Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Princess and the Frog Review

Hey y'all! Time for another review.

So I finally got around to watching the new princess movie, The Princess and The Frog. I like this movie, but I'm a bit sad for it's sake that it wasn't able to come out fifteen years ago, around the time when Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid were the Disney princess movies of the day. Those two were the true epics of the Disney princess series, expertly telling stories we've already heard in fresh and fun ways. Modern times have hit Hollywood hard, and most movies today that haven't come out of Pixar suck. Good movies seem to be few and far between, so I was automatically dubious for this new movie. I call this the "let's make it an epic but forget we're telling a story" syndrome.

Remember, movies are epic because they tell a story, not because the person wants them to be an epic. In fact, the surest way to make your movie stink is to think it's the awesomest thing ever before you actually make it. Humility makes you work harder and you get a better result.

Fortunately, The Princess and The Frog seems to have escaped a lot of the suckitude that clings to modern movie making. It's a return to the good ol' days of 2D animation, a true artform that I desperately hope is not forgotten in the future. So the first thing I'll be talking about is the looks of this movie - simply put, they're great. Disney has lovingly designed several interesting characters and settings, my favorite of which being the forty bajillion dresses they made for Charlotte and Tiana. Some lady at the company was having the time of her life designing all of these things. Every moment in the movie was a pleasure to look at. Quite frankly I liked it better than that Avatar nonsense, mostly due to the fact that I didn't get a headache after watching TPATF. It was made with love, not arrogance. See? Look how much money they saved by not wasting ten years on HD nonsense.

So the story of this movie is that young Tiana is a marvelous cook living in the poorer side of New Orleans with her parents, and it's her dream to make a restaurant that anybody can come in and enjoy. Her father dies of unknown causes (to the viewer, anyway) and Tiana is left to work as hard as she can to finally buy a building and get her dreams started. The coming of Maldonian prince Naveen is pretty much a non-issue to her, though her friend Charlotte, the daughter of a rich New Orleans business man, is head over heels for the guy without even having met him. Through trickery and mistaken identity, both the prince and Tiana end up as frogs and have to find their way to humanity.

Now, for the first part of this review, I won't get into spoilers. Suffice to say that the story was pretty good, though the execution could have gone far better. There was a lot of creativity put into certain things, particularly the little details. There were things like Charlotte's quirky mannerisms as a spoiled girl, villain Shadow Man's equally evil shadow, the fun and completely hilarious Duke, the fact that a firefly was in love with a star, and many other things. However, this film in many cases misses the big picture, which is too create another classic princess story so that Tiana can join the ranks of Aurora, Belle, Mulan, and the rest (is Mulan really a princess?). While this movie was fun, it just wasn't the epics or at least good tales of the past. Hence the modern movie suckitude thing.

Most of my problems in this movie weren't the dialogue, which was fun and southern, just like I like, but three main things: misuse/underdevelopment of characters, non-sticking songs, and the overhammering of the movie's themes. Oh wait, and there was also huge pacing issues.

Let's start with the most spoiler-free of these: the music. Now, I didn't have a problem with the songs in or anything in this movie, and they were very good in their own right. Trouble is, I won't remember them. Think about it. Each of the princess movies have at least one good song that really kicks with the audience. My theory is that the people like these songs because they have little to nothing to do with the plot.

What makes a classic song is not relevance, but the expression of a spirit or natural urge that lives within your audience. Either that or the sheer catchiness of the song. Catchiness is the reason why Snow White's known song is the song of the dwarves, with their "heigh ho! Heigh ho! It's off to work we go!" People who have never seen the movie have hummed that song to themselves at times. Going to another of the old ones, Sleeping Beauty's song was one of the least remembered ones, but still a good one - "Once Upon a Dream". This song was slightly plot-relevant, but in the end it was simply a song about knowing the man you love because you've dreamed about him all your life. It's beautiful on its own, and you don't have to know the movie to understand it.

From Cinderella, you have that song that goes "a dream is a wish your heart makes when you're fast asleep" and "bibitty bobitty boo". Songs were not as necessary in Cinderella as the story itself, but these songs caught on, one for its silly dream commentary and the other for its magical silliness. Beauty and the Beast had a similar couple of very popular songs (though all the songs were good) in its title song and Gaston's gloriously arrogant tune. The Little Mermaid too had a pair, one dramatic and on silly, in "Part of Your World" and "Under the Sea", with the added bonus of "Poor, Unfortunate Souls". Pocahontas had her "paint with all the colors of the wind" song, the title of which I'm not certain. Mulan, in my opinion, had the catchiest soundtrack of all these movies, and every song is a gem without intefering with the plot. They even seemlessly help it move along. Second place goes to the movie Aladdin.

So the trick is, the best way to make catchy songs is to not tie them too closely to the story, but let them be their own things that really resonate with the viewer's feelings and struggles or else be so fun you can't help but sing them to yourself. If you have to see a movie to understand the song, that's bad. Unfortunately, TPATF songs are like that. They have too much to do with the plot without the catchiness of a silly Disney song. The closest thing to an independent song is Shadow Man's "Friends on the Other Side", which had the potential to be good, but again this song is forced by poor story planning to tell the backstory of both Naveen and his servant. I really do like "Almost There", especially the cartoon segment that goes with it. It's a fun song sung very well.

And so, let's go into the more spoilerific issues. Specifically, the poor story planning. Most of these problems centered around Naveen's servant Lawrence, who is given easily the dumbest role in this movie. His motivations are never expressly given other than in Shadow Man's song, where we are told rather than shown the sufferings of the servant. Keep in mind that since Naveen is out of money because his parents cut him off for being so spoiled, Lawrence is the only one still watching out for the young prince. Naveen obviously trusts this guy, and this guy has to care for Naveen in some way, because why would you follow a broke dude all the way to a new country otherwise? Is he under orders by Naveen's parents to watch out for him? We are given not so much as a line of this guy's backstory, or the relationship between him and Naveen.

Now, for much of this movie Lawrence is pretending to be Naveen. Why? The Shadow Man claims that the servant was being pushed around his entire life and offers him the chance to become free of his servitude -- by making him a Naveen fake? Wouldn't the servant rather do what he wants to do than pretend to be someone else? This could possibly be believable, but the movie at no point sets up a specific grudge against or jealousy for Naveen. This guy seems like a normal, fairly generic servant, not someone capable of taking over someone's life and doing evil things.

Also, I find it weird that the servant would trust Shadow Man. He was the one reluctant to listen to anything Shadow Man had to say, and Naveen was the trusting one. But as they both try to get what they want from Shadow Man, and Naveen ends up turned to a frog. Now, if the Shadow Man was willing to trick the prince, why wouldn't the servant think to believe that his own magical "gift" was likewise a trap? The servant has already seen Shadow Man's corruption, so why would he trust him, especially since Shadow Man treats him with contempt before he takes the deal?

Also, if Lawrence works so hard, why is he fat? You'd think he'd be skinny. And why does he want to marry Charlotte? She's pretty high maintenance, and he does not need a high maintenance girl.

So yeah, this one character brought a lot of flaws to the movie all by himself. But let's talk about the things I like before I get on another of my rants. Tiana herself is a really great character, and I love how frogs creep her out. I also love how she's kind of crazy about making her own restaurant especially when nobody else sees what she sees. She's a great addition to the princesses. Another great aspect is how cooking totally takes her out of her situation. When she's in the midst of trying to get Mama Odie to turn them back human, she takes a moment to taste and critique gumbo despite all her worries. She seems pretty phobic of disgusting things, which makes sense with her foodservice notions. Tiana's mom is pretty awesome, but I wish we could see more of her.

Another interesting character was the Shadow Man himself. Wait, his name is Dr. Facilier? Eh, I'll just call him Shadow Man. Anyway, this is a really fun character who has a great gimmick of a living shadow. He thin, gangly, and totally trippy. In a scene that's sure to scare the children, he introduces himself and his magic in a perfectly evil way.

The trouble there is that he's a perfect villain -- and they don't let him be it. Let me explain. The thing that makes a villain so absolutely delightful is the fact that he triggers the fight-or-flight response in us. Facilier could do this very well, and had the potential to be the great monster that Ursula from The Little Mermaid was. The trouble is, one of the reasons a villain is scary is because of control; you're afraid that they can kill someone or ruin your life or make someone you love suffer. The trouble with Facilier is that he's not in control. He not only has to keep violent spirits at bay, but he has to make sure the servant keeps Charlotte occupied without telling her the truth, find Naveen so he can keep the trinket that allows the servant to pose as him going, stop Tiana from ruining everything, and hope that he doesn't die in the process.

Shadow Man has so many plates to keep spinning and yet he's almost never directly hassling the protagonists. He almost kills Charlotte's dad, kills Ray, and tempts Tiana. Other than that he's just pulling strings and trying not to get pwned by these "friends" of his on the other side. I found myself wishing he would do more.

The saddest thing is that Dr. Facilier is wonderfully crafted. They put details on him like disturbingly ratty hair, blue eyes, and wonderfully gangly movement, but they never really allow him to be the crazy evil bastard that we all want him to be. He barely even knows that Tiana exists until the end of the movie. If they made Shadow Man meet her at the beginning and made it so he had to find froggy Naveen instead of those plot-cheat shadows doing it for him, then this movie would be improved significantly. I will point out that Shadow Man was at her job at Duke's at the beginning, so he's probably seen her around and doesn't regard her as much. Heck, him being all condescending to her dreams at that point would have made a really good moment in the beginning and would really establish a more specific hatred between the two characters.

That's the thing. I feel like a lot of the characters were misused in one way or another. Louie the alligator is almost never useful, and the writers are always thinking of convenient ways to keep him from being a benefit. Not only do they make it so that he can't find Mama Odie, but he gets too distracted by pine burrs to save anyone from the bayou bumpkins, and spends much of the rest of the movie playing in a band. He never is in the same scene with Dr. Facilier, nor does he even appear in the final confrontation. Ray is so busy stealing the scene that Louie doesn't get a chance to do anything of importance.

I never liked Ray. I mean, it was sort of creative that he would be in love with a star, but it's also creepy and sad. How sad is it that he's in love with something that's probably Jupiter and he could never possibly be with in his life? There were other characters, particularly froggy Tiana and Shadow Man, who needed the time spent on this character. They should have cut him out of the movie, or left him as just a colorful bayou character. And it was sick when he became a star next to Evangeline. That was gimmicky and a disrespect to the movie as a whole. Thing is, this is a princess movie. The movie spends too much time focused on other characters, and cutting the irrellevant Ray from the movie would give us more time to get to know the more important characters, like Tiana and Naveen.

Naveen in particular needed some attention. All we know about him is that he's lazy and likes music. How about a little more, like a secret hobby that somehow becomes important? Maybe he whittles or designs clothes or works on cars or something. He doesn't seem to have the depth of character that a lot of the princes have, and we don't get a chance to see what really makes him tick. He's pretty much a happy-go-lucky caricature. I'd have liked to see him angry or upset, just to provide his character more dimension.

I liked this movie, but one of the things that got on my nerves was the pacing. Now, as for the early part that shows young Tiana was paced well, but once she gets older, the movie continually gets more and more hyper. Tiana managing her way through traffic to work, shuffling dish after dish impossibly well, Charlotte coming in with her endless prattle, Prince Naveen coming in and doing his dancing and just gets more hyper from there. This isn't too bad for a while, but after a time it's kind of annoying. It doesn't feel like the movie takes appropriate times to settle down when it needs to.

There are times when nothing would beat a good dialogue, but the writers put the characters through some sort of hyperactive thing. Like when the frogs have just escaped the party, and Tiana and Naveen are telling each other the truth (Naveen has no money and Tiana is not a princess) as they float over the bayou with the balloons. Instead of having a good dialogue, the two have to say bits of the truth as they dodge falls, a bird, and crocodiles. I'm especially insulted that they made the event that brought Naveen and Tiana together was a chase from bayou bushfolk. One, just because people live in the country doesn't mean they're ignorant, and two, it doesn't really seem to be enough to make Tiana start falling for Naveen. Three, why is the alligator, the most intimidating of the bunch, steered away from actually helping aid the escape? Four, would pine burrs really stick in an aligator's hide?

And yes, we have a movie breaking plot hole. Isn't it weird that nobody in New Orleans is worried about Tiana's disappearance? Wouldn't her mom notice that's she's not around? The first thing she would do is go on over to Charlotte's, as that would be the last place anyone would have seen Tiana. Then Charlotte would notice that her friend is missing and send off search parties for her, promising a reward to whoever did. Charlotte has already shown that she considers Tiana a friend, first by invading her work at Duke's and then by leaving "the prince" in favor of helping Tiana get a dress to wear instead of the one ruined by the crash into the pastry table. I highly doubt she would plan a wedding without thinking at some point of Tiana, either to gossip or to have Tiana be a bridesmaid. For that matter, Tiana made a mess of her room and left her dress on the floor as she turned into a frog, so wouldn't it seem weird to Charlotte that her room is this way? Wouldn't she guess that something horrible happened to Tiana? Isn't at least Duke mad that she didn't show up for work?

Man, Duke was so dang funny. I loved that guy, and we only get to see him for two seconds. Not fair.

Another character who suffered from misuse was Mama Odie herself. Now, I don't like how this character portrays magic as a good or viable thing, but as a guiding character she is important to the plot. She comes in one scene and then disappears basically, and yet her absense is missed. Why would Tiana and Naveen get married and let her officiate if she wasn't a relevant, kind guide? The movie doesn't take the time to emphasize this side of Mama Odie, and other than her song, we don't know much about her. She feels underused.

Now, I'd like to take the time to say that screen time does not equal quality or getting to know a character. A character can be on screen for most of the movie and yet we know nothing about their mind and they wander as a generic person that does things only based on vague hollywood morality, like the leading character in Avatar. I compare Mama Odie to the Oracle in the Matrix, because her role should have been a lot like the Oracle's. See, the Oracle appears only in one scene, but because she is properly built up through the dialogue and her words have great relevance to the Matrix's plot, she doesn't feel underused. She did what she needed to do, and did it well. While I do think that Mama Odie should have been given more time to show guidance and kindness, with proper build up she would need only a little more. And she's really fun too.

What do I mean by build up? It can mean anything -- like for a powerful character, you have other characters talk dramatically of this power. Perhaps they're afraid or impressed. Or you can have a scene where your already introduced characters are doing something, and this newcomer can show up and automatically change the mood, giving the audience a lasting impression of who this person is. A more complex example comes right from Aladdin. So Aladdin comes in as Prince Ali Ababwa (sorry for the spelling), with his magnificent parade and bold song by the Genie. We have the sultan rushing around to let him in, and Jafar frantically trying to keep him out, when finally the "prince" comes in, expecting a good welcome. Then princess Jasmine comes in, angry that she's being treated like a prize. This tells us in one instant, without even mentioning Jasmine's name, what sort of person she is. She's efficiently portrayed, only on screen for a minute as this is developed.

The song, "When I'm human" could really have been cut from the movie. It's not a bad song, but it's just totally unnecessary. We already know Tiana wants a restaurant, we already know that Naveen is lackadaisical, and we already gather that Louie wants to hang out with humans. So why have the song when it introduces nothing new? You could replace it with a song where Louie sings about the bayou and what sort of people that live there, with a significant portion dedicated to the stories surrounding Mama Odie. She could use some buildup.

You know, if Charlotte hasn't seen her fiance since they were engaged because the servant couldn't pose as Naveen, wouldn't she be mad? And how does Tiana recognise Naveen as a human when she sees him at the Mardi Gras parade? She only saw him once as a human and she didn't even know it was him. For all she knows, Charlotte could be marrying some other dude she knows nothing about. Even more so, how does Raymond know that this is Naveen? He's never seen human Naveen and he didn't even have a chance to look at newspapers or something, yet his dialogue shows that he clearly knows that this is the prince.

Why is the servant being arrested at the end? How do they intend to prove in court that he was imitating a taller, skinnier, black man when he's a rotund, balding white guy?

Wow, this movie has a more or less onscreen death. That's gotta be a Disney first. Oh, and look, Ray turns into a star. How pointlessly cheesy. This I feel is a bad transition from the failed attempt at breaking the spell to Tiana's and Naveen's wedding. People like to say that Lord of the Rings had too many endings, but this movie I feel is the opposite. It goes too quickly from one thing to the next, without really dwelling on it. I mean, there should be a moment where they reflect on spending the rest of their lives being frogs, and Tiana has to tell her mother the truth of what happened. Naveen should at least try to tell his parents what's going on.

Honestly, I would have loved it if they gave his parents and Tiana's mom a bigger role. They should have a couple of scenes where they get to know each other. Naveen's parents could be there for Mardi Gras, and they meet Tiana's mom as she's looking for her daughter. That would be cool.

I have a better scene in mind for the transition to the frog wedding. Tiana should be all like "I guess my dream is over..." and then Naveen says something like "But we're still together and that's what counts" and he pulls out his makeshift ring, something that was totally cute. Then they go to Mama Odie and ask her to officiate or something, and Mama tells them how proud she is that they learned to look for what they needed and not what they wanted.

Also, they needed to dwell a little longer on the scene where Tiana gets her lilypad dress. That dress is awesome, and because of its magical nature it deserves more than three seconds of screentime. They should at least dance or something in the swampwater before it cuts to their human wedding. Why can't she wear that at the human wedding instead of that boring rope thingy? They could say that Charlotte had it made for her or something.

When Mama Odie says "by the powers vested in me", what powers is she talking about, and who gave them to her?

Also, the movie never lets go of its themes. It is almost always talking about dreams and people's desires without taking a break to just dwell in the reality of the world. It's constantly pushing the themes of the movie in your face about working hard and remembering what's important. That's fine, but it gets way overdone.

Since this is a children's movie, I'll ask another question for its ratings: would I let any hypothetical children of mine watch this? Sadly, no. I like this movie, but I don't like how it portrays voodoo magic. Evil magic appears in the other princess movies, but those are very generic magics. However, if you go to New Orleans you will encounter voodoo in some way. People like to malign the spiritual, but it's indefinitely more important than most people realize and has a greater affect on your life than you know. On this note, I do like the part where Shadow Man is consumed by his own magic. Still, I'm not going to let any hypothetical child watch this movie until they have a significant understanding of logic and spirituality.

Okay, so I say all this, but really it doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy this movie. It was cute and fun. I like to nitpick, but as concerns this movie, my nitpickery is not with anger as it has been with some of today's movies. I simply love nitpickery for its own sake. The plot in this movie had problems, but it didn't suck. And that makes all the difference. If I was stuck on a plane for fifteen hours, I wouldn't mind this movie at all. I couldn't watch it over and over again like I can Rab ne Bana di Jodi, but it didn't make me want to shoot myself like Caddyshack. This story is fun. A lot of people will tell me to just shut off my brain and enjoy a movie, and yet in most cases the movie is simply too stupid or plot-holed to be enjoyable -- like Transformers or Iron Man. Only in this movie have I so far been able to validate their comment. I can enjoy this movie despite everything I say about it, because it's a princess movie that's fun and with characters that are based in reality and interesting.

Here's some favorite moments from The Princess and the Frog:

- "Dance with me, fat man!"

I just love this moment, where early on Naveen insists that his servant dance with him on the street. There's something so lighthearted and fun about it that just makes me laugh.

- "When a woman says later, she really means never."

Charlotte tells this to a suitor, and I had to laugh because most of the time this statement is true.

- Tiana's temptation.

Honestly, I can say that this was my favorite scene in the movie. I love how Shadow Man is just placing the restaurant in Tiana's hands for the trinket, and Tiana's resistance. It's one of the few times when Shadow Man is being a real villain and Tiana is directly resisting her own desires for what she knows is right.

- Tiana with a hammer.

This part near the end cracks me up. Tiana's eagerly swinging a hammer as she has just bought the building for her restaurant, and the look on her face is just so crazy that I had to laugh. Honestly, I really like Tiana as a character. She's really cool, and a great addition to the others. And she doesn't annoy me like Belle does. Jasmine does a little too. I dunno, Beast and Aladdin do a good job of getting them to chill out.

Summary: Fun characters lovingly made, but with huge ridiculous plot holes. I'll give it a 6.5 out of ten.

There is a problem with this rating though. Thing is, I've seen all the other princess movies as a child, so they have nostalgia attached to them, so they get a ratings boost from that alone, or so you'll say. Okay then. I'll go back and review them as an adult. It'll take me a while, and I'll post other blogs while I'm going along, but yeah, fair's fair. That, and I don't have all the Disney movies. We'll see how it goes. I will give The Princess and the Frog this notation, though: it's the most beautiful princess movie to date.

Let's see what I can remember:
Snow White
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
The Little Mermaid

I think I shall do Mulan next.

Notedly, I'm still including Aladdin even though the princess is not the focus of the movie, and Mulan's in too, even though Mulan technically isn't a princess. I like to think she counts though.

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