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EXCLUSIVE: Early Review of The Princess and the Frog

Princess and the Frog

I don’t typically republish reader comments in separate posts, but a Cartoon Brew reader named Michael saw a rough cut of The Princess and the Frog last night, and has posted a lengthy, thoughtful and knowledgeable critique of what he saw. (No real spoilers in his review unless you’re super-sensitive.) I did some digging to find out who “Michael” is, and while his identity will clearly remain anonymous, I learned that he’s not affiliated with Disney and that he works in the live-action film industry. Here is what Mike thinks of Disney’s return to hand-drawn:

Well, I saw the film at a screening (through last night, of which something less than 30% was full color animation; and the rest surprisingly – given the audience – was pencils and boards. It was a lovely treat for an animation buff to be able to attend a movie in this stage of its development.

My one sentence review would be: it’s a worthy entry in the Disney canon, but they’ve got a LOT more work to do, and not just finishing up the animation.

My more considered opinion:

I think this movie has a lot of promise and in the main it was very warmly received by an audience unused to watching pencil tests, who laughed heartily throughout.

I liked a lot of the character design, derivative though some of it seemed – but I don’t know how many new ways there are to design a talking frog, for example. The alligator looks a little too familiar, though how he moves around is rather fun. The lightning bug, who was a huge hit with the audience, as he’s quite amusing, nonetheless looks, from a design standpoint, as if he has flown in from another movie entirely.

The environments and backgrounds are really beautiful, especially when the action moves into the bayou. Really, really lovely stuff, and what we saw of the completed New Orleans is really quite something.

Unlike some who have commented on the snippets above, I did not find the acting to be over the top except when that’s what’s called for. To the contrary I found it to be closer to the classic style of old than most recent Disney fare. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how you feel about Disney living in the past, versus pushing the boundaries. Can’t they do both? Make films like the classics, but also make more modern or challenging films? Surely they can, but since this is the first one out of the gate 2D-wise post John and Ed, it seems inescapable that it should be an effort that tries to capture that classic Disney aesthetic.

[Note: The following paragraph references a comment that I made earlier.] And Amid, as far as them being out of touch – I don’t think they are out of touch at all with what the lion’s share of the paying audience wants to see (certainly, if the whoops and cheers after last night’s screening are any indication). You can “Triplets of Belleville” about it all you want, and I adore all sorts of animation, but even the most meagre Disney grosses put the lie to this notion that the masses are thirsting for more challenging animated product and are rejecting this somewhat traditional and predictable, if beautiful, fare – no matter how much animation enthusiasts like you or I might wish that it were so.

Anyway, story-wise, there’s enough that’s “different” in there to pique the interest of those who are tired of the traditional Disney fare, but unfortunately it also treads many of the same boards as the movies we have seen a dozen times over. I suppose, alas, that given the burden of expectation – it’s going to SAVE Disney 2D animation!!! – it has to to meet the modern expectation of a “Disney animated feature.” The “I want” song lands right where it is supposed to, and so on. It seemed to me, that some of the more familiar elements don’t really sit well with some of the new, but I think there’s room, and time, to smooth this out some.

BUT, there are some pretty large story problems in the first act that loom large over the rest of the film. I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to be hatching spoilers all over the place. Suffice it to say that neither the prince’s, his servant’s or the villain’s motivations are at all made clear; their early development is rushed; they seem to be acting as they do because the plot demands it of them, rather than moving from any basis of character. This lack of development weighs the movie down horribly when it should be flying. Moreover, certain developments later in the film that should really land with elegance don’t because they are not properly set up in the first act. Tiana’s the only character who feels really fully developed, and inasmuch as she’s the protagonist that’s good news, but these other three characters and why they do what they do to each other is really a big piece of the core of the story and I fear the film will not resonate unless these issues are addressed.

It was kind of shocking, really, to see these questions of character and motivation at this point in a project that’s been gestating as long as this one, with these particular people at the helm! Fortunately, there are numerous potential solutions and ways to strengthen these characters, utilizing mainly what’s already been done, and possibly replacing one scene (one of the few which seemed nearly complete, alas) with another which could conceivably be whipped into shape in the time available.

I hope so. A success for this picture is a good thing for animation everywhere. It was a crowd-pleaser last night in its unfinished form, for sure, and if it were finished and released in its present form I have no doubt it would do well, but lots of pictures that aren’t as good as they could be do well. If they can rejigger the first act and clarify those three characters, the picture could really soar, could really stand up on its own among the other Disney classics, and could open the door to loads of new possibilities for the studio.