Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Drawing on Tradition: The Princess and the Frog

Drawing on Tradition:
The Princess and the Frog
By Jeff Pepper

The Princess and the Frog represented a major paradigm shift for me in terms of how I approach and ultimately purchase access to the latest Disney entertainment.

Translation:  I waited for the DVD.  More specifically, I waited for the Blu-Ray disc.  The cost for a family of four to go to the movies now well exceeds the price of even a deluxe edition Blu-Ray package.  For the first time that I can recall, I balked at running to the multiplex on opening day to see the latest Disney animated feature, and instead patiently waited a very short three months to enjoy The Princess and the Frog in the privacy and comfort of my own relatively well-furnished home theater.  As Bob Dylan would say, " . . . the times they are a changin'."

It's not that I wasn't anxious and excited to see the company's celebrated  return to traditional hand-drawn animation since Home on the Range underwhelmed both critics and audiences in 2004.   (Celebrated, if not just a tad disingenuous--after all it was Disney itself that killed 2D six years ago.)  It's just that I had been feeling a wee bit cynical throughout much of 2009 about the Walt Disney Company's overwhelming uber-synergetic marketing machine and its relatively transparent desire to drain my checking account.

Let me just quickly and unequivocally state that The Princess and Frog was totally undeserving of my somewhat immature and misdirected contempt.  It is a wonderful, energetic and very satisfying film that, while not groundbreaking or wholly original, still manages to set itself apart from the vast majority of over-produced animated fare that has crowded theaters for the past few years.  Despite the film's reliance on tried and true Disney formula, there is still oh so much to compliment and endorse.  The songs and score by Randy Newman infuse the story with a style wholly new to a Disney feature.  Animation is top drawer, backgrounds are lush and beautiful, characters are distinct and well-realized and the story moves along at an energetic and entertaining pace.  And similar to title character Tiana's passion for making the perfect gumbo, the film adds just the right dash of sentiment that will fill and break your heart at the same moment.

What truly impressed me most was the obvious desire on the part of the film's makers to not just return to the mechanics of hand-drawn animation, but to literally draw on techniques and visual styles that could never be realized or matched in computer-generated productions.  The musical sequences "Almost There" and "Friends on the Other Side" especially feature creative designs reminiscent of classic vignettes from films such as The Three Caballeros, Melody Time and Dumbo.  To think that some bone-headed executive decided five years ago that this type of visual expression was obsolete and irrelevant is both chilling and disturbing.  Thankfully, saner minds have been restored to Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Though the disc's supplemental features are a generally slight collection of very brief sound bite vignettes by the film's directors, cast and animators, they serve to very much illustrate the passion that these individuals had for bringing about a return of traditional animation to the Disney company.  The Princess and the Frog was truly a labor of love, especially for 1980s and 1990s animation veterans such as Mark Henn, Andreas Dejas, Eric Goldberg and directors John Musker and Ron Clements.  Experiencing their joy and enthusiasm by way of what are usually standard talking-head segments was an unexpected delight.

Though not a success on the level of a Pixar film, The Princess and the Frog demonstrates that a traditional animated feature can still be welcomed and enjoyed by critics and audiences alike.   Bravo to its creators, animators, cast and crew.  You have accomplished something truly meaningful at the precise moment in time when it so desperately needed to be accomplished.  Well done.


John Rozum said...

I work in the comic book industry, and occasionally in television, and see the film industry's future very much beginning to move in ways that the comic cook industry is.

In comics, it used to be that the actually monthly magazine/pamphlet format comic books (and later sales of back issues) is where the money was, but with inflated costs of paper making comic books a fairly expensive purchase now at $3.00 and up an issue, sales of these issues are understandably low. The publishers now recognize that the money is to be made in comparatively affordable trade paperback collections. They still publish them in single issue magazine format knowing full well that most people will wait to purchase the trade paperbacks. The reason? The individual issues sell well enough to pay the creative staff a regular income, rather than make them wait until they've finished a 100+ page storyline.

With movies, I think things are going the same way. Even though Disney sees the box office take of "The Princess and the Frog" as a failure (at $200 million +)that money more than covers the cost of making the movie. The real money will come in the DVD sales. This is going to be the case particularly with family fare for the reasons you site. While I DID take my kids to see this, and UP last year, generally we skip movies in the theater. I point out to my kids that for the same money we can pick up a somewhat pricey box set of something they can watch whenever they want with continued enjoyment.

Cory Gross said...

It's a catch-22... While the DVD sales are where the real money's at (and I do wait for the TBPs now too!), it was Disney's thinking about that which led to the endless series of cheap sequels. Direct-to-DVD does not yet translate in North America to the same kind of quality found in Japan's Original Video Animation (OVA). At least not yet. Maybe some day.

Anonymous said...

While I do like the film, I don't love it. The stylized sequences are over used, if beautifully designed (by the great Sue Nichols, among others), and I found the songs very poor and characterless, except the Evangeline song. I liked the firefly character.

Almost every major plot point happened off screen. The villain's motivation is VERY unclear and muddled, and he's never really a threat. I liked the Charlotte character. The alligator was uneccesary, as was the old lady in the tree who peed yellow sparkles. I didn't hate the movie, but I didn't love it either.

With DVD sales down 50%, it'll be interesting if this one does better than anticipated.

Anonymous said...

Quite the negative type, aren't you, Anonymous #1?

Former Disney trad. animation artist -- out of work AGAIN said...

Well, I'm glad you finally saw it and liked it , but doggone it we needed every ticket sale at the Box Office we could get .

Thankfully the DVD/BluRay sales in the first few days seem to be VERY , VERY good so PATF may end up in a solid profit margin after all, but the higher-ups at the Disney Corp. were watching the Box Office on this one and frankly it did not do the business needed to convince them that Traditional hand-drawn Animation is still a good investment in the long run.

I'm afraid too many were like you and just opted to '"wait for the DVD/BluRay".

Of course who can really blame you when the Disney Corp. itself , in it's bloated greed, conditioned the audience to consider these hand-drawn films to be a dime-a-dozen , nothing special . Mulan 2, Brother Bear 2, Cinderella 2 and 3 , Little Mermaid 2 and 3 , Lilo & Stitch 2 and 3, etc. etc., bloody etc.

No wonder the magic is gone. Strangle the goose who lays the golden eggs and no more golden eggs.

The times have changed indeed.

Disney's Folly said...

Well said, Jeff. I had the same exact stance. I mean as it is, I'm getting better clarify on my 61" high def television than i would in most, older theaters. So it takes a lot for me to go to a movie, and it takes an utter geek classic to get me to go more than once (which was something i used to regularly). Avatar's 3D presentation broke that trend for me. And i imagine Hollywood is feeling happy that they're going to gain a lot of money back with 3D (see Alice in Wonderland's amazing grosses to date).

Waiting for DVD is no longer an indictment on the expectations of seeing a movie, it's merely the economics of living in America. I wanted to see Princess and the Frog but always figured I'd just wait to see it on DVD. Sure, i won't say the same with Toy Story 3, but that's more of an event and a franchise I adore. (And the 3D presentation being a technology simply unaffordable with home viewing.)

Disney partially has itself to thank with this trend. They have had good deals and coupons for these Blu Ray combos that anybody with a few minutes could hunt down online.