Monday, February 22, 2010

Movie Reviews: The Princess and the Frog

As many of you know, I like to think of myself as a Disney feature film connoisseur. I've seen nearly all of their theatrical releases, at least in terms of classic animation, having only skipped a few of their weaker efforts this decade. So when I heard that they would be returning to the hand-drawn Disney style for The Princess and the Frog, I was intrigued to see how it turned out, especially with Pixar genius John Lasseter now in charge of animation at Disney. Would this be a return to glory, or just another paint-by-numbers knock-off effort?

Well, now that I've seen the movie I can happily say that it is closer to the former than the latter. While Princess and the Frog falls a bit short of classic status, not quite living up to their efforts from the early 90's or from Walt's days, it's a handsomely drawn and enjoyable film that offers glimpses of greatness even if it doesn't quite live up to its own promise.

The best part of the film is in many ways the set-up, as we are introduced to the spunky and relatable heroine Tiana, a hardscrabble waitress working in... the late 1920's maybe?... in an effort to realize her dream of opening the restaurant she and her deceased daddy had dreamed about. The opening half hour or so, where we meet Tiana's family and learn of their hard-working ethics is well played and well drawn.

Also more than up to Disney snuff is the villain, the Shadow Man, a legitimately disturbing bad guy with nice character design (that skull top hat is to die for) and some very, very scary friends who will likely give anyone under the age of ten chronic nightmares for years to come. That's a good thing (unless you're a kid, I suppose), and some of the film's most visceral sequences involve the Shadow Man.

Where the film falters a bit is with the lead, Prince Naveen. Oh, he's serviceable enough, but once the main plot gets going and he and Tiana have both been turned into frogs, the film itself seems to follow suit to a degree. That's not to say the sequences with Tiana and Naveen in full frog mode aren't nice, but the middle of the film does succumb a bit to cliche; I had a hard time believing the two of them falling in love, as the romance seem predetermined by the plot rather than an extension of their personalities. Granted, you could lay this charge at previous Disney princesses, but the romances of, say, Belle or even Ariel seemed more natural by comparison. I never really bought this one.

Beyond that, though, the film also adds in the usual elements of a big Disney film with something approaching a workmanlike attitude, checking off the infectious tunes and comedic sidekicks one by one. It's especially disappointing considering the heart displayed at the beginning of the film, as though Lasseter got a hold of the project just in time to add some but not all of his Pixar experience to the proceedings.

That's not to come down too hard on the film, for in the end the overall product is still an above average effort from Disney, meaning it's way above average when compared to some of the knock-off crap Dreamworks continues to foist on America. But not even some surprising decisions, such as the honest-to-god death of a supporting character at the hands (and feet) of the Shadow Man, can quite elevate this to the level of the classic it aspires to be. A worthy addition to the Princess line, but not quite true greatness.

My Grades: Visually it gets an A, but overall it will have to settle for a B. Which isn't bad at all.

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