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


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.

Naming Pluto’s moons


Astronomers just found two new moons orbiting Pluto. I’m sure they’re very dismal little rocks, but that’s not the point. The point is: those dismal little rocks need names! And you can vote on those names!

Astronomy has very strict rules about naming things, however. New names have to follow specific patterns and rules, and they have to be approved by the International Astronomical Union. What fun is that?

Sometimes it’s a good thing. William Herschel discovered the seventh planet in 1781 and wanted to call it Georgium Sidus, “George’s Star,” after King George III of England. Terrible! That got voted down, and we ended up with the much more entertaining “Uranus,” which makes me giggle no matter how I pronounce it. (Actually, the seventh planet also got called “Herschel” for a while, which is also pretty terrible.)

On the other hand, the discoverers of a large trans-Neptunian object called it “Planet X” first, and then “Xena,” which I think would have been fabulous. “Xena” got voted down, however, and now it’s Eris. Yes, you heard me: dull, dull Eris.

The ex-planet Pluto was named by its discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, who rationalized it very carefully: it’s very far away from the sun, so naming it after the god of death seemed appropriate, and it begins with the letters PL, which is also the monogram of famous astronomer Percival Lowell, who predicted Pluto’s existence.

Given all this, the rules for naming Pluto’s moons are simple: their names have to be connected with Hades or the Underworld in Greek mythology. The first three moons are Nyx (the personification of Night), Charon (the gentleman who paddles the boat that crosses the River Styx), and Hydra (a very unpleasant monster who got chopped up and barbecued by Herakles). Among the proposed names: Acheron, Eurydice, Erebus, Cerberus, Obol.  “Cerberus” would be cute; Cerberus was the dog who guarded the gates of Hell, and I love doggies. “Obol” was the name of the coin put into the mouth of a corpse, so that the dead soul could pay the ferry-toll to the abovementioned Charon.

The rest of the suggested names are very appropriate and mythological and very dull.

But go vote anyway.

Let’s reset everything, and change the rules, and add a little fun to the nomenclature in the outer solar system.

Pluto can stay Pluto.

Let’s name the moons Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy.

Wouldn’t this brighten up outer space just a teeny bit?

Disneyland Paris: the happiest place in northern Europe

While in France, we spent an afternoon in Disneyland Paris.

In a word: it’s lovely. The castle in the middle of the park is a sweet delicate French castle with slender turrets, Sleeping Beauty’s castle, “le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant”:


We were there in early October, and the park was decorated for Halloween. Europeans don’t quite understand the American concept of Halloween yet; they understand ghosts and pumpkins and such, but aren’t quite what they have to do with anything. Disneyland Paris was calling it “Helloween,” which would be a little spicy for an American Disneyland. But there were pumpkins everywhere!

Disneyland Paris has the Haunted Mansion, and the Tower of Terror, and the Thunder Mountain Railroad. The lines (in October, anyway) were very short; we never had more than a five-minute wait for any ride. We were surrounded with mostly Spanish and German tourists, and a few Brits; not many French, really. (A colleague of mine, who actually studied the business model of EuroDisney, told me that the Disney folk at first expected the local French population to flock there, and were sorely disappointed to find out that this wasn’t the case. Now they market to the rest of Europe, and they’re doing just fine.)

Disneyland Paris is small, compared to Orlando. One advantage to being smaller, by the way, is that kids don’t get as tired, and parents don’t get as worn out. Is there a lesson here for American theme parks? Too late. They’re already too big.

There are Disneylands everywhere now. Japan and China have their own versions. And Orlando keeps evolving: there’s a New Fantasyland now, with a Beast’s Castle / restaurant, and a Little Mermaid ride, and (forthcoming) a Seven Dwarves ride.

And there’s that little old park in Anaheim too, I suppose.

Whatever it’s called.

I forget.




I told my friend/colleague Amelia that I’ve been stealing her stories about her little boy and retelling them.  “You want more?” she said.  “Here’s the latest.”



Okay.  So her son is about three or four, and he’s been in the same day-care for the past couple of years with a little girl named Natalie.  (“I’m sure they’re smitten with each other,” I said. “You have no idea,” Amelia said.)  Natalie’s birthday party was coming up, and Amelia’s son was invited to the birthday party.  “What should we give Natalie for a present?” Amelia prompted her son.



“Princess stuff,” he responded immediately.  “A princess dress.”



Aha, thought Amelia.  A hundred bucks plus at a Disney Store, or something pretty plus something sparkly at a regular store.



So they go to a local store, which happens to be having a promotion for little girl’s dresses.  Amelia’s son is entranced.  Pink! Purple! Red! Yellow!  “Mamma,” he gasped, “we have to buy her one of each.”



“Let’s just get one for now,” Amelia said steadily.  “What color is her favorite?”



“Pink,” her little boy said. 



(This is Amelia speaking: “Now, I know he doesn’t know what I mean, but I asked him: What size is she?  And he said, Well, she’s just a little bit bigger than me.”)



So Amelia takes a pink dress from the rack, and holds it up against her little boy, to see how it will fit.



And she notices that all of the other mommies in the store are looking at her strangely.



This story goes on and on.  They bought shoes, and glittery sunglasses (princess sunglasses) to go with the dress, and the little boy had a wonderful time picking out things for his friend Natalie’s birthday. 



About halfway through this story, I fell into a deep reverie about how lucky Amelia’s son is, to have a mother who doesn’t judge, who doesn’t censor, who isn’t silly about these things. 



God bless Amelia, and all the mommies like her.



Maybe there’s hope for the world after all.



For Sunday: a morose Danish take on Donald Duck (not for kids! NFSW!)


Maybe you’ve read some of the Stieg Larsson books about that tattooed girl who kills bad people. Maybe you’ve seen “The Killing,” with its quiet Danish take on murder.



So: do you picture Scandinavians as morose neo-Nazi drug-dealing murderers?



Okay.  Then this video is for you.



This video is by a Danish comedy group.  It’s Donald Duck and his nephews, and Daisy, and Goofy, and Uncle Scrooge, as you’ve never seen them.  Just so you know: it’s definitely not for kids, and NSFW.








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