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A harsh, opinionated and unfair review of Walt Disney’s The Princess and the Frog

A harsh, opinionated and entirely unfair review of Disney's 'The Princess and the Frog'. Reader beware, it's a ridiculous, long-winded affair full of inexcusably questionable critique and pseudo insider dribble. Honest too...

OK, I know it’s pretty old news now. The Princess and the Frog has been reviewed and dissected by the media. But I haven’t read a damned thing that really said anything of substance. Seems the overriding opinion is that it was simply A-OK. Sweet, nice, un-offensive and living up to expectations for the most part. I get the feeling nobody wants to be critical, or call the way they really see it. I’ll tell you up front right now, I am being as critical as I possibly can, simply because I feel so many reviews of this film were just plain soft. I despise critics for the most part. Too many have no idea what it takes to actually make a good animated film. I have worked on many of Disney’s finest feature films. I know. Believe me, I know. So, if you care to to read what I really think about this film, read on….I’m being purposely critical, which is against my nature for the most part. But hell, somebody’s got to do it, so I’ll bite the bullet and play the part of hardened critic.

Wish Upon A Star, Disney 2010 style!

The Princess and the Frog comes after waiting for many long, strange years for Disney to finally recover from the bizarre idea that they should stop producing 2D animation. To those of us in the animation industry who have an affinity for the warmth and simplicity of good old hand drawn animation, and have mourned its passing, this was a moment of truth. Is there still a chance for 2D animation? Is there still a market? Can Disney once again pull off the magic of films like The Little Mermaid and Lion King, and pave the way for a new generation of quality 2D animated features that will have the masses flocking in droves to the theatres? The history of Hollywood’s sheep-like tendency to follow whatever formula another studio succeeds with pretty much guaranteed that if Disney could hit a 2D hit film out of the park with some impressive box office numbers, the industry would soon follow suit just as they did after the remarkable success of ‘The Lion Kong’.

I am one of those animation die-hards, forever faithful to the art of 2D animation. It resonates for me in a way that CGI has never been able to. This is not to say that I can’t appreciate some of the amazing CGI films that have been produced in the last few years. There is no denying the entertainment value and quality of beautiful films like ‘Up’ or ‘Finding Nemo’, Blue Sky’s Ice Age films, or Sony’s masterful ‘Surf’s Up’. I love these films as much as anybody out there. And of course ‘Avatar’ is an undeniable masterpiece, even though I have always professed an aversion to the ‘motion capture’ technique. Animation has changed forever, there’s no denying it. We have entered a new and exciting age of digital possibilities in animation. But for some reason the fluid grace of a truly well crafted hand-drawn animated film still mesmerizes me in a way that CGI animation simply cannot touch. It is the magic of drawings brought to life that caught my attention over 40 years ago, that still fuels my passion for animation today. And in my travels around the world of animation for the last decade and a half or so, I can say that without question, that the vast majority of young people getting into animation today feel much the same way. They feel ripped off by the fact that they missed the age of traditional animation. They yearn to work on 2D films, to draw on paper and flip their drawings, to create magic the way we old schoolers did for so many years. They hope and pray that the tide will turn and good old 2D cartoons will come back into vogue eventually. The legions of young animators who have had to work on Flash for most of their careers out of necessity, and a lot of the young 3D CGI animators out there as well. I know this to be true, because I talk to them, work with them and teach them. Bless their hearts…..

So the brilliant and visionary Lassiter and Jobs take over from the incredibly short sighted morons that were somehow actually calling the shots at Disney, and in short order they come to the conclusion that Walt Disney Animation should always produce traditionally animated films. It was absurd that they ever stopped. What were they thinking? Thank you John and Steve….

And now, after years of waiting, we are served up The Princess and the Frog.

If there is ever a film that I wanted to like, it is this one. Oh boy, do I ever want to like it. I want to love it! I want it to sweep me away like a magical cross between Myasaki’s ‘Spirited Away’ and Disney’s timeless classic ‘Pinocchio’. I imagine all the greatest creative minds at Disney collaborating to create a new vision of how wonderful and powerful traditional animation really can be. Legions of animation genius, learning from history, looking carefully at what made the greatest animated films of all times truly great, and crafting that in to something breathtaking and fresh, captivating and appealing.

Big sigh from this guy.

Beautiful film, The Princess and the Frog. Not bad. Nope, not bad. But did it deliver? Did it transcend anything? Did it proudly raise the bar of what is possible when it comes to traditional animation? Sadly, not even close. I can’t pan the film. I can’t tear it apart. It was indeed, quite good, and even exceptionally beautiful in certain sequences. But this old school traditional flag bearer could not get very excited about what is basically an extremely safe, 100% formula driven, 0% ground breaking or innovative film. Princess and Frog delivers a sweet, reasonably likeable animated musical that will undoubtedly delight a lot of children, but an extremely forgettable film that at no time challenges the viewer or goes anywhere even remotely new.

From the very get go, I have a hard time liking the character design of Tiana as a just slightly post toddler infant. The ungainly child characters of Dreamworks “Prince of Egypt’ spring to mind. Big headed and unappealing, the characters I am introduced to in the first minutes of the film turn me off, sadly.  Then the first close ups of Tiana look fantastic. She is gorgeous, wide eyed and appealing. I love her! (Remember readers, I desperately want to love this film, really, I mean it!) As easily as I am turned off, I am turned back on, and biting hook line and sinker.

The Princess and the Prince, Gators and Fireflies....

Very quickly we are in familiar Disney territory. We are wishing on a star with an adorable little girl, and embracing the values of believing in our dreams, but knowing that we must back them up with good old hard work and determinism. If I am a teenaged boy I am gagging and wishing I was watching a Transformers film, but I might be convinced to stick around with the timely appearance of a pretty cool frog, rudely interrupting the magical ‘wish upon a star’ moment. And thankfully, we are spared another ‘coming of age’ rock video montage a la Lion King, Tarzan, where we watch the lead character struggle through youth and puberty, triumphantly emerging as an incredibly perfect, full grown, young adult specimen. Tiana instead emerges full grown and perfect after only a quick cross dissolved night. Phew. On with the story.

Right away, upon beginning her adult day, Tiana and friends roll in to what in my mind is one of the movie's best songs. More roots New Orleans feeling than most of the overly slickly produced songs in the film, featuring Doctor John, the good old night tripper of old. However, the visuals that the song tries to carry, are corny as hell, and for my money, far too overloaded with images, trying hard to tell too much story too fast. Setting up the villain and the hero, as well as a plethora of sidekicks all at once, gets very busy and confusing. And the villain’s alter ego shadow self, while potentially a brilliant story telling device, complicates matters even more. I can’t pay close attention to the Villain Facilier, because his shadow keeps stealing the show.

Back to reality after the song, we watch as Tiana ends up with an huge pile of money given to her, to pay for a greedy materialistic little southern belle’s party goodies. The amount of money is far out of proportion to the goods being paid for. Tiana however, does not hesitate to claim it hers for the purpose of realizing her father’s dream. This threw me for a loop, big time. This is not the integrity we are to believe Tiana’s father imbued her with. An honest, conscientious, hard working person would have said, “No, I’m sorry, this is far to much money for a few pastries, I can’t accept this”. For me, this was a pretty darned big mistake on the Director’s parts. It felt downright wrong for Tiana to simply smile, take the money and run. Just wrong! Am I the only one who caught this? Haven’t heard it mentioned anywhere else….hmmm.

The second song in the film, now in the restaurant where Tiana works, comes only 15 minutes into the film. It is a full-blown musical, and all character development thus far is left to this device. We don’t see characters acting, instead they sing to explain their inner workings. The animation in this song is stylized and very cool to look at, but once again, if I am a boy aged 7 to 70, my eyes are glazing over and I’m losing interest. Nothing wrong with a film for girls of course, but I think the intent is to appeal to boys and girls equally. Who knows? But this second song is a sweetly candy-coloured, stylized affair that leaves me pretty flat. I am not ‘feeling’ a whole lot of emotion yet. Songs are squeezed in edgewise, and it’s feeling like a contest to get the most musical pieces possible into the shortest amount of time…..

Every spare second has a full-blown musical number thrown for the first 20 minutes of the film!

Enter the Villain, Facilier again, and we are off into the fourth song, just barely twenty minutes into the film. That’s a song every 5 minutes folks. And this is how all the character development is being handled. Well, OK then Joseph, get over it, it’s a musical.

At least now, with the hand-shake between Facilier, the Prince and his handler, the animation becomes dynamic and there is some excitement generated. Perhaps the boys in the crowd emerge from their comas and pay a little attention now. There is some fantastic imagery, the music at least picks up pace and intensity. But I don’t care if it’s a musical, we need a break from the songs and a little more serious character development. Please, will someone point out to me the reason for going 100% musical with this? The recent past success of old school Broadway style musicals? Hardly. The sudden interest that children have taken in over produced show tunes? Nope. Sorry. I don’t get it. Use songs to tell the story, sure. I love music! I even love musicals, but can you not restrain yourselves Disney dudes, from breaking into song every single time the story threatens to actually go somewhere……?

By the way, that overweight guy who accompanies the dashing prince on his travels, haven’t I seen him somewhere else before? Oh yeah. Everywhere. There is not even a weak attempt at originality here, not with any of the characters now that I think of it. It is 100% derivative and contrived. Sorry fans of the film, I’m just calling it the way I see it.

In the next sequence we are at the big party thrown by the spoilt little southern Belle Charlotte's father, 'Big Daddy'. Charlotte is revoltingly shallow and materialistic. Tiana is resplendent in her blue dress, and I have to say there are some absolutely brilliant sequences in the party. Beautiful, original, funny animated vignettes abound. Fantastic entertainment, glorious, amazing, elegant animation. Yesssss~! I am digging it, and once again I am drawn in….the flipping pages animating away, good traditional fun. And when Tiana finally meets the frog, AKA Prince Naveen, that is a pretty well done sequence as well. I genuinely like it a lot. Well done. Obviously directors Ron Clements and John Musker knew that this was a very key moment in the film, and finessed it to sparkle and shine, and most of all, be memorable. It is. I like it a lot.

However, I can’t say I am fond of the frog’s design. Somehow, throughout the film, the frog designs seem flat, and not very appealing. I couldn’t shake it, even when I was thoroughly engaged with the story and character development, I could not enjoy the character design. And Tiana’s frog design was weaker than Prince Naveen, in my view. Difficult little critters to give a lot of dynamic design attributes to, frogs are. I somehow felt that a slightly more sophisticated colour design, perhaps more details to describe volumes and shapes better could have helped a great deal. It felt as though the directors were trying to keep the frog designs simple, which should be a good thing, but they just ended up feeling flat and largely unappealing to me. Oh well. Darn, I SO want to love this film!

We return now, to the villain Facilier and his tubby side-kick, and this is a pretty engaging sequence. The villain’s shadow alter ego still distracts me though. May have been an interesting element, but doesn’t work for me.

Now when we get to the first scene where it’s raining, and my old school anal retentive vfx supervisor reflexes kick in. Not very important perhaps, how well the rain works as long as it says ‘rain’ to the viewer, but we learned decades ago not to animate rain falling downwards. It looks tons better when it is random, it feels far more natural and real. The rain feels like it is falling in slow motion, and it distracted the hell out of me….I know you FX guys who worked on it….what gives man?

Enter our engaging gator character. He looks incredibly familiar, making his comeback after a long hiatus after Fantasia and Peter Pan, and a bad cameo in an even worse Don Bluth film, but I can’t fault him. He does look like he’s put on a lot of weight, but that’s not uncommon for an out of work actor living in SoCal….OK, I like him. I feel for him!

A beautiful swamp scene...

The first musical gator sequence really holds my attention as well. I think it’s one of the best in the film. Really wonderful old-school animation ingenuity. Fun.

Now I’ve heard that a lot of folks weren’t crazy about Ray the firefly, but I really like this character. Perhaps derivative of a few little mini sidekicks from past animated features, but I always resonate with the Jiminy Cricketesque conscious type characters, who are always there to whisper words of wisdom in our ears. I really like Ray the firefly. And then, he makes FART jokes.

I have a soft spot for Ray the firefly, even if he does make fart jokes

OK now, here I am not flexible. Wake the hell up Disney. Just because Shrek and company sell trillions of tickets peddling ka-ka-poo-poo humor, doesn’t mean you have to go down that road. Let that be the domain of Jeffrey Katzenberg and his muck slinging lowest common denominator animation. Pull-eaze stay away from toilet humor, it does not flatter you, and if your films are good enough, they’ll entertain the little boys without farting. That was one of my biggest turn offs with this film, fart humor, and there it was, right up front in the trailers, making sure every slime loving, filthy little all American boy was attracted to the film. Disney, you don’t need to cheapen yourselves. A true classic does not fart. Farts are funny, yes. But not classy. I sincerely hope you don’t go there again. Let Shrek be the Prince of Farts.

Now the big epic firefly musical number. Coulda been amazing. But the whole long row of fireflies a la pixie-dust, bouncing up and down at the same time? Strange, distracting, visually not smooth at all. Could have made their glows throb with the beat, or a random flocking movement that synched with the beat. Moving the whole damn thing up and down to the beat did not work. And in my critical special effects driven mind, it destroyed what could have been, and was meant to be, a great, classical, magical Disney sequence. Oooops.

Our wicked villain Facilier, then asks his dark friends for help, and the dark spirits are summoned to seek out and capture Prince Naveen, the frog. These evil spirit entities are really quite good. They are visually menacing, disturbing and beautifully animated.

Some wonderful old-school magic effects animation goes a long way to saving this movie

The frogs legs hunters and frog sequences are great fun. Classic Disney, and really well done. Beautiful effects too you guys! And I really enjoyed the subsequent character development between Taina frog and Prince Naveen frog. Good solid stuff, but their lack-luster character designs still pull me away from the well done aspects of the film.

Then for good measure, Disney throws in a painfully slow love song led by Ray the firefly. Big yawns. Was this song really necessary? Me thinks not, and I feel like it killed the fantastic momentum that the film was starting to pick up. Right when I thought I might be 100% sucked in and enjoy it to the end. Another big sigh….

Enter Mama Odie, a sweet little old Cajun Voodoo Queen, and a real original. I love her. Good stuff, although her big head and multiple chins could have stood with a little shadow or colour treatment or something. Her big flabby face was full of shapes, but they all felt a little bit flat. I’m nitpicking. Love her! Her introductory song was a lot of fun too, but I felt it over-produced, especially the music. This was a big sticking point for me throughout the film actually. Real good New Orleans Cajun/Creole/Zydeco-style music should be raw and gritty, and all the music in this film is so slick and smoothly produced, it completely lost its edge. Another big lesson that Disney could stand to learn. Big is not always better, and slick and polished, is not always better than raw and visceral! Old Mama Odie whipping up a vision in her gumbo, is priceless!

 Going down the river with the riverboat, the riverboat is beautifully done, visually one of the most captivating animated sequences I’ve ever seen. Once again though, the film sets off into a BIG show tune kind of a number. It’s classic show-tune, Broadway kind of stuff, but here I go harping again. It is not fresh, and I can feel the kids in the audience yawning and waiting for another good moment to sink their teeth into. Who is it who really loves this show tune stuff anyways? Is it widely considered to have broad appeal? Because I seriously don’t think it does. It has its place, but I don’t think it’s here, in an animated feature released in 2009. Move forward please….Disney, please, try something different….

The love scenes on the riverboat could have been be very touching. They probably were for most people. But poor old me, here I am still having a hard time with how flat and unappealing the frog characters look. And I don’t mean flat because they are 2D. Remember, I am the guy whose soul belongs to 2D animation. These frogs though, damn, I just can’t love ‘em. I want to, but I can’t, sorry….

The parade sequence, well, I know it was supposed to be garish and gawdy, but it looked to me like one of those horribly art directed scenes from a Don Bluth film, full of over saturated pinks and oranges, looking like a bad birthday cake on acid. Ouch. Nice to see the confetti from The Hunchback of Notre Dame being re-used with a little restraint though. In Hunchback there was so much confetti you could barely watch it for a few sequences. At least here it was tastefully implemented. Luckily the parade didn’t overwhelm for too long. Quickly getting back to the nitty gritty of the film saved the day. As did the incredibly gruesome moment when the arch villain steps on Ray the firefly. Holy crap, that was pretty disgusting, even for me. And he was my favorite character! I really thought it was a heavy-duty moment, because I was gullible. I thought Disney actually offed the little fellow, but then, I should have known he was destined to come back to life. Silly me! I can’t believe I fell for it!

The dream sequence we are treated to was gorgeous. Tiana finding herself in a situation of temptation is a classic, and Facilier’s magical purple visions are wonderful vintage Disney stuff. Powerful and beautifully animated, this is the kind of stuff that sticks in a child’s memory (at least this one) forever. Real magic, and the reason I got into this business in the first place! Again when the nasty assed scary evil spirits come pouring out of the sweaty cobblestones and consume Facilier, that was fantastic stuff. OK, OK, by this time I am enjoying the film thoroughly.

Who me, hardened objective critic? Let me be honest with those of you who have been patient enough to read this far. I cried when I watched Pocahontas, and that was even after working on it. I am a huge sucker for Disney sentimentality, and have been known to swallow all of their clichés, hook line and sinker! So don’t let this ‘review’ fool ya! I’m just trying to be tough. He he.

After the dust settles, we are treated to another truly great moment, when Ray the firefly struggles back to consciousness. I was honestly touched, and extremely engaged. And his joining his beloved Evangeline in the sky, was tastefully and artistically done, better than I ever could have imagined, the two stars joining to be one. There’s my hopelessly romantic side coming out again, and saving the day, forcing me to come away from this film with a far more positive attitude than my critical side ever would. Even after the big (holy crap!) Cinderella meets the Swan Princess transformation sequence, I was still pretty happy with the way the film finished up.

So let me recapitulate. Sitting and watching the film with an extremely critical eye, (for the third time) I saw an awful lot that I wish Disney had done differently. And I wish it had kicked a lot more ass at the box office, just because I know that would bode well for the 2D animation industry as a whole. So one of the things I was thinking about was, why didn’t it do better at the box office? Thus, my critical approach to dissecting it. I was asking myself, “What elements most hurt this film?” And my simple answers are as follows.

1.)   Old-school Broadway style show tune musicals. How broad an appeal do they really have? I for one find them capable of stopping a great story dead in its tracks. There’s a place for them, but #1 at the box office ain’t it, at least not since ‘All that Jazz’ about 500 years ago. Even Lion King, although full of music, it was contemporary and fresh, and did not fall back on song every five minutes.

2.)   If you’re going to make a musical, at least hire a fresh musical director who won’t fall back on ancient formula and over-produce the crap out of everything. Music is powerful stuff, but when it gets over polished, it loses a lot of emotion, especially something like Zydeco music, which is best served up raw. Find a savvy musical director who will add energy and emotion to a film instead of homogenizing it.

3.)   Character design. It’s gotta have a catch, and streamlined naked frogs don’t lend themselves to catchy visual designs like lions, wart hogs, and meercats. The character designs of the lead characters in frog form fell flat for me, and I think a lot of people lost interest just watching the trailers before the movie was released.

4.)   Toilet humor. Please, leave it to Dreamworks and ‘Shrek 23 -The Return of the Stinker’

5.)   Pacing. Four full-blown musical pieces in the first twenty minutes of the film? It was hard for me to recover, or give a damn after that flogging. There are far better ways to develop characters. And it pays off to really grab hold of an audience early on. I could hear the young boys in the audience sneaking out with their fingers down their throats, and sneaking into ‘Avatar’ in the next theatre.

Perhaps my expectations of this film were set too high. But I really thought that with some forethought and wisdom (God there’s a short supply of that around these days eh?) perhaps the folks at Disney would try to create something with a little more edge to it. Sure, a lot of very conservative, easily challenged critics felt that there was some ground breaking stuff going on, with the idea of an African American (black) Princess. Whoaaahhh! Really edgy stuff. Ahem…no…… It’s not edgy or ground breaking. Oh, and actually touching on a Voodoo theme, when you know it might offend the Christian right’s fanatically moralistic and preachy contingency. Phooey. That’s such a crock. If we think that’s edgy, we’ve lost our way all together. Bring on the edge! Stop trying to make everybody happy Disney! Please stop that. Good films always offend someone. You can’t do anything in America today without offending someone, and if you ever do manage to, it will have no soul. It will be dead and meaningless. So stop trying. Please.

A friend of mine suggested they release an animated feature under the Miramax name.

Hmmmm…..

Good Ole Mama Odie saves the day!

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