oh, but you must kiss me. Look, besides being unbelievably handsome, I come from a fabulously wealthy family. Surely, I can offer you some reward or a wish that I could grant, perhaps?”
“Just one kiss?”
“Just one. Unless you beg for more.”
Disney give a fabulous new spin on a quaint old fairytale, injecting lots of humour, a fabulously dark occult slant, a terrifically sultry and exotic setting and a sense of wistful fun. With The Princess And The Frog, the House of Mouse attempt to go back to their cell-drawn roots, eschewing the CG route in favour of lush organic visuals, a palette so rich you could get drunk or high just looking at, and a fluid vibrancy that does seem to bestow that classical sense of, well, life. But they also travel backwards in time to a type of storytelling that is at once traditional and reassuringly familiar, yet is also fast, dynamic and frothy with more up-to-date characterisation and a strangely more mature set of values.
Directors-and-screenwriters John Musker and Ron Clements have a pedigree to live up to. These two are the ones that gave Disney the vital shot in the arm the studio needed if it was ever to play in the modern cinematic ballpark, actually ushering-in a rekindled adoration for all things animated. With The Little Mermaid they brought the old standards whirling around again but invested the story with enough zest and empathy to make Ariel and her aquatic buddies the shining role models that younger kids had been so lacking in during the more cultish and trendy animated fare of the 80's. With Aladdin they collided fabulous visuals with the anarchic weapon of mass destruction that is Robin Williams' Genie. And they even turned their creative hands to a couple of less-respected but, in my opinion, simply brilliant tales as Hercules and then the dazzling Treasure Planet, proving that they were as at home with myths and fables, as well as being bold enough to totally re-imagine a cherished literary classic. With The Princess And The Frog, the pair hark back to Walt's golden era and create a tale of star-crossed lovers trapped in an occult-enforced conundrum.
African-American waitress Tiana (voiced by Dreamgirls' Anika Noni Rose) works all the hours God sends in order to make enough money to open her own restaurant in the uber-cool French Quarter of New Orleans. Her childhood friendship with the daughter of a well-to-do family ensures that, as an adult, she is at the plush party they have thrown in the hopes that her Southern Belle playmate will meet and become engaged to the visiting Prince Naveen from Maldonia. But unbeknownst to the girls, the feckless, air-headed Prince Naveen has already fallen prey to the sinister voodoo machinations of Dr. Facilier (Keith David hiring out his vocal chords for another animated character after voicing the cat in Coraline) and, in a macabre trick, been turned into a frog. The handsome charlatan masquerading in his place is, in fact, his own transformed manservant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), equally lured into Facilier's nefarious schemes with the promise that the embittered attendant will no longer just be a slave to others. Thus, when a frog gregariously announces to Tiana, who is swooning at the sultry, star-lit night and parading about in a delightful dress and tiara that her tempestuous and romantic friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) has insisted she wear for the ball, that should she award him a kiss he will, in time-honoured fashion, change back into the handsome prince he once was. Hmmm ... she's read about this sort of thing. But, throwing caution to the wind, she plants a smacker on his green lips and ...hey presto ... a transformation does indeed take place. However, Dr. Facilier's hex isn't so simple to circumvent, and poor Tiana is morphed into a leggy amphibian, herself, sort of reinforcing the warnings about the ease of passing on STD's. Hey, how about that, then? You never thought about that in a Disney film, did you?
Flung together, the bickering duo must now set off into the swamps in search of a cure. Magic, of both white and black varieties ensues, unlikely alliances are forged, great gumbo is consumed, dreams are swapped and true love simmers beneath the glistening green skin of our hapless protagonists. As ever, the story would be nothing if it wasn't for the supporting characters that bumble about, singing, fighting and dancing, to help and to hinder our heroes from the sidelines. The Princess And The Frog may not have sidekicks as fun or as memorable as Pumba and Timon, or the coy cups and pots from Beauty And The Beast, or, especially, Baloo the Bear, or any of those little mining fellers in their cottage in the woods, but the assortment of Louisiana wild-life that come along for the ride are actually quite inspired and engaging, just the same. Mickey's age-old potion ensures that each has a distinct and likeable personality, and a problem of their own to overcome along the way.
Vocally, we are blessed with a fine cast. All bring believability to their characters, not least the most distinctive voice as that belonging to David, who goads and urges and intimidates as the voodoo-hoodoo shadow-man, Dr. Facilier. Bruno Campos delivers an accent as Prince Naveen that, especially during his frogified state, sounds like an impersonation of Antonio Banderas' Puss from the Shrek films. Jim Cummings wrestles with an exotic and super-charged Cajun twang as smitten firefly, Ray. Oprah Winfrey is fine as Tiana's mother, Eudora, and the soothing lullaby tones of Terence Howard as her father, James, match his moving animated adoration for his little girl during the prologue. A delightful touch is the photograph of him in uniform that the older Tiana has of him on her dressing table. A Medal of Honour is draped around it. Beautifully subtle and evocative at the same time. John Goodman essays the well-heeled Big Daddy La Bouff (Charlotte's father), with bluff and bluster, although just when this should have been enhanced when his own life is in jeopardy, the character pretty much peters-out.
The ragtag gaggle of hangers-on that Tiana and Naveen end up hauling with them put you in mind of poor Clint Eastwood's avenger reluctantly joined by an eclectic ensemble in The Outlaw Josie Wales. Typically, they are all animals, but when you consider that the leads have gone native, themselves, this makes more sense than merely following the Disney trend of talking critters and crockery. We have the main attraction of the jazz-lovin' alligator, Louis (Michael Leon-Wooley), who is animated with such rotund joviality that his impressive fangs are swiftly forgotten about. We also have the lovelorn firefly, which is a wonderful creation - he is wooing hopelessly over the brightest star in the night sky, his “Evangeline” - and possesses one of those giddily infectious Cajun accents that Cummings really has fun getting his tonsils around.
Humour is expertly entwined with the voodoo and it is probably this black magical bent that helps make this film appeal to me all the more. Old blind Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), lurking deep in the heart of the bayou in a ramshackle Southern Gothic pad that incorporates boat and a tree, a crow's nest, a bubbling cauldron and more undesirable things in hanging jars and bottles than you'd find in the cave of Macbeth's cackling trio of witches, may just hold the solution to Tiana's and Naveen's sticky-tongued problems. But this being a Disney film, you just know that part of the answer lies in being true to yourself and giving in to true love. Ahhhhh.
“Now we're cookin'! We're gonna find ourselves a frog. Search everywhere ... the bayou, the quarter... bring him to me alive. I need his heart pumping... for now.”
Remarkably, after getting some degree of pre-release art-house build-up from the likes of The South Bank Show and some learned early critical fanfares, the film did not appear to strike much of a chord with audiences or reviewers. I don't know of any kids that didn't immediately fall for its cheeky charm, voodoo villainy and bubbly bayou broadsides of slapstick, but there is no question that Musker/Clements' cute swamp-set yarn will not be remembered in the same breath as The Lion King, Beauty And The Beast or their own The Little Mermaid. In fact, the film found itself all-too-often likened to Pocahontas, Hercules and Mulan, which is just fine by me, because I loved those entries as much, if not more so than the Big Three. And yet the film doesn't put a foot wrong. It feels fresh and dynamic, whilst still following the trusted template to the letter. The characters are splendid and the conflict pleasingly pell-mell. The ending is, of course, predictable ... but there would be an outcry if it wasn't. And the animation? Well, the much ballyhooed return to hand-drawn story weaving is literally spellbinding.
“I may have kissed a frog today ... but I am not eatin' a bug!”
Visually, the film is heartbreakingly gorgeous. There is a difference between cell-drawn and CG animation that is down to the actual emotions that each form can trigger. The artists themselves tend to claim that they have a connection both physical and spiritual with the story and the characters that they are creating when they are doing the job the old fashioned way - and I can totally believe this. I'm certainly not saying that the traditional methods are better than the more technologically advanced - I mean the most beautiful, rapturous visions that I have seen have been CG-crafted (WALL-E, Ratatouille, Lilo & Stitch, Shrek, erm, Avatar) - but if the hand-to-canvas artist connection is tangible, then the eye-to-screen relationship that evolves from that is too. For this colourful stew of swampy misadventure and ravishing New Orleans spectacle is so infinitely mesmerising to look at that you would probably wouldn't want it to end ... even if you hated the film!
The macabre Dr. Facilier looks as though he has the face of Skinner, the devious head-chef from Ratatouille, grafted onto his spindly Ichabod Crane body, but his Baron Samedi style is depicted with wildly satanic flair. The truly spooky use of shadows to do his bidding evokes the classic Vampyre, as well as Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the Mardi Gras flamboyance that sweeps him along is a grim joy to behold. Almost all of Disney's villains have been extraordinarily evil - this is part of what makes their stories so effective in the first place - and this bogeyman from the bayou is certainly no exception. There is something of an Oogie Boogie quality to him at times, but there is also a delicious aura of depravity too, and this is certainly a guy with harm on his mind. When conjuring and summoning, it is cool how the traditional Baron Samedi white skull-face appears over his own, anchoring the film's agreeably darker moments in pure Haitian Macumba. That he actually owes his glowering satanic superiors already lends him a greater motivation, and something of a meaner disposition. But his penchant for offering “deals” is one that fits in with the pseudo reign of power that he has over the superstitious. Once this guy unleashes his demonic buddies from the “Other Side”, though, the film finds itself in as dark and as demented a place as the Magic Kingdom's earliest Grimm adaptations. Their witches of old have always been frightening, their intentions unpardonably cruel, but suddenly Disney's latest seems to plunge into set-piece menace along the lines of A Nightmare On Elm Street or, more pertinently, Drag Me To Hell.
“You sure this is the right blind voodoo lady who lives in the boat in the tree in the bayou?”
When the fake Prince's body-swap spell begins to wane and his former physiognomy attempts to reconvert him, there are some great visual gags and a couple of fine innuendos to accompany his valiant efforts to disguise his reversion from the quizzical Charlotte. One moment the dashing beau looks like more like Prince Charles than Prince Naveen, and the next he is boasting of a “Throbbing ...” as something below his belt starts to bulge! Careful, now. It's not what you think. I think it is great that Disney throw a few curve-balls in, such as this. The best of their output since The Little Mermaid breathed life back into their ailing property has always had something deeper, darker and more sophisticated than mere cutesy creatures prat-falling their way through a moral dilemma. Lilo & Stitch bravely tackled child care (and aliens). Tarzan was surprisingly brutal, as was The Lion King. Treasure Planet dealt with the haunting loss of a father figure and the dangers of locating a surrogate one. The Princess And The Frog doesn't exactly strain the emotions in anything other than the most subtle of ways, but the flavours of malice and of the occult are strong and instead of merely popping classical conjuration in to the pot, the voodoo is a dominant and continuous factor in the narrative. And even though Louis just wants to play jazz in a band, those pesky teeth and the iffy reputation that his kind have around these parts keep on getting in the way of performing on stage. Thus, with its running theme of metamorphosis and of someone with the ability to control it, there are even shades of Dr. Moreau as the frogs and the gator race to become human and fulfil their dreams.
People complain that the songs aren't memorable. Well, be that as it may, they suit the film and story to a tee, and there is a finely woven jazz-inflected voodoo stomp to the musical numbers that is pure gumbo from heaven. Regular Pixar composer (the Toy Stories, Monsters Inc., Cars and A Bug's Life) Randy Newman comes to the Disney stable to procure some toe-tapping tunes and the odd wistful ballad. Hailing from New Orleans, himself, he must have relished to opportunity to embrace his jazzy roots. I'll concede that the big number, When We're Human, is pretty poor, but Facilier's demonic signature, Friends On The Other Side, is a slyly mischievous delight, dealing, as it does, with shredding the veil that separates this world and the dark realm with which the sorcerer is in touch. Newman even gets to lend his own voice to the part of Cousin Randy, a swampland squeeze-box-playing relative of Ray.
“AARRRGHHHH ... prickle-bush has got me! Gator down! Gator down!!!”
A trio of inbred redneck hunters - an imbecilic ogre, a wizened old schemer and a gibberish-spouting human Swiss Army Knife - take a fancy to our potential little supper of Frogs' Legs but, in a great little set-piece of daft Three Stooges homage, will be left up a certain creek without a certain implement. The jamboree over at Mama Odie's tree-boat sanctuary is riotous and free-wheeling, and the romantic interlude on the riverboat a cool and dusky lull before a frantic finale that, to be honest, crams far too much into too short a time. In fact, the climax, as poetic and as loose-end-tying as it strives to be, almost drops the ball with its headlong rush of momentum and ideas. If anything, the last act should have been eked-out a little further and, perhaps, not as disjointed. As it stands now, it runs the risk of being vaguely unsatisfying which, after such a vibrant and enjoyable set-up that knew how to maintain the pace and the alternate the mood between zany and sentimental, seems a touch ill-thought-out.
But, hey, this has got heaps of voodoo, a malevolent shadow-man, amulets, potions, curses and even an effigy about to be stuck with pins, so I think we can forgive this all-too-neat and compacted final stretch.
It is correct that where the film is visually stunning and quite ambitious, the story doesn't exactly go-for-broke and deliver anything particularly new. Our mismatched lovers will have to overcome their initial differences, their anger at being flung together and a general reluctance to reach some sort of bonding other than what is necessary to reverse their amphibian condition. Then, after some period of understanding, they will stumble over a later obstacle that threatens to derail this new-found affection (a la Shrek), before finally realising their true feelings in that formulaic arc of yore. Little else is offered nor, as it happens, should it be expected. The Disney modus operandi of the leads encountering a colourful roster of supporting creatures and leading them all, Shane-like (or Mad Max-like, if you will), through their own smaller trials, and then on towards a well-earned halcyon nirvana in “happy ever after land”, is strictly adhered-to. Emotionally, Princess doesn't break any new ground and this is, possibly, where it fails to join with the best-loved and often immediate classics that have come along previously. But even if this is second tier Disney to a lot of people, it follows the tried and trusted pattern with gusto, flair and a very enjoyable swagger.
It is great to see the studio going back to more traditional animation methods and the results of their labours are, indeed, breathtaking and prove that such techniques still have a vital and loveable role to play in the medium. The story, too, is as refreshing as it is patently Old School, a wonderful throwback to the quintessential poetic/moral cycles of realisation, revelation and comeuppance that the studio made its name with, yet stippled with modernisms in terms of attitude, style and sheer sass.
The last act may be rushed and jumbled, but The Princess And The Frog has more than just hypnotic visuals going for it, and comes well recommended.
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