Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Kiss that frog...

OK, Disney's put out their first hand-drawn animated movie in five years and the first also under the leadership of Pixar's John Lasseter. The Princess And The Frog. A lot is riding on this movie, and it looks like Avatar might have taken a little wind out of its sails. But overall it is one beautiful confection, the most physically beautiful drawn domestic animated movie I've seen since Lilo and Stitch, and it has nothing to apologize for in its depiction of post-Plessy v. Ferguson race relations in New Orleans.

Let's get the racial issue out of the way right up front. New Orleans has had a far more nuanced race relations situation than any other place in the Southern United States. For example, Faubourg Treme is a historically integrated community in NOLA where in the 19th Century CE a gumbo pot of ethnicities, including free Blacks, lived shoulder to shoulder. This racial mixing annoyed the more racist population of the rest of the state of Louisiana, and eventually climaxed in the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which held that "separate but equal" facilities for Blacks and Whites were AOK. This stood until Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that desegregated the public schools in the US.

The depiction of a Caribbean prince wooing both an aristocratic White woman and a working-class Black woman, the latter being our protagonist Tiana, in 1920s New Orleans, is not out of line. Even after Plessy the traditional (for New Orleans) blurred color line was constant. However blurred the color line was, it was still present. And The Princess And The Frog portrays the truth about it without making a huge deal over it.

In one of the early scenes of the movie, you see Tiana and her mother leaving the home of a wealthy White family where the mother worked as a seamstress. They leave out the back "servant's entrance." They board a streetcar and find their place in the back of the streetcar, and the ride takes them to their working class Black neighborhood. I am not sure, but Tiana's neighborhood looks like it's based on the Ninth Ward before the 1927 Mississippi Flood. You see Black families living in small, crowded houses, and Tiana's dad sharing a huge pot of gumbo with the neighbors. It's an instant party. These are people living in bleak circumstances, but true to the spirit of the city that gave birth to Jazz they eke whatever happiness they can from simple things like food and music. The scene is brief in terms of screen time, but it's very, very true. It's light-years from the racial myopia of Song Of The South.

Tiana loses her genius chef dad to World War I, and supports her family as a waitress. She still carries a "dream from (her) father"...a desire to open up her own restaurant in a vacant building formerly a sugar mill. This dream is so ingrained in her she, unlike most Disney Princess characters, doesn't care a whit about handsome princes, not even Prince Naveen, the light-skinned Caribbean Creole Prince of a fictitious island kingdom. Invited to a party by her childhood friend, the spoiled rich white girl her mom sewed for, she is not entirely impressed by the handsome playboy who was looking for a rich girl to marry because his parents cut him off from his wealth.

The sinister Dr. Facilier rewards Naveen's desire for riches by turning him into the eponymous Frog. And of course, the only way of breaking the spell is the kiss of a princess...or a sufficiently wealthy heiress. Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess, and asks her for a kiss. She's grossed out, but does it anyway. The kiss backfires, and as the official trailer makes evident, she's now a frog as well.

The whole movie is full of affectionate homages to elements of animation history. When Tiana dreams of her restaurant, the sequence becomes a homage to Tex Avery's classic '30s streamline moderne cartoon, "Page Miss Glory."

And the sinister Dr. Facilier? He's very very Cab Calloway in Fleischer-land. If you've already seen the movie, the animation of Calloway as Koko The Clown in the Fleischer masterpiece "Snow White" will be very familiar.

But what's not traditional here is that Tiana is no passive figure. She is a true "Self-rescuing Princess" who actually is way more active in finding her way out of her predicament than her "Handsome Prince" Naveen. She has a dream, a plan and is strong enough to see that dream through regardless of any help she might get along the way. For her, love is a distraction. It takes being turned into a frog and being disappointed initially by the good Voudoun shamaness Mama Odie to send her looking for comfort in the green slimy arms of Naveen.

This is the first time in a long time in any animated musical where the "showstopper" numbers don't literally stop the show, but push the storytelling forward. It helps that Randy Newman, who lived in New Orleans from shortly after his birth to age 11 and splits his time between there and Los Angeles ever since, is the one writing the words and the music. The original choice was Alan Mencken, who probably doesn't know what it means to miss New Orleans. Instead of faux-Jazz, faux-Zydeco and faux-Dixieland, you get Newman's take on the real music of the region. Newman is perhaps the best composer regularly doing animation scores, along with his cousin Thomas Newman, and he seems to have a real love of the medium and a flair for telling stories through words and music.

In a lot of respects, this is the first 2D Pixar movie. John Lasseter's hands are all over this, even though he only gets producer credit here. This is a glorious return to form that bodes well for the future of 2D at Disney/Pixar. The blockbuster Avatar has unfortunately made Princess' box-office sledding kind of rough. But Disney has already said they have green-lit two more 2D movies and is developing more. My dream is that they reach across the Pacific and do a co-production with a top-tier Japanese studio like Production IG. Anime, and independent animators in Europe, has kept the torch burning for hand-drawn animation. It's good to see Disney (or more accurately Disney/Pixar) back in the game.

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