Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nostalgic and contemporary - part 2

What Disney wants us to know up front
When I was a child I would grasp any bit of information about an upcoming Disney movie (mostly re-issues) I could get my hands on. Naturally I knew all about it by the time I saw it for the first time, often I even knew the soundtrack (I actually did sing along during my first Snow White screening which not only alienated my father, as you can imagine). Knowing the story already from books somehow enhanced the experience because I was only able to see "the real thing" once (most of the time twice, thanks to my mother) while it was in theaters and then had to live on those memories of the animation for a few years. Such long anticipated screenings were sometimes more important than Christmas to me.

This holiday season I'm excited about a new Disney movie mainly because I want it to be a success with audiences even if I doubt that it is to my taste. Again, I have grasped at every bit of information I could get while carefully avoiding too many spoilers. After all, when I grew older, not knowing the progression and outcome of a story has become a vital part of the movie going experience. I like to be surprised.

On the other hand, surprises are not what we're in for with The Princess and the Frog. So let's see what amount of information we gather from just the officially available promotional material without looking at interviews and making-of featurettes.

The Teaser (1:02) 
One short scene: Over the iconic evening star (that goes back to Pinocchio and is now part of the Disney logo) Randy Newman sings "the evening star is shining bright, so make a wish and hold on tight...", then a princess on a balcony in New Orleans is kissing a mute frog that looks like a cross between Sebastian the crab and a Don Bluth character. Nothing happens, then the music changes to a characteristic New Orleans brass interlude and the princess hints at that she knows the traditional "frog prince" tale and that this movie will deviate. While Randy Newman sings "dreams do come true in New Orleans" we see the title illuminated by a Cajun firefly. Then the fireflies form the year 2009. It all seems to say: "traditional with a new twist".

So we already know the location, the two main characters (the princess and the frog) and that there will be Dixieland music. It's going to be a retelling of the fairy tale on a meta-level with the characters knowing the outcome of the original tale. And it's definitely going to be an escapist fantasy where "dreams do come true" if you "hold on tight".

Trailer 1
This (first?) trailer emphasizes the magic and majestic atmosphere of the film. There's lots of digital fairy dust and we're reminded of the hand-drawn nature of these "classic" scenes that are all taken from the renaissance features (1989-94), although the writing says "75 years of magic". The princess now meets a blander looking frog on the balcony of a stone mansion. The smug frog now talks and tells the princess that he was a prince called Naveen cursed by a witchdoctor (who we meet in a pink flashback). Until the princess reluctantly kisses the frog the scene played out quietly. From what we see the characters know the original story. The narrator then tells us that this retelling will deviate from the tale and we see the princess being turned into a frog. To a majestic choir arrangement we get glimpses of effects and set pieces from all over the movie arranged to match musical beats. This makes the 90s connection absolutely clear: "In the tradition of Walt Disney's most beloved classics", are the renaissance features really Walt Disney's most beloved classics?

the non-talking frog of the teaser
the smug fast-talking frog of the trailer

Trailer 2
While there was no direct indication in the previous trailer that it would be a full-fledged musical, this one emphasizes the song and dance and entertainment parts. We meet a whole cast of animal sidekicks and hear the characters sing songs that are about as classic New Orleans as Sister Act and Hercules (both of which came to mind when I heard the closing gospel-pop chorus). The "don't judge a book by its cover" theme is mentioned by the blind lady. As much as I remember, this is the first time a trailer for an animated Disney feature mentions the directors (not by name but by reputation). This underscores John Lasseter's claims of Disney as a director driven studio.
E.D.Baker's 2002 novel "The Frog Princess" on which the film is supposed to be loosely based isn't mentioned in any trailer I've seen, by the way.

The first five and a half minutes
The film begins with the trademark evening star and a flock of fireflies that act as fine substitutes for old Disney fairy dust. Now the intro is sung by a female voice. Horse drawn carriages and early automobiles coexist, and later a newspaper headline tells us that it's 1912 ("Wilson elected"). Like a moth attracted by the light, the camera enters an open window into a very rich child's nursery. Off screen, we hear a woman tell the tale of the "frog prince". Then we're introduced to her audience which consists of a black girl with a crown on her head and a white girl in a ludicrous princess dress holding a cat. The handsome Eudora who reads the story to them while sewing is introduced as the black girl's mother and in the eyes of the white girl's father "the best seamstress in New Orleans". It's instantly clear that she's only working in this house. The kids behave like kids and Eudora has pity with the cat.

Having seen the trailers (you certainly have if you've managed to navigate through to this preview on the Snow White DVD), we already know, that the princess who's now called Tiana will eventually end up becoming a frog. So it's maybe even funnier when we see that she's most reluctant to kiss a frog while her spoilt playmate Charlotte is a hopeless romantic who desperately wants to become a princess herself. She's the stand-in for so many girls in the audience, or at least for the dreams of these girls (I won't comment on gender roles until I've seen the whole film). But nevertheless they're best friends regardless of their social background.

While Charlotte gets spoiled by her daddy who gives her yet another pet, Tiana and Eudora leave in the shadows of the long hallway and have to travel by cable car to their humble home. Outside you can hear frogs quacking in the background. At home it is revealed that Tiana is not an orphan but has two loving and caring parents. She's also introduced as a self-reliant girl who knows how to cook. Although they certainly aren't rich, they share their gumbo with all the neighbors because "the good thing about food is, it brings people together". Later we learn that Tiana's daddy wants to open a restaurant and that Tiana herself shares that dream of having her own restaurant.

Based on Charlotte's fairy tale book, Tiana believes that the evening star can make her wish come true which is a good excuse to have her daddy spell out his life motto that you "gotta work hard and you can do anything you set your mind to". Then Tiana has to promise him that she never loses sight "of what is really important". This whole quiet scene ends with her making her wish leaning on the windowsill when suddenly a frog appears and scares her. Still wearing her fake crown she leaves the room and the preview ends.

Let's face it, The Princess and the Frog was never meant to be another Snow White, Fantasia or 101 Dalmatians because these films covered new ground in more than one area. Great films, not flawless, but exciting new films. Instead it was meant to be a box office hit in order to renew Wall Street's confidence in hand-drawn animation. It will hit all the right buttons and will appeal to family audiences all over the world. If these first five minutes are in any way representative of the whole movie - and I'm sure they are - it contains all the tried and tested ingredients.

The Little Mermaid was Disney's first classic fairy tale that didn't have an introductory scene with an opening storybook. The introduction of a fairy tale world was more subtle: on a ship coming out of the fog the human characters were introduced without the device of a voice-over narrator. This familiar world of humans (no matter where or when) was the impartial frame of reference for the stories about King Triton's kingdom beneath the sea which these humans didn't really believe existed. With The Princess and the Frog (TPATF) it's pretty much the same.

After Aladdin (1992) (whose oriental narrator only appeared on screen in the beginning) and especially Shrek (2001) and its postmodern pop reference filled successors it seems naive if not impossible to tell a fairy tale straight. Especially because for the first time, a classic fairy tale is set in an actual American city (New Orleans has been redundantly introduced ever since the first teaser). Although enough time has passed since the 1920s to legitimate a nostalgic glow and exotic colors, the setting is considerably closer to our own world and time than all the fictitious versions of medieval Europe of the previous fairy tales. In a sense, New Orleans itself sadly is a city of the past, a fact that David Fincher utilized in a poetic way to conclude The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).

So Eudora reading the rules that define the tale - "only a kiss could lift this terrible spell that was inflicted by a wicked witch" - shows us that the characters do know the story of "the frog prince" and like ourselves believe it to be a harmless fairy tale. It also fuels Charlotte's dream of becoming a real princess.

A lot of expository information is crammed into these five minutes: there are two kinds of people: the rich ones with big rooms and lots of stuff, the others relatively poor but hardworking and always happy. Although these worlds are far apart (think of the long ride on the cable car), people interact and still there doesn't seem to be any social conflict (yet). In fact, African-Americans are all shown as one great family hugging each other constantly. It's in these scenes that we learn that for these people dreams do not come true from wishing alone but essentially from working hard and never losing sight of one's goal in life. But still, they do come true.

These goals are: Charlotte would do anything to become a princess, Tiana wants to become an independent woman managing her own restaurant. It's interesting that she shares the restaurant dream/goal with her father. It's not all too useful to have two non-competing characters who are pursuing the same dream together (think of the cows in Home on the Range, 2004), so to me this suggests that this nuclear family will be torn apart eventually. One overall theme will certainly be that "food brings people together", so it's probably all about overcoming social boundaries and living together in peace. Only that we don't feel that either party is perceived as social outcasts.

It will be a more subtle sort of a rags-to-riches story like Cinderella with the twist that the "ragged" literally fabricate the dresses for the "rich". Tiana doesn't seem to be oppressed by anybody, she's just a kid with dreams from the poorer side of town. As we already know that Tiana is the one going to kiss the frog we also know that there will be overarching themes like "it's what's under the skin that counts" (Mama Odie in the trailer) and with her becoming a frog too: "walk a mile in my shoes".

From what all the promotional material tells us, this film won't be concerned with a black princess but a lower middle class girl turned into a frog. It's all about being green, not black, which is a lot less controversial territory.

1 comment:

gbeaudette said...

When I saw the trailer #2 the other day it really dampened my enthusiasm for the film.

I understand dipping into the fairy tale well for their first 2D film in over 5 years, but it feels like Disney is fighting tooth and nail to remake The Little Mermaid or some other film they've already made, which is rather disheartening.