Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Movie Review - The Princess and the Frog (2009)

The Princess and the Frog got a lot of press because it was the first proper 2D Disney movie for years, and because it was the first Disney animated movie to have a black female lead character - but interesting side-notes as those are, what The Princess and the Frog should really be remembered for is being a very fine animated movie.  Disney have here produced something that stands up well against whatever classic animated movie you care to name.

Being a take on the classic tale of the princess kissing a frog who then turns into a handsome prince, I'd been expecting a medieval setting or similar - not so.  The setting is very contemporary, based in New Orleans when jazz ruled supreme (not that it's stopped...).  The story centres around Tiana, who at the start of the movie is a young girl, whose father is a poor man with a dream of opening his own restaurant.  He fails to realise that dream but as a truly loving family man has more important (if less tangible) successes in his life.  After his death however Tiana still tries to make that dream come true, working all hours of the day and night in an attempt to scrimp and save the money to buy the old abandoned mill that her father wanted to turn into a classy restaurant.

In stark contrast, her friend Charlotte has been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and her father "Big Daddy" La Bouff is the richest man in town.  Charlotte dreams of meeting and marrying a handsome prince.  The difference in their situations is starkly illustrated by an early scene in which Tiana, riding home on the bus with her mother (who works as a seamstress, with "Big Daddy" being her best customer) watching as the grand houses of the affluent white population are replaced by the small huts of the black people.  This isn't a film that pushes forward a racial message, but that scene is certainly a powerful reminder of the terrible inequalities that did and sadly still do exist.

Anyway, back to the story.  Guess who's coming to town?  None other than a handsome prince!  Prince Naveen is a party animal, a jazz lover, and hasn't done a day's work in his life.  His somewhat less than loyal aide Lawrence detests him (though with reason, it has to be said).  About to woo Charlotte and marry into money, he comes across Dr Facilier, otherwise known as "The Shadow Man" - a very dangerous chap with a penchant for nasty voodoo curses.  One such curse turns Naveen into a frog, and by a series of misadventures Tiana is also transformed into an amphibian.  They eventually team up with a trumpet-playing alligator called Louis and a firefly named Ray, who happens to be in love with a star.  They go in search of a blind voodoo lady living in the heart of the bayou. 

It's all quite crazy, and after starting slightly too slowly, it soon becomes a frantic sequence of madcap scenes and great songs.  The music in The Princess and the Frog is all jazz, and every song is a good one (or a great one).  Randy Newman's music score is absolutely superb, and he well deserves his two Oscar nods.  The voice acting is excellent - all of the cast (most of whom I've never heard of) do a great job, with Anika Noni Rose as Tiana, Bruno Campos as Prince Naveen, Keith David (okay, I have heard of him) as Dr Facilier.  Rounding off the key cast members are Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings and Peter Bartlett as Louis, Charlotte, Ray and Lawrence respectively.  Not only were the characters funny but people cared about them - as evidenced by several members of the audience weeping over the death of a firefly (and yes, I'm talking about adult members of the audience!!)

The animation, though 2D, has a great deal of depth to it and is wonderfully vibrant and detailed.  There are a couple of major changes in style in different places which add extra life to it.  The characters are nicely designed and brilliantly animated; the backgrounds are wonderfully drawn.  There's always plenty going on, whether in spectacular, explosive action, surreal happenings or simply little details that could easily be missed.  A veritable feast for the eyes - don't let the fact that it's not 3D make you think it's less advanced; however, it does maintain a hand-drawn look (I presume it is at least in part hand-drawn), which helps it maintain a link with the older Disney classics.

The story is good, the characters are great, there's loads of humour and a lot of action, the music is wonderful and every song is good (or better).  The Princess and the Frog really surprised me and I'd have to rate it right up with the very best Disney animations of the past.  If you like animated movies at all, you really should make sure you watch this one!


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