Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thank goodness for John A. Lasseter

Some traditions should not be forgotten. Fortunately Lasseter, who is chief creative officer both at Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Feature Animation, agrees.

And by green-lighting The Princess and the Frog; handpicking Ron Clements and John Musker to direct and write it, and giving them their heads, he gave the rest of us animation lovers a gift.

I used to say The Iron Giant was the last great traditionally animated movie. I'm not sure I can say that anymore.

Disney's had a lot of shots taken at it over the years for playing it too safe with their films; at least some of those shots were deserved. So it's always refreshing when we get one that takes a risk or two.

Yet at the same time as it takes risks, The Princess and the Frog feels like it could have been made nearly at any time from the '50's onward. It's as magical to look at as Sleeping Beauty, with a better story and characters than Beauty and the Beast.

And a new Disney "Princess" who's notable for more than one reason. As was much talked about in publicity during the making of the film, Tiana is Disney's first African-American star character and yes, it's about time.

But if that were all she was, this could've been a Ralph Bakshi movie. Better yet, with both a good side and faults, she's a more well-rounded character than we've seen in a Disney heroine since at least The Little Mermaid.

And Ariel, fun-loving and sweet as she was, was also a girl willing to give up virtually everything in her life to marry her handsome prince.

To coin a phrase: Tiana does not play that.

The movie has its faults as well as its good side too, even if you can't tell from everything I've said so far.

For one thing, John Goodman has probably done three or four too many cartoon voices at this point.

And the villain is not as frightening as he could've been--even in a children’s' movie.

But on the other flipper, Goodman's role is really only a side character in the movie. And the villain is actually more of a middleman--he has "friends on the other side," who are scary.

The movie owes a debt to more than one Disney classic. The Jungle Book is one such acknowledged, especially in its music, which is jazz, and the swamp settings reminded me of The Rescuers (that was the first Disney animated film I remember seeing new, in the theater).

I do not consider these flaws, however. Where jazz in the Indian jungle was an anachronism (don't get me wrong, Jungle Book is one of my very favorite Disney movies), Princess and the Frog is deliberately set in 1920s New Orleans.
I think its Randy Newman's most inspired score.

As for The Rescuers, the new film is not imitative of that fond memory of my youth, but evocative of it. From the ads, I admit, I was afraid Ray the firefly might be a clone of The Rescuers' dragonfly Evinrude.

But Ray's role in this story is, I think, another Disney first.

I can't say more for fear of spoilers. But suffice it to say for now he reminds me of the famous Oscar Wilde quote:

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

That's right-I just equated an Oscar Wilde quote with an animated firefly.

That's just how I roll.

Another nice twist on expectations comes when we meet what we assume will be the hero's funny sidekick ("Dance with me, fat man!")--and we're wrong.

(Not about him being funny)

When I said this movie feels like it could've been made in the '60s, '70s or '80s (etc), I meant that as a compliment, but it also may be why it wasn't as big of a hit as it flipping' well should've been.

Can a general audience just not tell a good movie from shiny SFX anymore?* I'm used to wondering that about movies like the frickin' Clash of the Titans remake (grumble, grumble, grumble) but I guess, maybe without even realizing it, I thought a classic piece of Disney animation would be immune.

This is traditional, hand-drawn, Disney animation, and it's fucking gorgeous.

This is the kind of movie they mean when they say, "They don't make them like that anymore."

*Yeah, I know, I know...could they ever? See Batman & the Hook of the Crystal Skull (Prince of Thieves).

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