The big news with The Princess and the Frog is Disney Animation's return to hand-drawn animation. That detail might have been a bit over-hyped. But its an exciting return, as it is an art form that hasn't been subconsciously abandoned. I got to see the movie twice already, and there is a lot to praise about it. I just hope Disney improves upon this in the new decade.
The first thing I must praise is the screenplay. The dialog is the most un-clichéd I've heard from Disney in a long time! Rather than using worn-out movie lines, the writers find new ways to say the same things. And they go easy on the puns. The dialog was more dignified, and the movie ran smoothly all the way through.
For once, both the (supposed) princess and prince are not innocent, but flawed characters. Prince Naveen is spoiled and penniless. He is philandering and cut off from his rich family for being irresponsible. His self-absorption gets him into trouble, but give him a slight fearlessness of the outside world (although its just as naive). A slight flaw in the film, however, is the story establishes this too quickly.
Tiana is a career-driven, type-A persona. She is a very skilled chef, and she dreams of owning a restaurant in New Orleans. However, she has been so determined to succeed, she unknowingly abandons freedoms she already has. She chooses to work instead of having fun (even for just a few moments).
Dr. Facilier (played brilliantly by Keith David) is a very unique Disney villain. He is a voodoo master ("Shadow Man" in the movie), which is just the same as an evil sorcerer. However, this time its not just greed that drives him, but also fear for his own soul. Part of his plan is intended to help him repay a debt to his friends on the "other side." I've almost likened Facilier to a corrupt business man needing to repay loan-sharks.
All characters are put to good use in the story, and there's no wonder as to why they are there. Louis, the jazz-loving alligator may be comical, but he relates to Naveen and Tiana's plight, and is as much an outcast as they see themselves.
Raymond, the cajun firefly, initially struck me as a throwaway character, but soon becomes the movie's unlikely tragic hero. Tiana's debutante friend, "Lottie," becomes the frogs' destination as she is a temporary princess needed to break their spell. And Mama Odie, the blind voodoo lady, is presented as the wise fairy godmother. But to keep it fresh, the writers have her lessons temporarily fall on deaf ears. And Naveen's bumbling valet becomes the movie's secondary villain (Nice!).
The animation is beautiful and nicely balanced. Now that CG animation is in full swing, Disney's hand-drawn animation doesn't have to worry about trying to be as realistic as possible. Now the animators can go back to capturing what only 2D animation can capture: an immediate essence balanced with style, art and acting. The character animation is right to the point.
This "money shot" here reminds me of something Hayao Miyazaki would have done. The coins are all hand-drawn, so their lines are constantly moving.
An unsung star in this movie is animator Eric Goldberg. Goldberg's primary character is Louis the Alligator (who I think has the best animation in the movie). Goldberg is also responsible for the miscellaneous characters in the background. All these characters bear Goldberg's influence of Chuck Jones. Goldberg's animation captures something extreme and abstract, while also maintaining a soft flow and irresistible charm. Bravo Mr. Goldberg.
Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of Disney clichés here. And a few of those clichés contribute flaws. The final wedding scene is by far the most clichéd scene in the film, complete with a cute animal audience and over-the-top water effects.
The Broadway style also feels like a cliché long overused. But at least here, John Musker and Ron Clements do it right. Rather than just throwing a few songs into the film, the music takes up at least 1/3 of the film's length, making it seem like a complete musical. One of my complaints with movies like Aladdin and The Lion King is that there wasn't enough music in the movies to make the musical aspect complete. With The Princess and the Frog, the other 2/3 of the film don't seem out of place with the rest of the music.
Randy Newman's jazz inspired score is a new achievement in his animation repertoire. I have to admit, I have never been a huge fan of Randy Newman's scores. I find them too happy-go-lucky sounding. I like it when music can change its tone and ambience according to the scenes. In Princess and the Frog, Newman's score seems a little more experimental, and he incorporates jazz and swing music into the mix, and he does a nice job balancing it with some Gershwin inspired orchestrations.
The Princess and the Frog works very well on its own. Compared to other Disney movies, its definitaly one of the best, but it still feels like another Disney movie. There's nothing about it that makes it significant compared to other movies. But on its own feet, it works tremendously well. Disney's animated films still have much to improve upon, and they have just started again here.
We are approaching the next decade of the 21st century. And that really shouldn't mean anything. Its just another year.
Happy Holidays anyway!