- Released Internationally on 25/11/09
- Released in Malta by KRS on 05/02/10
In a nutshell
Walt Disney pictures goes all nostalgic by returning to traditional 2D animation, and to a well-known fairytale, whilst also taking a step forward and introducing their first ever black princess and heroine.
Down in New Orleans
Loosely based on the 'Frog Prince' fairytale from the Grimm brothers, and the resulting 'Frog Princess' book adaptation, this film transposes all the magic and kissing of amphibians to early 20th century Louisiana, in the swinging music-laden streets of New Orleans. Growing up on the less-lavish side of town, young Tiana juggles numerous waitressing jobs to save up for her big dream - opening a restaurant. The strict work ethic instilled in her by her late father leaves little room for the family life that he was so proud of, and her days are devoid of romance, friends or dancing. Across town, her childhood friend and spoilt white brat Charlotte spends her idle days dreaming of princes and romance, whilst surrounding herself with daddy's expensive gifts.
One day, a prince walks into town (as tends to happen in fairytales), and Charlotte sets her mind on winning his hand, whilst Tiana hardly spares him second thought. Prince Naveen, from Maldonia (allegedly a fusion of 'Malta' and 'Macedonia', which brings back a few Eurovision voting memories), although quite the looker, is in fact penniless, and he somehow ends up in the hands of the ominous Dr. Facilier, whose area of expertise is voodoo, not ethics. There's lots of chanting and trickery, but suffice to say that by the end of it Naveen is a brilliantly green frog, and the story can get underway. You know how it goes - a kiss from a princess will break the spell, and so on and so forth.
When it comes to traditional Disney classics, it's often the music that makes or breaks it. You don't need to remember the finer plot points of Lady and the Tramp to be able to hum 'He's a tramp' or ‘Bella Notte’, and I'm quite sure more people have heard 'When you wish upon a star' than have actually watched Pinocchio. With this in mind, Disney turned to veteran songwriter and composer Randy Newman, who has composed countless memorable songs and scores, and who recently contributed to many of the Pixar and Disney projects. He also fits like a glove because of his jazz roots and expertise, which any musical set in New Orleans would need. The songs vary in quality and melody, and to be honest as I left the theatre there was only one tune I could remember, but a few listens later I'm warming to them, and I believe a couple have the calibre it takes to make a Disney classic. 'I'm Almost There' is particularly classy, and 'Dig a Little Deeper' is great fun. The film is bookended by renditions of 'Down in New Orleans', a rousing jazzy number that introduces us to the city and finishes the film with a flourish.
All the right ingredients
In this deliberate throwback to classic Disney fairytales, and the first 2D since 2004's Home on the Range, the first thing that is spot-on is the look. Some of the characters look like they could have been extras in The Aristocats or The Rescuers, and for those of you who grew up watching Disney classics, this is sure to be a treat. There's even the obligatory not-so-bright sidekick, a large and loud alligator named Louis, who provides a few laughs just like Scuttle the seagull did in The Little Mermaid, to mention just one. There's an admirable heroine to root for, and a pantomime baddie to boo, and without spoiling any surprises I can tell you that everyone lives happily ever after.
Rather messy result
Unfortunately, the sum of parts isn’t as tasty as the ingredients would suggest. The film rattles along at a hectic pace, especially during the first half, without much pause to catch your breath or get to know the characters better. The carnival atmosphere is often great to look at, but some sequences feel crammed and rushed. The entire voodoo subplot is perhaps a bit too dark and unearthly for younger audiences, which is a risky decision since so many parents choose the Disney name as a mark of reassurance for their toddlers’ entertainment.
Who's in it?
Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) and Bruno Campos (Nip/Tuck) voice the central couple, with the former getting most of the higher notes, and the latter getting many of the best lines. The gravely-voiced Keith David (Requiem for a Dream) helps make Dr. Facilier a formidable villain. A few big names lend their voices to the parents – Oprah Winfrey as Tiana’s mother, Terence Howard (Crash) as her father, and John Goodman (The Big Lebwoski) as Charlotte’s father. The film is directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who previously shared the director’s chair on the exceptional The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules.
In the end
There’s no doubt that this fairytale has Disney’s magic touch all over it, and I for one am very pleased that they haven’t shelved 2D animation or their Grimm brothers source material just yet. The imbued jazz element may affect one’s enjoyment of the songs and overall film, and I have my doubts whether today’s children will be fondly remembering these lyrics in their late 20s. It remains one of the best animated films of the year, but is far from Disney’s best.