Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Princess and the Frog

Speaking of New Orleans and capturing its flavor, The Princess and the Frog does a mighty fine job in its Disney sort of way. From the main character's dream of opening a Cajun restaurant to the fairly-tame-but-still-spooky voodoo doctor to the adventures in the firefly-lit swamp, the movie does what Disney is so good at by emphasizing the locale's magical qualities while eliminating the negative aspects.

Even Mardi Gras looks like a fun, family-friendly celebration with all its parades and costumes and no one having to show anything in exchange for beads. Voodoo isn't exactly played up as a positive thing, but there's little blood in the way the Shadow Man practices it or any disturbing trances or mind-control. It's all skull-paint and spooky shadow-creatures; living voodoo dolls and talking masks.

The story itself is pretty good. Tiana is a young girl who's working hard to fulfill her father's (Terrance Howard) dream of opening a fancy restaurant. I appreciated - as I'm sure Disney expected me to - the focus on hard work and doing your part to meet your goals. In contrast to that ideal, Tiana's childhood friend Charlotte is the spoiled - but likable - daughter of John Goodman's character, a wealthy plantation owner (the movie's set in the '20s, so slavery isn't an issue; race-relations in general are never brought up either). Charlotte's never had to work a day in her life and fully believes in wishing upon stars. Tiana's father, on the other hand, always taught her that wishing only gets you so far, a message that Tiana's taken to heart. Unfortunately, she's now in danger of missing out on important things like love and friendship by neglecting to spend time with people. The message of the movie is about balance, and I can get behind that.

Voodoo, frogs, and what didn't work after the break.
Into all this comes Naveen, an Indian prince who's been disowned by his parents in hopes that he'll settle down and learn some responsibility. He's got a lot in common with Charlotte in his outlook on life. He wants nothing more than to listen to jazz and dance with beautiful women. He expects things to just come to him and he thinks he's found a perfect match in Charlotte, who dreams of marrying a prince, even a penniless one.

Naveen's servant Lawrence is also lazy and self-serving, so when the evil Dr. Facilier, the Shadow Man, devises a scheme to get rid of Naveen and have Lawrence fill in for him as Charlotte's future husband, Lawrence readily agrees. Facilier turns Naveen into a frog and steals enough of his blood for a spell to make Lawrence look like him. The blood needs to be resupplied every so often in order to keep the disguise going though, so when Naveen escapes, Facilier sends shadow-creatures out to bring him back.

Of course, Naveen crosses paths with Tiana and since both of them are familiar with the fairy tale of the Frog Prince, they decide to give it a try by having Tiana kiss Naveen. Tiana's reluctant, but Naveen promises that when he marries Charlotte he'll help Tiana get the money she needs to finally open her restaurant. Unfortunately, Tiana's not a princess and the kiss backfires, turning her into a frog as well. They escape into the swamp, chased by shadow-creatures, where they meet dancing fireflies, a trumpet-playing alligator, frog-gigging Cajuns, and try to locate a blind voodoo-woman who may be able to turn them back into humans.

There's lots of adventure and lots of magic and I had a great time watching it except for a couple of things. The songs were fair - some of them even quite good - and reflected a range of musical styles from ballads to Dixieland to zydeco to gospel to big musical show-stoppers, but there were way too many of them and they slowed down the story way too much. I began losing patience towards the end.

The other thing that didn't work was Tiana and Naveen's inevitable romance. I love that they both learned from each other and balanced each other out, but I didn't buy that they fell in love - as frogs, no less. I would have preferred it had Tiana simply learned that she needed love in her life and then exchanged looks with some new guy at the end whom we could imagine her someday falling in love with. That would've left a reformed Naveen free to marry Charlotte; giving her the happy ending she wanted so much. I suppose that may have sent the wrong message by rewarding Charlotte's laziness, but it would've felt right emotionally. And perhaps a reformed Naveen could have done Charlotte some good. As presented, Tiana and Naveen seem thrown together just because they're the main characters. I wouldn't have thought it possible that animated Disney characters could have no chemistry together, but here we are.

Still, as a magical New Orleans fantasy, it was full of characters I liked and places I wish existed so I could visit them. It also served its purpose of reminding me that CGI animation is no replacement for hand-drawn. CGI is good - and often great - and works as a supplement to hand-drawn cartoons, but it should never replace them. We need both.

Three out of five shrimps etouffee

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