Movie review: “The Princess and the Frog” (2009)

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I like Disney movies very much. They can be screamingly funny at their best, and pathetically sentimental at the same time; and who can resist that combination? Love and kindness always win out over greed and hatred (just like in real life). But (unlike real life) there’s always a shadow: death, separation, sadness.

The Disney studio went through a long lull in the 1970s and 1980s, with only a few movies: “The Great Mouse Detective,” “The Rescuers.” Then, suddenly, in the 1990s, they blazed to life again with movies like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”

Then another lull, but of a different kind. Disney was producing a lot of movies again, but they weren’t quite as good: “Pocahontas,” “Mulan,” “Hercules,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “The Emperor’s New Groove.” (I’m not saying these movies are bad; all these have redeeming qualities. “Mulan” is beautifully animated and uniquely sensitive, and “Hercules” (which I saw again recently) is very funny and has some good music, and “Emperor’s New Groove” has the voices of David Spade and John Goodman and Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton, all apparently having an excellent time. But they’re flawed too: “Mulan” gets pretty dark – it’s about war, after all – and “Hercules” and “Emperor’s New Groove” both have endings that go seven directions at once. I don’t even like to think about “Pocahontas,” which has some pretty animation, but a garbled plot and not much entertainment value.)

It was for this reason that I put off seeing “The Princess and the Frog.” Disney had done a Native American princess, and an Asian princess, and even a Middle Eastern princess. (I use the word “princess” instead of “heroine,” because we’re talking about Disney. You understand.) Now – ta-daa! – they created an African-American princess. I didn’t want to see the movie. It was bound to be pious as hell, and cutesy. Oprah herself was voicing the heroine’s mother! For some, that was a seal of approval; for me, that meant that the Disney studio (with its history of racism – go watch “Dumbo” again if you haven’t forgotten) was finally making amends for its past.

And amends might be good for the soul, but they aren’t necessarily fun to watch.

Well, friends, I was wrong. “Princess and the Frog” is a jolly good time. The heroine this time round, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), is a hard-working Jazz Age New Orleans waitress who just wants to open a restaurant. The prince, Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos), is a good-looking royal wastrel who’s in New Orleans looking for a good time (in the short term) and a rich wife (in the long term). The villain turns Naveen into a frog. Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess, and gets her to kiss him (it doesn’t take him long to talk her into it!), and she turns into a frog.

Hijinks ensue.

As always with Disney, there’s lots of crossover. We’ve been in the swamps before: go watch “The Rescuers” if you don’t remember. Also, we spend a lot of time looking up at the evening star in this movie – one character even sings a song to it! – and that should make any faithful Disneycrat think of Jiminy Cricket.

The songs are pretty good, especially one called “Dig a Little Deeper” (with a chorus line of pink spoonbills!):

There’s also a nicely creepy comeuppance song for the villain (voiced by Keith David) at the end:

Flaws? Yes, a few. They lay on the N’Awlins charm pretty thick, as well as the bayou slapstick. Also, New Orleans in the 1920s appears to be amazingly free from racism and segregation.

But we’re talking about a fantasy here, and – as fantasies go – this is a lovely one.

Not all Disney princesses are the same. Some are frail and need constant help, like Snow White. Some are very tough, like Mulan. Tiana is tough: she wants to fulfill her father’s dream, and she wants to make her mother happy. She’s willing to put her own happiness aside to make those things happen.

She’s a good person.

And Naveen – a shallow good-for-nothing – turns out to be romantic, and kind, and selfless.

After seeing “The Princess and the Frog,” I felt triumphant.

And that’s the way you should feel after watching a good Disney movie.


For Sunday: “Snoopy,” from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”

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I love this musical, and this song. This is an animated version, and I don’t know the name of the singer; I wish I could have given you the original Broadway version, with Bill Hinnant as Snoopy, but this will do. And the animation is nice.

 

 

This is dedicated to all of us who, now and then, need to bite someone.

 

 


 

 

Movie review: “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”

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Partner and both like animated movies, so long as they’re clever and well-made. For this reason, we don’t see many of them. 

 

 

But we both wanted to see “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.”

 

 

If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise: the stars are four animals from the Central Park Zoo – Alex the shy/showoff lion (Ben Stiller); Gloria the sentimental hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith); Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer); and Marty the hyperactive zebra (Chris Rock). The first movie took them (and a group of four paramilitary penguins) from New York to Madagascar, where they met a surreal band of lemurs led by the sublimely self-absorbed King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen); the second movie got them as far as Africa, where they dealt with their various back-to-nature issues, and in which Alex met his birth parents.

 

 

The third movie is as freewheeling and joyous as the first two, and maybe more so. Our heroes end up (don’t ask) in Monte Carlo, where they tangle with a vicious over-lipsticked ninja assassin animal control officer named Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). They escape by hiding out with the animals of the Circus Zaragoza: a goofy sea lion (Martin Short), a broodingly angry tiger (Bryan Cranston), and a sweetly matter-of-fact jaguar (Jessica Chastain). The animals bond, and triumph over their various adversities.

 

 

But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?

 

 

The fun of the movie is in the details. The dialogue is blazingly fast and funny. (Near the beginning of the movie, Alex the lion is romping through a model version of Manhattan. “Look!” he crows. “A street with eight Duane Reades!”) The plot twists are sharp and cleverly planned. (King Julien, the insane lemur, falls in love while in Rome, and needs a ring to seal his love. And, if you’re in Rome and want to steal a ring, who has the biggest and best ring of all?) The character development is surprisingly deep. (Vitaly, the Russian tiger, has a wonderful story arc, and his final redemption is brought about by hair conditioner. That’s a spoiler, but you’ll never figure it out in a million years without seeing the movie.) Some of the jokes are actually sophisticated. (DuBois the animal-control officer does a killer rendition of Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” to inspire her fellow animal-control officers, and I would love to know if that’s really Frances McDormand singing, because – if so – she’s terrific.) The animation is beautiful: there’s a chase through the streets of Monte Carlo that is spectacularly gorgeous, and I’m convinced they must have taken the animators there to get the details right.

 

 

And – I never thought I’d say this – I wish we’d seen this movie in 3D. You could see it in every scene: stuff popping out at you, characters flying through the air, sudden vertiginous angles. Maybe another time.

 

 

And here’s another spoiler-without-being-a-spoiler: there is a wonderful circus scene – all of the circus acts taking place around each other, in midair, in bright colors, dancing and doing trapeze routines, set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” that is truly entrancing and joyful.

 

 

Can you tell I enjoyed this movie?

 

 

Go. Take the kids, and grandma, and tell your friends. Forget your troubles and spend a pleasant ninety minutes.

 

 

You won’t regret it.


 

Yabba dabba d’oh!

 


 

I hear they’ve deciphered another Mayan inscription.  This one says: WHEN FRED FLINTSTONE TURNS FIFTY, THE WORLD WILL END.

 

Seriously, Fred Flintstone just had his fiftieth birthday.  Dear God, I am older than Fred Flintstone.  And he’s a caveman.

 

I watched “The Flintstones” when it was brand-new.  I remember Fred and Barney smoking Winston cigarettes and talking about how smooth they were.  Pebbles loved her Welch’s Grape Juice. I was there for Pebbles’s birth, and the night Barney and Betty found Bamm-Bamm on their doorstep.   I’m practically a member of their modern Stone Age family.

 

Partner, who is a little older than me (I won’t be specific, but I do believe he rode a real dinosaur to school), remembers not liking “The Flintstones.”  They looked simple and underdrawn to him.  And, to be fair, they were. 

 

Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were young animators working at the MGM studio back in the 1940s.  You may have heard of their first great creation: Tom & Jerry.  In the Fifties, they struck out on their own.  TV was going strong, and they recognized that TV had a great appetite for programming; cartoons were a natural. 

 

The problem with studio cartoons was that they took a long time to create.  Every cel needs to be hand-drawn and hand-painted.   If they wanted to create cartoons for TV, they had to speed the process up somehow.

 

So they did.  They simplified the characters and the animation.  They did away with delicate Disney-style drawing, and the rich backgrounds of the MGM cartoons, and the sly cultural references of the Warner Brothers cartoons.  They used stock backgrounds and minimal character movement.  They even streamlined the music.   MGM and Warner Brothers had rich musical catalogs to choose from; Warner Brothers had an extremely talented musical director/arranger named Carl Stalling, who created some of the most brilliant scene-painting music and some of the best musical pastiches in the history of the movies, period. Hanna-Barbera, on the other hand, created an all-purpose soundtrack, short snippets of action-enhancing music full of funny bassoons and trombones and piccolos, and used that music in just about every episode.

 

And ideas: well, cartoons always parodied movies and radio anyway.  Foghorn Leghorn, to take just one example, is just a cartoonization of Senator Claghorn from Fred Allen’s radio show.  So Hanna and Barbera parodied (or stole) TV characters and situations.  They took a look at “The Honeymooners” and came up with “The Flintstones.”   Huckleberry Hound is the early aw-shucks Andy Griffith.  Hokey Wolf (anyone remember him?) is Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko.  Yogi Bear is Art Carney as Ed Norton.

 

Joe and Bill recognized that early TV was a simple medium.  Most people were watching on small black-and-white screens.  It was much better to use easy-to-recognize characters, broad gestures, simple situations. 

 

And Joe and Bill delivered.

 

And it wasn’t bad.  There’s a wonderful clunky charm in those early HB cartoons that I still find very endearing.  But then other studios – UPA, DePatie-Freleng – broke into the market.  TVs got better, and bigger; people bought color sets.  Bad animation started looking, well, bad.   By the time you hit the late 1960s/early 1970s, the stiffness of the HB cartoons isn’t clunky and charming anymore; it’s stiff and silly-looking.

 

Fred and the rest of the Bedrock gang stayed iconic for a long time, however.  When I moved to Providence in ’78, I chose to open an account at the Old Stone Bank, which used Guess Who as a logo, and which used “Yabba Dabba Doo, Love That Bank!” as a slogan. 

 

They’ve faded over the years, as have we all.  Now we have another prime-time animated family, the Simpsons, who owe a real debt to Fred and Wilma (it’s probably no accident that the kids watch an ultra-violent cat and mouse cartoon a la Tom and Jerry on the show). 

 

But now Fred’s fifty years old.

 

The cycle is complete.

 

Grab your pterodactyl and head for the nearest exit: the end of the world is here.

 


 

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