Monday, November 29, 2010

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

By Cinema Muse

Being a lover of the Art Deco Era in which this movie is set, I absolutely could not resist reviewing it. Like most Disney animated films, it's not without it's problems, but I still find a lot to admire in The Princess and the Frog. Pixar head honcho John Lassiter had a large part in the restart of the Disney hand-drawn features, and his influence shows clearly in the quality of this film, which is higher than that of any Disney animated film since Mulan (I'm not counting Enchanted since it was mostly live action). It also features an earnestness in storytelling that recent Disney fare seems to have forgotten in the din pop culture references and cheap humor, and I think that quality will make this film stand the test of time.

Right out of the gate, I have to give Disney a lot of credit for capturing both the look and sound of 1920s New Orleans. Even though Tiana's waitress uniform and princess dresses are fairly generic-looking instead of having the feel of the period, the rest of the costumes and scenery are spot on, much to my delight. As much as this accuracy pleases me, though, I tried not to let it blind me from the movie's faults--and believe me, there are a few. As much as I like the score, moreover, I  don't think the songs are quite as strong as they were in past films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element of this film is the characterization, especially of Tiana and Prince Naveen. Ironically both are extremely materialistic, though Tiana doesn't realize how much that aspect of her personality has affected her. I feel like with Prince Naveen we get our first real depiction of royalty from Disney: a selfish, womanizing spendthrift who plans to marry for money. This is an improvement because it shows young girls that having a royal title doesn't necessarily make a man a desirable mate. Whereas Charlotte is prepared to marry Naveen purely to become a princess, Tiana won't even consider him until he has a major change of heart. I also find Naveen's chagrin at being raised to be "decoratively useless"--i.e. having no life and survival skills--to be quite believable, a common complaint of coddled children. Tiana's simple act of teaching him to cook, therefore, empowers him to take control of his own life instead of remaining a sponge. In fact his fulfillment in learning that skill reveals to us that his whole previous lifestyle was really what Pascal would call "diversion," a ploy to distract him from his meaningless existence. Once Naveen finds a purpose in helping Tiana achieve her dream, everything else takes is proper place in the order of importance for his life. He can still have fun playing the ukulele on occasion, but fun is no longer the point of his life.

Tiana's problem is much more subtle than her love interest's. Although she basically had a good upbringing. she has become quietly obsessed with the necessity of making money in order to realize her dream of owning a swank restaurant. Of course there's nothing wrong with having a dream and working hard to make it a reality, but Tiana takes it to an unhealthy level when she starts neglecting the people who love her in order to make make every penny she can. The lesson she learns from her father's example in the end is that sharing joy and love with others will make your life worthwhile regardless of whether or not your achieve your personal goals. Of course Tiana gets her restaurant in the end, but it's no longer the most important thing in her life because she's realized that people are far more valuable than things. Really it's not something that she didn't already know, but she's learned to evaluate how well she's living up to her standards, which is something that everyone needs to know.

Despite this flaw in her character, Tiana's initiative in pursuing her dream is truly admirable. Unlike other Disney princesses who yearn for something more without any idea of how they can go about getting it, she has a plan and she executes it to some success. To Disney's credit, this is the first time they had a princess in a situation where it would not be anachronistic for her to have entrepreneurial aspirations, and they manage to create a character who can incorporate these attributes without feeling like a feminist firebrand. The problem with those kind of characters are their complete rejection of traditional women's roles and the bitterness that usually accompany their viewpoint. I'm not saying that all feminists are bitter and wish to reject all traditional women's roles, but I want to emphasize that the extreme ones often paint their issues in black-and-white terms that ruthlessly villainize men in order to justify their viewpoint to an audience whom they perceive to be hostile to their stance. Their actions ultimately seem counterproductive because they only serve to foment more hatred on an already sensitive subject That being noted, there are some moments in this film where we can sense Tiana's frustration and resentment at the disadvantages that gender and racial prejudice cause her along with the poverty of her circumstance, but for the most part she seems to be a loving, well-adjusted woman. She also doesn't shy away from taking on traditional family roles (being a good wife and daughter), which attests to the fact that living for others can be just as fulfilling as accomplishing personal goals.

As I said above, one thing I really admire about this film is the earnestness of the storytelling. Yes, it does have funny moments and comic relief characters, but they are never loud enough to detract from the heart of the story, which is evaluating priorities and a rejection of strict materialism. It also warms my heart that Tiana, Ray, and Louis all have fairly far-fetched dreams, but those dreams are respected and fulfilled, even if not in the way they expected it. Only Charlotte's and Naveen's selfish dreams become the subject of ridicule and rightly so. I also appreciate how seemingly selfish people like Naveen and Charlotte can change, which is always more enjoyable than having them stay static characters.

Even though I love this movie greatly, I want to emphasize that I like as an adult, but I don't think it's at all suitable for children. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record with these Disney films, but I really do feel like they are often too scary for young children. The demonic elements of the Shadow Man character are particularly frightening to me, as are the way his demon cohorts operate in the middle of the night and the way they literally drag him down to hell in the end. That's a bit much for little kids to take. It's also quite sad the way Ray dies in the end, even though he gets to live on as a star with Evangeline. I know if I were a kid, though, I'd still find it emotionally crippling. 

So in the end, The Princess and the Frog pretty much succeeds in recapturing the glory days of Disney animated features. Apart from the overly scary moments, this film has heart, charm, and excellent production values. In addition the fact that it's a period piece and that it lacks pop cultural references means that it should continue to be enjoyed by generations to come. If Disney can keep up the pace in it's future endeavors, I shall watch their progress with considerable enthusiasm.

**Please check out Cinema Muse's blog of classic Hollywood and book adaptation reviews at Seeing Sepia

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you on this movie. I was so excited to see a return to the beautiful hand-drawn animation that I grew up with. I also appreciated the "Beauty and the Beast" qualities of this movie. Both characters learn, grow and become better people/frogs :) as a result of knowing each other. It's not a "love at first sight" storyline.

    I wish Disney didn't feel the need to delve into the demonic and overly frightening with their villains. While Dr. Facilier was very charismatic, the fright factor was way out of hand for a children's movie. I have 3 daughters aged 7 and under, and there's no way they'll be watching this anytime soon.

    What drives me crazy is that I keep hearing that Disney blames the less than expected success of this movie on the fact that it didn't appeal to boys. That could be part of the problem. However, considering that the target audience for most animated films now is ages 2 to 8, could the creepy demons and the villain being dragged alive to his grave have something to do with the lack of success?

    For adults, I think Dr. Facilier is a good reminder to not mess with the demonic in any way, shape or form. There are true demonic forces in this world, and they are nothing to trifle with. I just don't think that's a lesson we really need to teach our two year olds quite yet. :}