Saturday, 6 February 2010
The word is on the street: hand-drawn animation is all but dead. Pixar saw to that. But, wait! Here comes Pixar top-dog John Lasseter, rallying the very animators he helped put out of business, to re-open the Disney "classic" catalogue and put pencil and paint back on our screens.
"The Princess and the Frog" is the first hand-drawn Disney film since "Home on the Range" wheezed its way into the bargain bin about six years ago, and we can all remember how that went, right? Anyone?
The diminishing returns on 2D and the runaway success of Pixar and Dreamworks' CG films led Disney to sound the death knell on old-school cartooning, due to the misconception that people didn't want to look at bits of ink moving around onscreen when they could have bunches of pixels instead.
When Lasseter took over a large portion of the Disney company, he pointed out that the down-turn in ticket sales was more likely to be because of the down-turn in the quality of the movies, rather than the passing of the medium. Disney had been churning out formulaic and uninteresting flicks for some time, whilst audiences were becoming accustomed to the expert storytelling of the Pixar oeuvre, so they had been left trailing behind.
So, does "The Princess and the Frog" resuscitate Disney's comatose animation wing? To some extent, yes. However, it is less a case of "return to form" than "return to formula".
"Princess and the Frog" is packed with stock characters (strong willed, but lonely heroine who is too focused on her work to actually live her life/handsome, playboy prince too wrapped up in himself to care about anyone else) wandering through familiar situations, meeting a disparate bunch of comedy sidekicks and learning their lessons on the way to an expected finale. It looks great, however, although some of the character design is slightly unbalanced - veering wildly between caricature and semi-realism - and the tunes are fun, if not show-stopping.
The story is typically syrupy, with a pat message about the difference between what you want and what you need, but won't quite induce a diabetic coma due to the general lightness of touch and a few laughs from the nonchalant Prince and Childs-from-out-of-The-Thing as the scene-eating bad guy.
Much has been made of the fact that the lead, Tiana, is the first black Disney "Princess", surely indicating that the winds of change are blowing through the corridors of the Mouse House, right? I mean only a massive cynic would call into question the good intentions that no doubt motivated the racial selection by pointing out that Disney's first black-centric tale features lots of jazz, voodoo and a heroine obsessed with gumbo. At least it wasn't fried chicken, eh?
There's also an inbred, toothless retard red-neck Cajun firefly, so the stereotypes aren't just limited to the black community.
Cynical racial analyses aside, the film remains a solidly entertaining, if unremarkable experience akin to Disney also-rans such as "Basil the Great Mouse Detective" or "Hercules", but is not fit to shine the shoes of "Bambi", "Pinocchio" or more recent works like "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast", let alone anything from the Pixar library. Except "Cars". It's better than "Cars".
On the strength of this evidence, Disney needs to take a leaf out of Pixar's book and let passionate, talented directors tell us stories that need to be told, rather than cobbling together a product from demographic breakdowns and market research. Until they do, we'll just have to rely on Lasseter's stable and the unfortunately-not-exactly-prolific genius Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli for quality family animation.