Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Princess and the Frog: A Review

Sorry for the lack of updates. Things are getting busy over the holidays. I probably won't be on much until after Christmas. Anyway, I think I'll write a review for the most recent contribution to the Disney Animated Canon.

I, like most children of the Western World from the past seven decades or so, grew up with Disney movies. Specifically, the animated musicals. These have always been the best creations that the company has ever produced (not counting Pixar, which, while now a part of Disney, is distinct enough in style to be considered, in my mind, a separate entity). Naturally, I was thrilled when I learned that Disney was making them again.

You see, after the 'Disney Renaissance' of the Nineties, the company fell into a massive slump, artistically speaking. At some point along the line, Disney decided to break away from the musical style that it perfected. Tarzan was the last of the musicals (I think it was a musical, anyway. I don't remember exactly. It's been a while. Speaking of which, wouldn't it be awesome if someone made a musical out of Philip Jose Farmer's Tarzan Alive? I'd go see it.). Disney almost made The Emperor's New Groove into a musical, but backed out at some point in development. The film is still excellent (although it should be said that it has more in common with a feature-length Looney Tunes short than a Disney film), but one can't help but think that it would have been even better had they left in the songs, like this little number, as sung by singing legend Eartha Kitt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4UvWgI0hGQ

So, Disney decided that musicals were out. Their animation studio fell on hard times, producing mediocre crap for several years (I will say, however, that I liked Brother Bear. How can you not like a movie about bears with Canadian moose as comic relief? The answer, of course, is that you can't not like it. Also, do not never use double negatives.). Pixar was pretty much the primary source of good material for Disney during this period. Oh, and Kingdom Hearts, but that was made by Square-Enix, so it doesn't count. Disney also decided to pander to the 'tween' demographic with more and more cookie-cutter sitcoms and live-action musicals- the High School Musical franchise being the worst of these.

So, after years of crap, the House that Mickey Built produces The Princess and the Frog, a new animated musical in the style of Disney's classics. So, does the film hold out, I hear you asking? Is it a return to form for Disney, or just a sad attempt to cash in on their former glory? The answers are yes and the former, respectively.

So, the film is basically an expanded retelling of The Frog Prince, but set in New Orleans during the golden age of jazz. That concept sold me on the film immediately, as I am a huge fan of jazz music. The plot is actually somewhat less straightforward than the usual fairy tale story, as there are a few twists and turns added in that help extent the plot to an hour and a half. Somehow, very little of this feels like padding, and instead makes the story more interesting.

Basically, Tiana, a young black woman working as a waitress, is trying to fulfill her life's dream, which is to own a fancy restaurant in the French Quarter. So, she basically puts all of her fun on hold in favour of working more, so that she can get the money needed to buy one.

Meanwhile, Prince Naveen, an ambigously-raced heir to the throne of a foreign nation, is visiting New Orleans and staying with a wealthy family there- a family that coincidentally contains Tiana's best friend (You could point out the historical inaccuracy of having a wealthy white girl having a poor black friend during the 1920s in the South, but the film does imply that her father is clearly non-bigoted and liberal-minded. While this is still whitewashing history, I would point out that this is still much better than Pocahontas.). See, Naveen (who shares his name with actor Naveen Andrews, better known as Sayid on Lost and one of the few men on the planet that make me question my sexual orientation) is used to living a luxurious and fun lifestyle, but his parents have cut him off, financially, until he gets hitched. So, he's in New Orleans checking out the rich ladies.

Naveen is noticed by Dr Facilier, a black magician ('Black' as in 'black magic', though he is also fairly dark-skinned.) who is in thrall to his 'friends on the other side'- evil voodoo spirits. Facilier is definitely one of the best parts of the film. He's voiced by Keith David, for one thing. For another, he's just overall an effective villain, managing to be both whimsical and scary at the same time, in the true Disney tradition. I also like his character design, which seems to reference Baron Samedi, the Vodou (The real religion from which we get the word 'voodoo'. Incidentally, real practitioners find the term 'voodoo' to be offensive when used to describe their faith. I personally use the term to describe certain forms of black magic, while I refer to the religion itself by its true name.) god of death. Anyway, Facilier sees Naveen as a chance to get filthy rich and pay off his supernatural debt, so he makes a deal with the prince's manservant, turns the prince into a frog, takes some of his blood, puts it in a talisman which turns the manservant into the prince, and tries to get the servant to marry Tiana's rich friend, upon which time the two plotters will split the profits. Oh yeah, and Facilier also promises his 'friends' that he will give them all of New Orleans as payment, in essence, selling the soul of an entire city. Evil bastard.

Tiana meets with froggified Naveen at a ball (Tiana wasn't there for the dancing, though- she was in catering) and tries to kiss him, hoping that she'll get a reward for saving him. The spell is contagious and turns her into a frog too. Thus, the two frog-people are chased into the swamp, where they try to find someone who can help them. Oh, and they meet an alligator named Lou who learned how to play the trumpet from listening to the jazz bands playing on the riverboats. Awesome.

I'm getting tired of typing now, so I'll just say that you can see the rest for yourself. Anyway, enough recapping, more reviewing!

So, the animation is superb. After flirting with increasingly stylized art styles over the years, Disney has gone back to a more, well, Disney look reminiscent of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. While the animation isn't quite as good as Beauty and the Beast- which is probably the apex of 2D animation thus far- it's still really good. It just looks like a Disney film should look, and that, my friend, is a very good thing indeed.

But, really, a musical is really only as good as its songs, right? While it, again, isn't Disney's best soundtrack, it's still phenomenal. I'm a little biased, though, as a jazz fan, since the film's songs show definite jazz influences. If you dislike jazz- and if you claim to like any form of music descended from jazz, such as every single modern genre ever, you have no reason why you should dislike it- then you will probably get less out of the soundtrack than I did. Still, the lyrics are clever and help support the plot, which is vital for the survival of any musical.

In the end, I think that this film is a wonderful return to form for Disney, and I look forward to future musicals from the studio. I hope that the higher-ups in the company are convinced that this is the right direction for them to go.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Shattered Wall, Chapter One

Here is the first part of a story I wrote last month. It started as a NaNoWriMo project, but I was so busy last month that I cut it down to 10,000 words. It's not, honestly, among my best work, but it was really fun to write anyway. It stands completely unedited, so there may be continuity and grammar errors within. Enjoy.

When he regained consciousness, James felt a terrible sense of foreboding. He was in his bedroom in his apartment, but he did not remember anything from the night before. He had no clear memory of anything since he left work the previous day.

“Wait, what?” James asked nobody in particular.

My apologies. I am the Writer. He- James- was my own fictional construct. He was to be the protagonist in a story of my devising.

James did not look happy with this news. “So, are you saying that you have complete control over everything that is going to happen to me?”


“Don’t I have free will, or something?” he asked.

To a point, yes. But I direct the plot- in other words, the entire world around you. I know this may seem somewhat distressing, but he should be able to live with it. It will only last for a few thousand words.*

James looked thoughtful for a few minutes before finally resigning himself to his fate. “So,” he began, “what kind of story am I in, then? Am I in a mystery, or a comedy, or what? Please tell me that I’m not in a tragedy. I just got this really great girlfriend and-”

More accurately, I created a really great girlfriend for him. He hasn’t physically met her yet. He only thinks that he did.

“You can do that?”

It’s something we like to call ‘backstory’.


Anyway, I wouldn’t worry. He certainly isn’t in a tragedy- as far as I’m aware. In any event, James suddenly realized that he would be late for work if he kept up this prattling.

“Hey, you’re right!” James got dressed as quickly as he could, but stopped for a moment as he was putting his pants on. “Um... this is kind of embarrassing, but... what exactly do I do, anyway? As a career?”

James worked for a small firm called Baker Street Investigations. It was a small team of private investigators based in a rented flat two blocks from James’ apartment.

“Okay, then. A little cliche, I guess, but if it pays well, I’ll take it,” James said. “By the way, two blocks in which direction?”

Two blocks east. There. Did James have any other questions?

“Yeah. Why do you always refer to me in the past tense?”

* I need to improvise here. James was never supposed to know about his fictional nature. Hopefully, this awareness has not spread to the other characters. I do not believe that he can see the footnotes, so I should be safe here.

Perhaps an introduction is in order

Welcome to the inaugural post for my new blog, Constructive Cynicism.

I'd like to use this blog as a way to practice my writing. I plan to get published one day, but first I need to stop sucking. Thus, I created a blog for me to post my writings, fiction and nonfiction alike, with the hopes that I can get some constructive feedback in the process.

So, what can you expect from this blog? Randomness, essentially. Sometimes I'll use it as a sort of journal. Other times, I'll just rant about stupid topics. And still other times, I'll share my works of fiction. Occasionally, I will give after action reports of video games that I'm playing.

A few warnings before we begin: This blog may contain foul language. If you are among the seven remaining individuals on the planet who find the word 'fuck' shocking, there may be problems. This blog will also contain blatant Star Wars fanboyism, disdain for snobbery of all sorts, use of snarky vernacular to refer to highbrow subjects, highbrow language used to refer to pointless minutiae, and annoying rants about the nature of the artistic merit of video games and genre fiction.

This blog will hopefully NOT contain any politics. While I have an actual political stance, I'd like to avoid degenerating this blog- which exists primarily for fun- into political screeds. I reserve the right to make potshots at people I dislike, but I'm going to try to keep these to a minimum.

Also, I am fully aware that having a blog does not, in fact, make me more important, so I grant you readers the right to bitchslap me if I get too full of myself.