Good Enough is What Now?
Review of Disney's Princess and the Frog
Okay, so I admit it, I really am a dork about some things. When I saw the
original G.I. Joe TV series on DVD, I bought it. Silverhawks? In a
flash. Exosquad on DVD actually brought forth a squeal (and an immediate
click on Amazon's order screen). And yeah, I *still* sing along to all of the
songs in The Little Mermaid. So anyone who knows much of anything about
me ('cause I can do most of the songs in Mulan without a score, too)
wasn't too terribly surprised to discover that even in the middle of the
craptastic week I had, I elbowed my way into the latest Disney movie opening
I'm the sort of person who can cheerfully ignore the questioning or dubious looks often tossed around at a single person going to see a movie, and I did just that. I had a delightful conversation with a couple of very young children who asked their (completely horrified) mother what happened to my children that I had to watch the movie alone. They were surprised to discover adults could and sometimes would go see movies on their own, and then they nodded along wisely when I pointed out that some parents want to watch the movies before letting the children come along. After all, they wouldn't want to let their children see something too scary. They were dolls and the mother managed to recover her composure after a couple of minutes of cheeky talk between the children and myself. The mother later asked me about the previewing the movies thing and I told her my dad used to preview all the movies I wanted to see. Picture, please, a 6 foot tall man somewhat lighter than our image of Santa, with a beard fluffy enough to be Santa's if it weren't still a steel grey color, going to watch said Little Mermaid by his lonesome one day after a long day teaching high school. 'Cause my dad did. Incidentally, I never saw Gremlins in a theater.
I was really, really looking forward to seeing this movie. This is the same director who worked on Ariel and her world, and I had some high expectations of him (priests with suspicious extra wrinkles not withstanding, the movie was good). I was *thrilled* to see Disney going back to their classic style. There was this whole slew of movies recently that had funky styles and weird animation that I never could get attached to, and I really rather dislike the whole computer animated 3-D cartoon thing. Obviously, I like the music (though the only song from Hercules that comes to mind is "Gospel Truth" and I never even saw the movie with the llama because I couldn't make myself interested in it after Herc) and I like musicals in general. I just was really excited.
Call me silly, but I'm used to those opening sequences that move smoothly into the main story. The introduction itself was fine, giving us a good look at setting in place and time as well as introducing our lead and the princess-crazy goofy blond friend (who is the distillation of every spoiled princess theme you can think of, other than the cruel princess, and is a marvelous commentary in that she's absolutely someone we all know, if a little over the top). The transition to the modern day story, however, was non existent. It was so bad, I had a moment of physical shock where I just stopped and couldn't comprehend what had happened for a beat or two.
I would have *bled* red on a paper with that abrupt of a turn-over. Even a good half of my freshmen composition students instinctively know to write more of a transition than happened in this movie.
The animation was fine, though not what I'd normally pin as big-screen Disney quality. Some things are really well done - I expect some children are going to be terrified of shadows for awhile because the Shadow man's henchmen/women were downright creepy. Also, I feel bad for any parent who has one of those tiki mask things. You *know* that kids'll be running from those for awhile after seeing Shadowman turned into a screaming tombstone after he gets eaten by one. It was not, however, their best animation. Some of it was done too fast, and it looked like they consistently dropped frames that they normally would have put in. Maybe most people wouldn't notice this, but I've always been able to tell the difference between a seven frame second and a five frame second, and it absolutely makes a difference in how smooth the animation is. The general composition was not Disney's usual sharpness and they tried too hard to contrast some of the movements between the "good" and the "bad" guys.
The music was good, but not songs that I think are going to make it on anyone's short list of Disney songs to sing along to. They are good songs that do bring to mind the New Orleans area and they are really representative of music that we think of when we think "New Orleans" in party era. Probably because they are following that almost mad-hatter beat of the jazzy and swing music, the words of the songs tumble along in a rush. There are no slow songs, and as a result, no songs with a good emotional appeal of any sort (not even the emotional bit of the sudden stop in "Girl Worth Fighting For"). They are performed beautifully, but somehow bring a little to mind Mrs. Lovette's Pie shop song which actresses routinely get faint performing.
What really, really disappointed me, though? The story was *weak.* Granted, not all Disney movies have had great stories, but Disney used to really strive for a moral of some sort, something you walked away with. This one is, I suppose, "be true to yourself" and in a lot of ways it focuses on learning to balance play and work lives, without letting yourself get too polarized. It doesn't, however, have an ideal that you walk away with, not really. The theme is there, but ultimately the Princess wins because she's not willing to take the shortcut (and that's how she got into working too hard in the first place), and the prince's personal choice doesn't change anything. The white best friend doesn't even change things when she decides to kiss the frog even though it won't mean she gets to marry him (though, this was a good choice from the story writers - it should *not* be the white best friend who turns the two back into humans - my point is that this was a conscious action on one of the character's part and it made no difference). The actual thing that changes them back is the marriage kiss.
Maybe the moral was supposed to be "get married, kids, you'll live happily ever after and get what you want as long as you KISS AT THE WEDDING! GET MARRIED!!"
Worse than this, though, is that we don't really form any sort of emotional connection with the characters. Really, I'm still confused about why she fell for him at all. It's like she suddenly dropped a few IQ points and went, "aww, he's charming! I'll marry him, if he decides not to marry my white friend." The prince has a couple of good moments, but ultimately, I enjoyed the time with the (horribly spoiled and not too smart) best friend and the *alligator* more than I did the two main characters. Heck, the firefly steals a good HALF of the show! His closing scene is more moving than *anything* else in the movie. It's also the most Disney moment in the entire movie, and I am counting the wedding.
I'm no master movie critic, but even other people in the audience noticed that the movie was weak. I even heard people in the theater commenting that it wasn't great, but "at least there is finally a black princess."
This, by the way, really makes me angry.
Don't get me wrong. It's well and high time we did have a black/African American/whatever-PC-phrase-it-is-now princess. I mean, really, we got a NATIVE AMERICAN princess before we got a black princess, and they have in many ways historically been treated as poorly as, if not worse than, black people. Slaves, check on both sides; forced removal of children to foster situations, check on both sides, but much more recently for Native Americans; grotesque and dehumanizing experiments in an effort to "prove" white superiority, check on both sides; take away land or take from land, check on both sides; force to live in run down areas, some check on both sides; then take that run down area and also turn it into a nuclear waste dump...ah... Native Americans, check. The tribes/Native Americans are a much smaller population to boot and they still got a princess before there was a black princess. I read an article where the writer pointed out that it was a shame that Disney didn't produce a movie like this until after America had it's own "black princesses" in the White House - which sort of made me cringe, but was a good point. It has been way past time for this princess to be crowned. It's also high time that another non-white prince was crowned. Aladdin aside, most of the princes have been white.
I was actually angry because there should be no "but at least" statements about this movie at all. We should not settle for the movie being "okay" just for the sake of finally having a black princess. This movie should have been *BETTER* and should have undoubtedly been a classic in its own right. It should never have to rely on the gimmick (yes, gimmick) of having a minority princess. It should not sell just because it is the movie with the "black princess" in it. It should sell because it is a fantastic movie that we love. It shouldn't matter to us that she's a black woman, just like it didn't matter that Mulan was Chinese or Jasmine Aramaic. We should have been able to love the movie for the movie's sake, not just because it was "that" movie with the "black princess."
I'm angry and disappointed with Disney for cutting corners and not perfecting this more. This movie, this premise, had so much potential. However, like the gumbo that Tiana knows still needs a little kick, this movie lacks any spice to make it good. It's flat and tasteless. Worse, though, are the people who are accepting this movie as "good enough."
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