Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review - The Princess and the Frog

With The Princess and the Frog, Disney is getting back to basics, and aiming to repeat the formula that served them well through their various golden ages. The film is a return to traditional 2D animation, with this neglected arm of the studio being put to use for the first time since 2004's forgettable Home on the Range, and the narrative feels pleasingly familiar too. John Musker and Ron Clements, the film's co-directors, are veterans at this game, and they know exactly what's required to turn an old-fashioned story into a family hit, having already produced The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules. The Princess and the Frog contains everything you would expect to find in this type of picture, from comical supporting characters to song-and-dance numbers at regular intervals – it even opens with a song that extols the virtues of wishing on a star, just to let you know exactly what you're in store for.

The film acknowledges that wishing on a star isn't all you need to succeed, however, and Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) knows that she'll need hard work to make her dreams come true. She's a young black waitress, who is working all the hours available as she inches closer to achieving her late father's dream of opening a restaurant, before matters are complicated by a voodoo priest (Keith David), a lazy prince (Bruno Campos) and Tiana's transformation into a frog. The Princess and the Frog is set in New Orleans, at some point in the 1920's, and Disney's keenness to highlight the casting of a black girl as the lead is rather undermined by the lack of nuance with which they handle race as a whole. Tiana could be any colour – she's a cardboard heroine defined by her spunk, determination, honesty and underlying romantic streak – and she's green for the majority of the film anyway. Her unlikely friendship with a rich white girl (Jennifer Cody) doesn't convince, while her burgeoning romance with the handsomely tanned prince offers an uncomfortable contrast with the menace provided by the dark, deep voiced voodoo master.

Questionable racial considerations aside, however, the film has other issues that prevent it from earning its place among the studio's classics. The simple story is told in a witty and lively fashion – even if it lays on the New Orleans flavour a bit thick at times – but it lacks any truly memorable moments, and for every character that works (Michael-Leon Wooley's jazz-mad alligator is a hoot), there's one that doesn't (Jim Cummings' snuggle-toothed firefly is an irritant). Another problem is the soundtrack provided by Disney regular Randy Newman, which rarely comes to life. Although a couple of early songs impress – like the spectacularly staged Almost There and Friends on the Other Side – the subsequent numbers all end up sounding the same, and waiting for them to end becomes something of a chore. The film's saving grace is its animation, which is simply gorgeous, and a wonderful reminder of how beautiful this now-unfashionable animated technique can be. The lighting and use of colour is a constant delight, and there are some beautiful effects on show. Aesthetically, this is a film to rank alongside the very best of Disney, but on a storytelling level, it's not quite up to standard.