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.