Yesterday, I finally watched Disney's calculated strategy for merchandising princesses to little black girls, The Princess and the Frog.
OK, that was pretty cynical, but listen: I'm happy for little black girls that they get to have a princess to identify with more (hey, I identified with Belle more than I did any blonde princesses) and can pester their parents to buy them the associated princess merchandise with as much enthusiasm as anybody else. Also, if looking to increase the profit margin on princess merchandise was what it took to get Disney to animate something by hand again, so be it. The question is, was it any good?
The answer is both yes and no. Let's start with no: there are quite a few moments that reek of cold calculation. At some points, you can practically hear the writers thinking, "What other 'Disney-ey' things can we put into this movie?" There's an animal who wants to be human, just like in The Jungle Book. There are animals who accidentally kiss when trying to eat, like in Lady and the Tramp. (Although the frog version here is much grosser and dumber.)
And most of all, worst of all, there are the songs. This film does not have the soul of a musical. Instead of really building toward the songs, making the songs the high points of film, it feels like it makes room for some songs because it knows there are supposed to be some. (In this case, the writers are thinking, "Oh, we can fit one in here, can't we? Probably better fit on in here.") It doesn't help that they're not very good. The heroine (Tiana) has one big musical number toward the beginning--her theme song, if you will--and it's all right. But the only one I genuinely enjoyed was the villain's crazy evil voodoo entrapment-of-the-hero hootenanny. The rest were either irritating, cyncially by-the-numbers, or both. (Example: Our Heroes find themselves a good voodoo lady, and there is of course a big musical number with dancing Busby-Berkeley-esque flamingos and whatnot. Again, they were clearly trying as hard as possible to do something "Disney-ey.")
Finally, exactly when, how, and why did the male and female leads fall in love? I cannot answer those questions. Such information was not provided by the film.
Now for the movie's yeses. It looks beautiful. Sure, all-computer animation is cool and everything, but after awhile you just start to miss things that are lovely and hand-drawn.* To be sure, computer animation is art, but animation that at least starts with hand-drawn pictures is . . . well, it's an artier art. The two songs that were not lousy looked especially good; Tiana's song is very stylized and cool and the villain's song is vibrantly creepy.
I also, to my surprise, liked many of the characters. I thought the villain was pretty cool and creepy, although I was pre-disposed to like him because Keith David did his voice. (Gargoyles forever, man!)
Tiana is sympathetic and relatable (and best of all, has a distinctive enough character that she'll fit beautifully into my princess quiz. And come on, the quiz is the real reason I watched the movie anyway). I enjoyed Tiana's best friend--if my calculations are correct, the first non-animal best friend a Disney princess has ever had (Tiana also has a living mom, which is almost as unprecedented)--who's flighty and shallow and pretty over-the-top . . . but in a good way? I dunno; she's funny. I like her dad, too, but mostly because he's John Goodman. John Goodman is Goodtimes.
The biggest surprise was that I really liked the frog/prince. The movie's trailer and the cheesy accent had prepared me for some unbearable "comic" relief from that character, but he's genuinely funny. Part of it is the writing, which is a little on and offbeat in a good way, and part of it is the voice actor's line readings, which are occassionally hilarious. (Characters on the "no" side include the evil lackey, mostly because his character design is just the evil butler from The Aristocats** in the body of Mr. Smee from Peter Pan;
the alligator who plays the trumpet because . . what?; the Cajun hick semi-toothless firefly because it's really just too much; and the briefly seen Cajun hick frog-hunters because they're creepy, especially the aptly named "Two Fingers." Also, as you may have picked up on, this movie is unflattering to Cajuns.)
Overall, I'd say this movie had more good than bad; it was OK in the least perjorative sense. I wouldn't want to buy it or anything, but if it's a movie that my someday-future kids wanted to watch over and over, I probably won't have to fight the urge to hurl the DVD player into the street.
That's higher praise than it probably sounds like.
*Huge tangent: the place where I do not miss hand animation is television. I've got Animaniacs on DVD, and while the writing and voice acting are still sharp, the animation is just awful, to the point of distraction. And it wasn't an outlier. Children's cartoons in the 90s were, as a group, really ugly and sloppy. Nowadays, even the most cheaply made animation, because it's done by computer, at least looks nice and neat. Consider WordGirl! (I love Word Girl.) It's on PBS, so you know the budget can't be much, but the animation, while simplistic, looks good. Something else to consider: The Simpsons. When you see a re-run, you know that if it looks bad, it will be a good episode (because it's from the earlier seasons [exception: if it looks really bad, it's from the first or second season, and those are not good]); if it looks good, it will be a bad episode (because it's from a more recent season). I miss the writing The Simpsons used to have, but it's hard to pine for sloppy hand-animation.
**The Aristocats is a terrible, awful, horrible movie. I couldn't mention it without reminding everyone of that.
ETA: I just remembered! Tiana's not the first Disney princess to have a friend. Pocahontas also has a friend, although I don't remember her name. I'm pretty sure she was boring. But then, since she's a character in Pocahontas, that's a given.