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God I hate when this happens.
See, here’s the thing. I already knew what I was going to say about Princess and the Frog months ago. I had my arguments prepared, I’d done my research, the only thing remaining to do was to sit down and watch it again before actually writing the review. And then, of course, my opinion of the movie changed pretty substantially and now I’m back to square one. Alright, a lot of you have been asking me my opinion on the Princess and the Frog, and until very, very recently it was this:
Don’t like it. Hugely disappointing. Major flaws. Disney screwed the pooch. To get traditional animation back in contention they needed a perfect ten and we got a five. Mouse not happy.
But then…yeah, I watched it again and it’s safe to say that my opinion has mellowed quite a bit. Not totally. The problems I thought were there are still there. What problems you ask? Three are the problems, and the number of the problems is three.
You know, given Disney’s sterling record of diversity it’s kind of amazing that it’s taken this long for us to have an African American princess.
I’m actually not being sarcastic. Think about it, since Little Mermaid in 1987, of the seventeen canon movies featuring humans we’ve had Arab protaganoists, Asian protagonists, Native American protagonists, gypsy protagonists, Hawaiian protagonists, Mayan protagonists and even that most reviled and loathed of all minorities…
So, why has it taken them this long? Well, seeing as you’re on the internet you probably aren’t aware of this, but race can be something of a sticky wicket. By which I mean, Disney knew that if they fucked up on this they would be eaten alive so it’s probably not surprising that they took this one nice and slow. And, in my opinion at least, they succeeded. There is nothing problematic about the character of Tiana. She is as positive and progressive a depiction of an African American woman as you could hope to find. On a possibly not unrelated note, she is also really, really, really, really, really boring. Who do I blame for that? The writers? The animators? Voice actor Anika Noni Rose? No. At the risk of being unpopular, I place the blame solely on…
Yes you, people on the internet.
This movie came under an insane amount of scrutiny long, long, before it was even released, with Disney making many changes in response to every new backlash and charge of racism. Now, some of the criticism may have been fair, but honestly some of it just strikes me as petty. For example, the heroine’s name was originally “Maddy” which was changed to Tiana because “Maddy” rhymes with “Mammy”. So, yeah, I know right? Wasn’t that a bullet narrowly dodged? Now I, for one, was unaware that names that happen coincidentally to rhyme with racist slurs are racist by association but I’ll certainly keep that in mind in fut…OH MY GOD!!!
So, it’s understandable that the script for this thing feels like it was written by someone walking on eggshells. And yes, obviously writers have to treat the issue of race carefully and with sensitivity, but I think a certain degree of good faith is required on behalf of the audience as well. It’s just the problem with living in a world where any blowhard can get on his virtual soap box and complain about a movie that hasn’t even been released yet and why are you all looking at me like that? But there is another problem with Tiana that goes beyond all of that. Alright, the simplest, most basic story you can tell goes like this. Character A (the protagonist), wants something, and we want to see him get that thing. Character B (the antagonist) wants something that is mutually exclusive to what character A wants, and we don’t want to see him get that. The characters struggle against each other, and from this we get conflict, drama and finally resolution. Now, you can alter and flip and rearrange and deconstruct or just flat out ignore this model in literally an infinite number of different ways but most of the time that’s what it boils down to. The central conflict is the heart of the story. And Tiana exists almost entirely outside the central conflict. She’s essentially an onlooker in her own story. The conflict is between Naveen and Facilier. You could conceivably have a movie just about those two. What is the relationship between Tiana and Facilier? What’s the personal stake? As the old lady once said, where’s the beef?
- The Script
Not bad, but really needed to be funnier. And from Clements and Musker we had a right to expect better.
- Randy Goddamn Newman
Fine in small doses, don’t get me wrong. But to write a musical you need versatility almost as much as you need raw songwriting talent. Your songs need to be versatile enough to convey an entire emotional spectrum and Newman just can’t do that. There’s an unmistakeable saminess to his songs that make them less emotional beats in the story set to music, and more mere musical intervals (with the exception of Friends on the Other Side, which is awesome.) This is the single biggest problem with the movie in my opinion. There’s enough good in the rest of the movie that a Howard Ashman or Sherman Brothers or Kristen Anderson Lopez could have lifted this up to the realm of the all-time greats.
Well okay, enough about what they got wrong. Let’s take a look at what they got right.