Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

In retrospect, it was the height of ignorance to think that because multinational corporations abandoned drawn animation, the medium would die. It may not have been as visible in North America as it once was, but smaller studios were happy to keep making drawn films as if nothing had happened. The Princess and the Frog is the third drawn feature I've seen this year (after Miyazaki's Ponyo and Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells) and had circumstances not prevented me from going to the Ottawa festival, I would also have seen Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip.

Of the three I have seen, I'm sorry to say that The Princess and the Frog is the least interesting. Disney's return to drawn animation is also a return to Disney clich├ęs. With the exception of race (and I want to come back to that), there's nothing in this film that Disney hasn't done before.

The truth, as everyone now acknowledges, is that people weren't tired of drawn animation, they were tired of being served the same stories over and over. That's why it's so disappointing that Disney has gone back to those stories. Without going into spoilers, the film is a gumbo of Broadway show tunes, Disney mysticism, lightweight romance and cartoon slapstick. The tone lurches all over the place and the film looks over-worked; it's as if the crew was so desperate for a hit that they pushed everything too far.

Except for one thing. One of my problems with Disney is that they choose settings for their art direction possibilities and then ignore everything else connected to the setting. This film is set in the 1910s and '20s in New Orleans. Racism was pervasive, not only on the personal level but also on the institutional level. It was in 1896, in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, that the United States Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites was constitutional. In reality, the facilities (including schools) were most definitely separate but never equal. There is no question that African Americans of the time were victims of a white society that used the law and violence in order to maintain a class system based on race.

I would suggest anyone interested in the truth of New Orleans during this time period read Louis Armstrong's autobiography My Life in New Orleans (and what an opportunity the film makers missed by not using Armstrong's recording of "A Kiss to Build a Dream On"). Armstrong's triumph over poverty and racism is far more interesting than this film. But let's be clear: this film doesn't exist to reveal any truths. It exists to capitalize on an under-served market segment: African-American girls who want a princess of their own.

I hope this film makes money because so long as Disney continues to make animated films, there is always the chance that a good one will result. A box office success will result in more employment for artists. But this year, besides Ponyo and Kells, I'd say I also prefer Sita Sings the Blues, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Mary and Max to this film. All five of those films are more individual and more emotionally engaging than The Princess and the Frog.

If nothing else, this year has shown that animated features are bigger than just the multinationals, and the so-called "death" of drawn animation was not only exaggerated, it was also an opportunity for new voices to be heard. Perhaps this year we have entered a post-Disney or post-multinational age of animated features. Wouldn't that be nice?

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