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The Princess and the Frog

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By Clint Morris

They say absence makes the heart great fonder, and never has the sentiment been truer than with the case of 2-D animation.

Hand-drawn animated features, the type of features Walt Disney made their name for, took a backseat to computer-generated features a few years back. As sad as it was to witness the demise of the old-school kiddie flick, you can understand why it had to happen – audiences are forever on an eternal hunt to collect as many bells and whistles as possible, and unfortunately for 2D, CGI was just offering more in that department.

It’s fair enough that the kids wanted products of the PC – after all, they were different, they’re fun, they’re beautiful to watch, and artistically speaking, they encompass more depth and detail than hand-drawn animation. For instance, “Toy Story” (1995), to cite one of the earlier CGI efforts, was like nothing we’d seen before! It looked brilliant!

Walt’s crew, and the other studios who suddenly started laying off artists and instead stocked up on my Powerbooks, only needed to compare the returns of 2D films like “The Road to Eldorado” and “Home on the Range” with CGI efforts like “Shrek” and “Monster’s Inc” to recognize that hand-drawn animation had dipped quite considerably in popularity. Thus, it was pencils down, windows up.

But what a lot of studio types failed to recognize was that there was an even greater reason why 2D hand-drawn animation films were failing – and it had nothing to do with visuals.

Does a film that looks a tad prettier, and a fair bit sharper, always mean it’s better than one that mightn’t look quite as funky? Nope. I mean, just because James Cameron’s pricey CGI -clad “Avatar” looks absolutely beautiful –  visually-speaking –  does that mean it’s a better film than say, “The Departed” – which encompasses next to no special or visual effects? Hell no -  in fact, the latter’s probably the better flick.

You see, it takes a lot more than some dashing visuals to make a movie – it takes a commanding story, impressive performances, a bold director, and sometimes, some good tunes.

2D efforts like “The Prince of Egypt” and “Home on the Range” weren’t unsuccessful because they weren’t computer-generated – well, not entirely – they weren’t popular with the kids because, quite simply, they weren’t good films. In fact, most of the hand-drawn animation of the past decade has been quite lousy. Compared to the rich storylines and deep character detail in their CGI competitors, the hand-drawn films just seemed to be set to automatic write.

To compete with the ‘funkier’ competitors, Disney needed to tinker with the screenplays of their 2D animated films a lot longer, not stay atop of unsharpened pencils.

And umpteen years later, they’ve realized that.

“The Princess and the Frog” is Disney’s first hand-drawn animated movie in 5 years. And, regardless of whether it was created on a paper canvass or a macbook pro, it’s a beautiful film – visually and thematically.

The first thing Disney Animation’s John Lasseter did when he was appointed CEO of the company was reopen the 2D hand-drawn animation department.  And considering Lasseter has been one of the flag flyers for CGI films (he directed “Toy Story”) over the years, that might come as quite a surprise. But this guy knows too well that the marketplace is big enough for both CGI and 2D films – so long as they’re both worthy of their place. And he’s right. If you’ve a strong story, and a great set of characters, to back up your visuals then they will come.

Kids love hand-drawn animation (heck, adults too!) and having been spoilt by so many computer-generated family films over the past decade, it’s actually refreshing to watch one that doesn’t look as high-res.

And those who know how much effort it takes to make one of these animated movies – compared to CGI flicks which, though they’re still tough to make, aren’t half the job of a 2D movie – will likely appreciate it even more than say, “Shrek the Third”, because it’s something created by ‘humans’ not ‘computers’.

But mainly, there’s something sweet… innocent… gorgeous… about a good old-fashioned hand-drawn family film. They’re timeless. They’re important. They’re mesmerizing. They’re the type of film we all grew up with.

Some films greatly benefit by CGI – “Shrek”, for instance, likely wouldn’t have worked as well if it was a hand-drawn feature – but then others, like “The Princess and the Frog”, or classics like “Dumbo” and “The Lion King”, do not. Their primitive visuals  – when I say primitive I don’t mean they’re unsightly, or even less appealing to look at than a 3D film, just that they’ve been produced with older tools – almost add to the charm.

Ron Clements and John Musker, two vets of the hand-drawn feature world (they wrote and directed “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid”, among others), take the wheel on “Princess and the Frog”. And they’re a wise choice – Disney’s 2D comeback needed to encompass everything their earlier hand-drawn efforts did, and since Clements and Musker were behind many of those classic films, and therefore have a real appreciation for the medium, audiences are guaranteed something special.

The New Orleans-set film centres on a young African American waitress’s (Anika Noni Rose) fateful kiss with a frog prince (Bruno Campos) who desperately wants to be human again. Long story short : The poorly young woman is turned into a frog moments after she locks lips with the ‘mucus’-spitting prince, and together, both of the hoppers are forced to the swamps (where, of course, they meet all sorts of wild and wonderful characters – all of whom, of course, can sing) to contemplate their next move.

It might not be in the same league as a “Lion King” or a “Bambi” or a “Sleeping Beauty” (though give it ten years; these things usually get better with age) but “Princess and the Frog” is still a rather divine effort.

“The Princess and the Frog” is fast, fun, funny, thrilling, and effervescent (Randy Newman’s vivacious score helps!) enough to entertain even the most restless of littlies, and it’s current and energetic so will entertain adults.  But mainly, the film succeeds because of its underlying message, which is : You don’t have to be swimming in riches, or dolled up in a tiara and a dress, to be considered a Princess. Not a bad message for young girls.

Extras

A bonza lot of extras on here (even more so if you pick up the Blu-Ray!) including an audio commentary that’s as entertaining as it is informative, a swarm of featurettes, and some other fun bits for the tykes.

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About Caffeinated Clint

The writer/publicist/producer who wears the editor hat on Moviehole. Favorite films include "Say Anything...", "The Hunt for Red October", "Jerry Maguire", "Almost Famous", "Die Hard", "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "Young Guns", "American Psycho", "Back to the Future" and the "Star Wars" series.
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