Monday, January 4, 2010

Back In LA in 2010, Featuring: THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG - Reviewed!

Well, I'm back in LA and ready to kick off 2010 with a bang. My trip to CT was fun and relaxing, but at the same time, it's good to be back where the action is. It's kind of crazy though - when my brother and I left Bradley airport in CT on Thursday afternoon, it was freezing cold and snowing hard. Several hours later, we were back in sunny California, and it was unbelievably warm. In fact, this past weekend we had summer-like temperatures in the 70's. I actually took several photos of all the snow in CT, just because I was feeling a bit nostalgic for New England winter weather, and also because I thought my friends here in LA would get a kick out of seeing what winter is *really* like.

In any case, it was a pretty low-key trip home, but definitely relaxing. The snow and cold weather kind of discounraged me from doing any big trips to NYC or Boston, but I was pretty content to be lazy, watch movies, see family, and eat good food (east-coast pizza - woohoo!).

That said, I did have some fun little adventures. One night, for example, I hung out in West Hartford with former CA transplant and current Chicago resident Bradd K. This being CT, we of course ran into a couple of former high school classmates while out and about, and it was fun catching up with everyone and swapping updates on our old K-O crew. I also saw a couple of movies - Sherlock Holmes (check out my review if you haven't already), and The Princess & The Frog - the review of which you can read right here, in this very post.

Mostly though, there was a lot of quality family time, whether it was our family's traditional Shabbat dinner, a pizza party for my cousins, or catching up with my grandparents at their house. Definitely an opportunity to recharge the ol' batteries. That said, I can always use a day or two to recover from all that quality family time, so it was nice having a couple of days off back in LA before returning to work. This past weekend, I managed to catch a couple more late 2009 movie releases - The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and Crazy Heart - so expect reviews of those shortly as well.

And by the way, hopefully you've already checked out my Best of 2009 and Best of the Decade series of posts. I've got a few more 2009 entries still on the way, but, I've also gone back and tweaked my movies of the year list a bit. I'll be able to elaborate a bit more when I submit my Crazy Heart review later this week, but the short version is that that film demanded to be retroactively placed on the Best of '09 list - it was quite a movie.

Anyways, here's my view on Disney's first traditionally-animated movie in quite some time, The Princess and the Frog.


- Well, The Princess and the Frog may not have made quite the impact that some of Disney's all-time animated classics did upon their theatrical releases. But I will say this: that old-time Disney magic is strong in this one. To me, The Princess and the Frog is a welcome return to traditional animation - and to classic Disney storytelling - a movie that was, indeed, a long time coming.

The first thing that has to be said about this film is that, yes, it's old-school, traditional, 2D animation, and it looks amazing. Disney picks up right where it left off with the likes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Maybe it's just that it's been so long since we've seen top-shelf hand-drawn animation on the big-screen, but there was definitely a rush that came with seeing a great artform return in such spectacular fashion. I don't think there are any amazing new visual tricks in this one that will blow people away (a la the ballroom dance scene in Beauty and the Beast), But at the same time, there is a lot of amazing animation to gaze at, and a lot of really cool set-pieces that are pretty spectacular to watch unfold. For example, I loved all of the tripped-out voodoo visuals associated with the creepy main villain, The Shadow Man. There were elements of Disney's Haunted Mansion, of The Oogie-Boogie Man from The Nightmare Before Christmas ... but I was definitely grinning every time we got glimpses of the hellish "other side" from which The Shadow Man derives his black-magic powers. One of my favorite things about the classic Disney films is how surprisingly dark they can get, especially given all those great, dastardly villains. I think in this one, Shadow Man's motivations are a bit murky, but I also love the visual design. Like I said, his featured songs and sequences are creepy and lots of fun.

I also really liked the overall message of the movie. When it comes to kids movies, it's always interesting to see what kind of overall themes the filmmakers insert into the story. With the rise of Pixar in recent years, there's definitely been a trend towards family films that appeal to kids but also feature more sophisticated characters and themes than a typical Disney animated film. And that's cool - Pixar's made some fantastic movies using that type of storytelling. But blending more modern, sophisticated sensibilities with a more traditional Disney fantasy story could have been a recipe for disaster. Or we could have just gotten another Shrek - which is a good film - but definitely doesn't feel Disney (Disney does NOT and should not do ironic humor or pop-culture references - okay, they did with Aladdin, but still, you know what I mean ...). But what The Princess and the Frog does, and does well, I think, is that it has all the elements of classic Disney fairy tales - magic, romance, good and evil - but it also has an updated female protagonist - a "princess" who isn't really a princess at all, except that she embodies goodness and nobility. But she also comes from modest means. She's had a hard-knock life. She had to work hard to make end's meat. And at first, she's repelled by her prince - a guy who, until recently, has had everything handed to him on a silver spoon. And the prince isn't just some generic knight-in-shining-armor type either. He's a musician. He's goofy. He's kind of a dork. It's a far cry from the old days of Sleeping Beauty, but to me, it works, and it felt in some ways classical, in some ways just right for the times we live in.

That modernization of the characters goes hand-in-hand with the more modern setting of New Orleans. Sure, it's a very much Disneyfied version of New Orleans, but that's cool. I've never been, but I like how the movie made the city feel magical without feeling like a fairy tale. There is poverty and class division, but also music and mystery and spirit. Sounds about right to me. I really give The Princess and the Frog credit for capturing the spirit of New Orleans - sure, it's a more G-rated version, but it works perfectly in this context.

And that brings me to the music. I know some have complained that the soundtrack doesn't stand toe to toe with classics like The Lion King. And I agree - the songs here are not quite as instantly-catchy as some of Disney's best efforts of the past. At the same time, I wonder whether they really need to be. For one thing, the songs here follow a more specific stylistic template - they all evoke the jazz and soul music of New Orleans, and in that respect are more designed to set a certain mood rather than be instant pop-radio hits. That's cool with me, and even with that said, there are a couple of tunes that I found really catchy and up there with other Disney hits. I will definitely have to give 'em another listen, but personally I thought the music worked great within the film, and I was definitely tappin' my toes throughout.

I'll also say that the voicework in the film is great. Everyone from Anika Rose as the princess-to-be Tiana, to John Goodman in a small role a rotound aristocrat, really does a nice job. Speaking of which, there are a ton of cool side characters that I'm sure will go on to become big fan favorites, from soulful crocodiles to cajun fireflies. I also loved the feisty old swamp witch known as Mama Odie, who takes the lead in probably the movie's best musical number.

I guess my real nitpick is that the story didn't quite work as well as it should have. The character arc of Tiana was well-handled, but the interplay between the heroes and villains is pretty limited. By the time we arrive at the climactic confrontation with The Shadow Man, there's not really much personal history between him and Tiana - up until that point, he's mostly just been lurking around the periphery of the movie. There's not that same sort of initial meeting like when Ariel first encounters Ursula in The Little Mermaid, for example. You could also argue that the central romance between Tiana and the Frog Prince feels slightly rushed, especially given how at-odds they are for the early part of the story ... but then again, this *is* a Disney movie.

Overall though, I really enjoyed this one. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I probably liked it a bit more than this year's Pixar offering, Up. I loved the characters, the humor, and the heart. I loved the creepy-cool villain and the atmospheric New Orleans setting. I liked the slight injection of modern issues and anxieties into the classic Disney fairy-tale narrative. Really though, 2009 was a great overall year for animation. A great Pixar CGI film in Up, a great stop-motion fantasy film in Coraline, and, finally, the return of hand-drawn Disney animation with The Princess and the Frog.

My Grade: A-

- Alright, check back soon for reviews of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and Crazy Heart, as well as a couple more musings on the best of 2009.

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