Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nostalgic and contemporary - part 1

For the first time Disney locates a typical princess story in an actual American city, for the first time the princess is of African-American origin, for the first time in its history Disney was virtually able to get any 2D animator they wanted. Nevertheless the notion that comes to mind is "playing it safe". Which is good news for mainstream audiences because they are more eager to spend their money on products (i.e. films) when they know exactly what they are going to get. That's why Hollywood trailers not only reveal the basic premise but also essential plot points. If these films pretend to tackle social issues on the surface, all the better. The best Disney can do with The Princess and the Frog is serve a gumbo that doesn't taste like it was spoilt by too many cooks.

Once upon a time...
When Disney made his first animated feature, he chose the classical European fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). His Americanized version of a fairy tale Europe was not only new and exciting, it was also a big box office hit because people weren't used to cartoon characters that made them cry. Visually it was greatly indebted to Gustav Tenggren's illustration style.

When Disney desperately needed a hit at the box office after the post-war package features, he chose the classical European fairy tale Cinderella (1950) for his comeback. The concept - one might say formula - of Snow White worked all over again. Rags-to-riches stories of unloved stepchildren always touch audiences. And like Snow White, Cinderella was a beautiful but passive girl that had only animals as friends before she found her Prince Charming. Old wine in new kegs, visually exciting because of Mary Blair's contemporary color stylings. At the end of the same decade, Sleeping Beauty (1959) should have become Walt's Opus Magnum, but his heart was clearly not in the animation department any more. This time the abandoned princess Aurora had not only animals but also fairies as friends. So the animals didn't get to be an active part of her personality, just scenery. And Aurora was even more passive than any other princess in history. She wasn't even conscious when meeting the villain and probably nobody would have noticed her sleeping forever. The man of her dreams coincided with the groom of her arranged marriage. Needless to say, it was not a hit, but beautiful to look at (Eyvind Earle's styling still draws attention to itself). No rags to riches story, by the way.

When the Disney studio, now under the reign of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, desperately needed a box office hit after the disastrous Ron Miller era, the classical Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Little Mermaid was chosen as a starting point of a veritable "renaissance" (itself sometimes referred to as a Cinderella story). Of course the ending had to be purified from bitter to bittersweet (if you count Ariel's separation from her family at the end). In 1989, a princess had to be a little more active and like Pinocchio she could also have real conversations with her animal friends. At least, she got herself into trouble all by herself and turned to the villain for a bargain in order to get the prince of her dreams. Though technically no rags to riches story (at least Ariel seems to be a half-orphan like so many Disney protagonists), in the human world, Ariel had to earn Prince Eric's love all over again without her voice the prince initially fell in love with. The issue of forbidden social mobility between "two different worlds" (merpeople vs. humans) was harmlessly disguised in fairy tale conventions. The storytelling was all tried and tested and many people wondered how well the old musical formula worked at the box office. Nevertheless it felt very contemporary and nostalgic at the same time. The follow-up Beauty and the Beast (1991), based on another European fairy tale, was received even more enthusiastic and is the only animated feature to date to be nominated for a best picture Academy Award. Later, the formula became really formulaic and the so-called decline of hand-drawn animation (which had nothing to do with hand-drawn and all with storytelling) at the box office began.

When John Lasseter and Ed Catmull wanted to revive hand-drawn animation they chose the classical European fairy tale "The Frog Prince" (like Snow White, it's Brothers Grimm again) because they desperately needed a hit at the box office. Only this time, the frame of reference didn't seem to be Snow White but The Little Mermaid and 90s Disney animation because the parents of the youngest cinemagoers have grown up on those films and feel nostalgic towards them. To get the fans even more excited, Disney decided to release the entire first five minutes of the almost finished film in high definition on the new Snow White Bluray and DVD. The featured art director this time is Ian Gooding, background and visual development artist of many a Disney 90s feature.

Next: What the first five minutes tell us
So let's see what all the officially available promotional material already tells us about the film (I don't intend to give my opinion here on how I like what I saw so far, I'm just interested in the amount of information that is transported in these first few scenes und trailers)...

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