Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Disney's The Princess and the Frog

For Disney's 49th animated film, The Princess and the Frog , Disney went back to their roots. Fooling around with Computer Animation for several years, John Lasseter decided since Disney owned Pixar, it was time to bring back the classic look of hand-drawn animation for it's new fairy tale. This was a dream come true, especially for all the traditional animators that were laid off in 2003 after the switch over to CGI. They were all sought out and rehired to do their magic. Now when I say that Disney was going back to its roots, I wasn't kidding. Here we have a classically animated movie, a fairy-tale adaptation, and a Broadway style musical. There is something else that is special about this movie, however. It happens to be the first Disney animated film featuring an African-American princess and the first to have an African-American as a main character. Don't get me wrong, there have been black characters in Disney movies, though all have been in the last fifteen years. I'm not counting animal representations of black people such as the crows in Dumbo or Sebastian in The Little Mermaid. Does it seem a little odd that it took Disney so long to have a black main character? Seems weird to me too. If you look at all the Disney princesses, you have a white black-haired character, two white blonde-haired characters, one white brunette character, one Asian, one Middle-Eastern, one Ginger, and one Native-American. Now, for a race that is so connected with our history, and with so many stories involving African-Americans, I just don't see why Disney never got around to having black main characters. Perhaps Disney was too afraid in the early days and all the way through the Civil Rights movement, and maybe even in the last few decades they were afraid of causing controversy. Apparently Disney got over whatever was keeping them from it, and now we finally have an African-American Princess in Tiana.

OK, so enough about the race issue. Actually we'll have to touch on it again in a little bit, so I just completely lied. Anyway, this movie is sort of an amalgamation of two fairy-tales, The Frog Prince, and The Frog Princess. The Frog Prince is written by those fun-loving Grimm Brothers, so you can expect something crazy is going to happen to someone. In the tale, a spoiled princess reluctantly befriends a frog that she meets at a well. She accidentally drops a golden ball into the well and weeps because of it. A frog comes up from the well and offers to get the ball for the princess, but will only do it if she lets him be her companion. She agrees, thinking he won't be able to follow her, and waits as the frog gets the ball for her. Once he brought the ball up, she snatched it away and ran as fast as she could. The frog begged her to wait up, but she only ran faster. Back at her castle, the princess was constantly bothered by the frog who continually knocked on the door and asked to be let in. It was only after her father demanded that she follow her obligation that she let the frog in and let him sit at the table with her and eat. This did not make her happy at all. The frog then asked to go up to her room with her and lay in her silk bed. Again she protested, but the king made her follow her obligation. She then went about setting him in a corner in her room and tried to go to sleep. It was not to be, as the frog jumped onto the bed and demanded that he sleep there with her, or he would tell her father. This was too much. She picked up the frog and threw him against the wall. It was at that moment that the frog transformed into a handsome prince. Then they got married with the king's blessings. The end. Yep, no real lesson to that one. Or if there is one, it's that you should take your problems and promptly throw them against a wall. If he left her at the end, it would have been that you should always keep your promises, but that didn't happen. Ugh. I'm so confused! There have been many different versions of this tale however, with the most popular that a kiss would make the frog turn into a prince.

The second tale that The Princess and the Frog takes its story from is The Frog Princess. In this story, written by E.D. Baker in 2002, a princess of a fake country is told that she must marry her most hated enemy, thus she runs away and meets a prince that has been turned into a frog. The prince explains that a witch has turned him into a frog and that if she kisses him, he'll be turned back. She does, and she ends up turning into a frog instead. Whodauthunkit! Together, they attempt to find the witch and turn themselves back into humans again. Now, this version sounds a lot like The Princess and the Frog, so it's obvious that most of the subject matter has been taken from the Baker novel. However, the Baker novel is undoubtedly inspired by The Frog Prince, so it's hard to say that The Princess and the Frog is only based off the Baker novel.

The Princess and the Frog is another film directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Musker and Clements had directed such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, but had left the company in 2005 after the CGI wave hit. Lasseter personally went and asked them to please direct this film, saying they could do it in any animation style they wished (CGI or hand-drawn). Luckily for us, they agreed and took on the film. The funny thing is that the idea for a Frog Prince style story was being knocked around by both Disney and Pixar in the mid 2000's, and when Disney bought Pixar, it made sense that they would combine their ideas into one big story. It was as early as 2006 that Disney had a name for the film, The Frog Princess, but the name wouldn't stick.

The name, along with some songs and early concepts were presented to the public in early 2007 and to Disney surprise, caused a minor controversy. African-Americans called foul on some of the characters, the location, and concepts
of the film. The original name for the main character was going to be "Maddy," but African-Americans felt it was too close to the derogatory term "mammy." They also found the occupation of the main character, that of a chambermaid, as being stereotypical and belittling. The fact that "Maddy's" love interest was not African-American also caused a minor stir. People didn't like that New Orleans was the setting, considering Hurricane Katrina had just happened, they didn't like that an African-American Witch Doctor was the villain, and even the French found the title to be a slur against them. OK, so a lot of people had problems with the film. Disney isn't exactly new to controversy, as they've seen it with most films they've done that involve minorities. So maybe this is why they put off a film with African-Americans. I'm not sure, as I couldn't find any article that shed any light on the reasons why Disney waited so long. All I can say is that sometimes Disney can be a teensy bit stereotypical in their representations. To address these complaints, Disney changed the name of the film to The Princess and the Frog, "Maddy" was changed to Tiana, her occupation became a waitress, and Oprah Winfrey was hired on as a consultant.
The animation of the film is a little bit different from previous hand-drawn films, as the CAPS system was too outdated and couldn't be realistically used for the film. Disney turned to Toon Boom Animation for a new system and what they got was Harmony. Think of Harmony as CAPS but a bigger, better version. Harmony is in use for the whole film, save Tiana's dream sequence. That takes on an art-deco graphic style based on the art of Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas. The character animation was done on paper, then was scanned directly into Photoshop. It was then enhanced to affect the appearance of painted strokes and fills, and combined with backgrounds, using Adobe After Effects. Musker and Clements had decided from the beginning that they wanted to go with a style like Lady and the the Tramp. Lasseter himself declared that the film was the pinnacle of Disney's style. The city look of Lady and the Tramp would also be the inspiration for the look of the city of New Orleans in the film, while the landscape of Bambi inspired the bayou scenes.

The main character, Tiana, ended up being the hardest voice to find for the crew. Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, and Tyra Banks were all considered for the part at one time or another. Keys even went as far as calling the studio herself about the role. Ultimately, the role went to Jennifer Hudson's co-star from Dreamgirls, Anika Rose. Tiana is a waitress that longs to own her own restaurant, and because of her aspirations, doesn't have time for romance. That in itself is not very typical of a Disney princess (though she isn't a princess quite yet). Bruno Campos (Nip/Tuck) voices the ne'er-do-well and playboy turned frog Prince Naveen. Naveen is basically the complete opposite of Tiana. Tiana is all responsibility, and Naveen is cast out from his rich kingdom because he wants to have no responsibility. That's why he is more than happy to run around in New Or leans and just have a good time. That is, until he is turned into a frog for being...well...himself. Naveen is of an ambiguous ethnicity, because the country he hails from is make believe! Yes, Maldonia is not a real country, please don't consult your globe to try and prove me wrong. So, the prince is neither white or black, instead putting him in the Eurasian area, but sounding awfully French. I think Disney did this on purpose, and I can see why. Making him an ambiguous ethnicity is the only way to keep people from griping about the male lead.

Michael-Leon Wooley (Dreamgirls) voices Louis, the trumpet-playing, jazz-loving gator. Louis is named after the famous jazz trumpet player Louis Armstrong, and wants nothing more than to be in a band like humans. The band that Louis ultimately plays in, Firefly Five plus Lou, is a reference to the Dixieland band Firehouse Five plus Two which consisted of Disney animators. Jim Cummings (Winnie-the-Pooh) voices the Cajun firefly Ray. Ray is an interesting character due to his infatuation with the evening star, which he calls Evangeline. This is a reference the the Longfellow poem, "Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie," which tells the story of a girl trying to find her lost love. The poem is held dear by Louisiana descendants of the Acadians, or Cajuns. The "star" that Ray calls Evangeline is not a star at all, but the planet Venus. Venus is the Roman goddess of love. Keith David (The
Chronicles of Riddick) voices Dr. Facilier, aka The Shadow Man, who acts as the silver-tongued villain of the film. Bruce W. Smith, the supervising animator of Dr. Facilier, referred to the character as a "lovechild" of Cruella de Vil and Captain Hook. Gross! Facilier incidentally looks an awful lot like the Voodoo god of magic, ancestor worship, and death, Baron Samedi. Baron Samedi is often described as being very thin, wearing a top hat and tuxedo, and having a skull face. People still have a problem with the character, but for different reasons. Christians were upset by the Voodoo aspects of the film, while non-Christians didn't like that Voodoo was portrayed as a type of magic and not a religion. Oh well. You can't please everyone. Other voices in the film include John Goodman as "Big Daddy," Terrence Howard as Tiana's father that dies in WWI, and Oprah Winfrey as Tiana's mother.

The movie went up for a bunch of awards, including best animated feature and best song at The Academy Awards, but lost to Up and Crazy Heart, respectively. Speaking of best song, this movie had some pretty good music. Randy Newman, who had done the music for most of the Pixar films but not any Disney animated ones, created the score for The Princess and the Frog, giving it a dixieland and jazz feel. With Newman tackling the score, and Alan Menken doing the songwriting, the movie has a pretty good soundtrack. And that's what Disney really needs is a animated film with a memorable soundtrack. Everybody remembers the songs from The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and countless other films that used songs in their movies. What the movies in the 2000's and scattered others from the 70's and 80's are missing is the music. The music helps people keep fond memories of the film and adds a fun flair to the movie. Animation is more accepting of the Broadway style of music, as it seems kind of campy to see people randomly break into songs in live action movies. Sure, there are some, but showtunes are meant for the part of the populace that like going to musicals. Most live action musicals aren't as highly regarded as animated ones. There are exceptions, don't get me wrong, but not too many. Anyway, one last note is that this is one of the few Disney movies (Beauty and the Beast being one of the more recent ones) that the people who are voicing the characters are also the ones that are singing for them too. What does this prove? Well, apparently a lot of voice actors can't sing!

The film first premiered in a limited capacity in New York and L.A. in late November of 2009. That was followed shortly after by a wide release on December 11th, a date that was chosen instead of Christmas, since Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (*shudder*) came out the same day and Disney didn't want to compete with it. The film ended up grossing a worldwide total of over $267 million and definitively making a profit from its $105 million budget. While it was much more successful than the more recent hand-drawn movies, it was not even close to such films as The Lion King or Aladdin from the heyday of the Disney Renaissance. Critics welcomed the return of the hand-drawn Disney animation and for the most part gave the movie glowing reviews. Many critics pointed towards the old format as what made the film so good, namely, good old-fashioned animation, good story, and good songs. Any negativity was directed towards the subject matter, mainly the voodoo parts and various concepts in the movie. Thanks to the success of the film, Disney decided to green-light a hand-drawn film every two years, which so far they've done. Anne and I consider this to be the new era of Disney, since it seems like they are finally finding their way back to what Walt Disney wanted for the animation studio. Will this last? Well, we really don't know since we are hardly into this new decade, but there are plenty of stories out there, and we're pretty confident that Disney will be making films for a very long time. So, now that they've done a film about African-Americans, how about one about the Latino population? Saludos Amigos! and The Three Caballeros don't count!

1 comment: