Film Review | Sunday, 14 February 2010

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Froggy business

It’s strange to think that a generation younger than my own would remember 3D Disney as their founding introduction to that universe. Most of us have grown up with Disney cartoons, be it ‘Snow White’, ‘Lion King’ or ‘Aladdin’. But ever since the studio gave up on producing ‘traditional’ features (the last of which was 2004’s ‘Home on the Range’), I’m pretty sure that we all felt something had changed in our cultural landscape.
So it’s good to see Disney come back to their roots with ‘The Princess and the Frog’, and the result is a wonderfully quirky take on some familiar tropes. Loosely based on E.D. Baker’s novel ‘The Frog Princess’ and directed by Ron Clemens and John Musker (‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Hercules’, ‘Aladdin’), it is a reminder of the fact that, while Pixar’s 3D masterworks may indeed be utterly dazzling, ‘flat’ animation can create a far more flexible and zany stylised world.
Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans – the lively rendering of which will doubtlessly evoke melancholy, as most of it was a victim of hurricane Katrina – during the Roaring Twenties, it tells the story of Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), who keeps two jobs in order to raise money to open a restaurant, which was her late father’s dream. When the lazy prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) visits town with the aim of marrying into money (as his bohemian lifestyle has led him to be cut off from the family fortune), he forges a deal with the diabolical voodoo man Doctor Facilier, more commonly known as ‘The Shadow Man’. Needless to say, the deal goes sour, and Naveen ends up being turned into a frog. He encounters Tiana at a costume ball and, believing her to be a princess, asks her to kiss him, in the hope that the all too familiar fairy tale trope is in fact true. A transformation does in fact occur – but instead of turning Naveen back into human form, the kiss turns Tiana into a frog as well. As they go into the swamp in search of a cure, they enlist the help of a bumbling, jolly alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), who has musical aspirations, and Cajun firefly Ray (Jim Cummings), who is in love with ‘Evangeline’, the north star.
While the return to the 2D form keeps the nostalgia at bay, the story is also notable for its freshness. Tiana is Disney’s first black princess, and Naveen is far from the cookie-cutter princes we’re used to. He isn’t boringly idealistic, he’s an occasionally insufferable ‘bon vivant’, who is forced to admit, down the line, that he needs to change. But these ‘political’ innovations also come with wonderful imagery… New Orleans, with its chiaroscuro renderings of jazz and voodoo, is a great, unique setting, whose rich variation is a reminder of the potential of traditional animation.

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