Skip to main content

You sure this is the right blind Voodoo lady who lives in the boat in the tree in the bayou?


The Princess and the Frog
(2009)

Disney’s brief return to the hand drawn animation that made its name is an unextraordinary, box-ticking affair; bells-and-whistles reinvention of a traditional fairytale (The Frog Prince/The Frog Princess), sparring romance between two lead characters, charismatic villain, anthropomorphically endearing supporting characters, a liberal sprinkling of half-cooked songs. Its main claim to fame is that it features Disney Animation’s first African-American protagonist, albeit she is shrouded in amphibian apparel for much of the running time.

Returning directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who rode the crest of the early ‘90s rejuvenation of the animation division, responsible for the likes of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules). Their previous film with Disney had been the expensive bomb Treasure Planet, one of the failures that signalled Disney’s switch to CGI. They bring the expected lightness of touch to the tale, along with a brace of songs, some more successful than others (Pixar mainstay Randy Newman wrote the majority of them, but fortunately we don’t have to endure him singing, nor his somnabulent orchestration).

The opening section, introducing us to young Tiana and the rich family her mother works for, doesn’t bode well. It looks like we’re going to be on the receiving end of the insipid cutesy depiction of kids that can be found around the edges of Pixar features. Thankfully, the machiavellian magical machinations of Dr. Facilier (wonderfully-voiced by Keith David) soon put paid to this, as Tiana is reduced to the status of a frog, along with spoilt-difficult-to-get-along with Prince Naveen. Then they’re off to the bayou, while Naveen’s assistant poses as the Prince (thanks to a Facilier spell) and attempts to secure marriage to Tiana’s childhood friend (she has a rich daddy).

The African-American characters, and New Orleans setting, instantly drew increased scrutiny of the production. Disney, mindful of any accusations of stereotyping, drafted in Oprah Winfrey (who else?!) to advise and stem the tide. You could probably still lay accusations of stereotyping, but only as much as every other Disney feature has indulged in it (it certainly created none of the controversy that animated Pocahontas elicited over a decade earlier).

As ever with Disney features, it’s the quality of the supporting characters who spell success or failure and this time out they are very familiar but effective nevertheless. The Voodoo aspect is probably the most controversial one (not a practice that Christian watchdogs will get behind, and praised by the black villain at that) in the film, but it’s an effective and atmospheric inclusion. In particular, the “Shadow Man” animations, which minds of their own. Anyone familiar with Live and Let Die will recognise the stylings of Dr. Facilier; both appropriate the look of Baron Samedi, the Voodoo god of magic, death, and ancestor worship.

The comedy characters include Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator whose design could come straight out of Peter Pan, and Ray, a Cajun firefly besotted with the Evening Star.

It would be shame if this does end up as the last traditionally animated Disney film (although, realistically, I expect one will come along every five years or so, just to test the waters; it only requires one big head to initiate a whole new batch); it’s eminently likeable, but too formulaic to really stand out from the crowd.

Disney’s unwillingness to really push boundaries in terms of story and form could be seen as part of the reason for the ultimate loss of enthusiasm for their product. The likes of The Emperor’s New Groove was a rare, and troubled, exception that only ensured that the studio would become further entrenched. The Princess and the Frog just about balanced its budget in takings (but that’s not including all the marketing and distribution costs), so no one at the Mouse House will be screaming out for more for a while. Meanwhile, Pixar is following exactly the same course of playing it safe…

*** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…