Sunday, 28 February 2010

When you wish upon a star...

I've been in a bit of a Disney haze this week - not only because I'm involved in an uber-romantic musical made famous by the superbrand, but because on Thursday I went to see their new feature, The Princess and the Frog. It's the first in years to return to good old-fashioned 2D animation, and while I loved Nemo, Sully and Woody, for me it was a glimpse of the captivating magic I loved as a child. I've never met anyone who didn't love Disney films; they're the perfect combination of escapism, romance, music and humour. But in the cold reality of things, they have some serious delusions to answer for.

Everyone is taught through the magic of Disney that you get a happy ending. Not several stabs at a happy ending - the 'kissing several frogs before you meet your prince' theory isn't even integral to this froggy-themed tale - but one Prince Charming you will meet and just know is the one for you. Obviously this has been ripped apart in recent years by the Shrek trilogy, Enchanted and every feminist critic that could grip a pen, but something about those original 'damsel seeks hero' Disneys has endured - they are still the favourites.

If you watch the progression of their features, they go from zero-irony schmaltz (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) to fairytales with a fun twist (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) and then distance themselves from the royal love story with animals, toys and monsters taking over from these prettier and luckier versions of us. I wonder how much of this shift came from audience and sales figures - the last human-based Disney before this one was the not wildly successful Hercules back in 1997. They then got a little siller with The Emperor's New Groove in 2000 (one of my personal cult favourites) and then the freakishness of humans in CGI basically drove us out their Noughties releases entirely.

The Princess and the Frog is a brilliant return to form - funny, clever, charming and sad - but it is acutely aware of all its Disney baggage. In jazz-age New Orleans, heroine Tiana is told that wishing for her dreams on the evening star will only get her part of the way there, and the rest will only happen with hard work and determination. This is a big dose of reality for cartoonland, where previously all a pretty girl had to be equipped with was a chirpy singing voice and a great figure, and she had 'happy ending' stamped all over her. A work ethic seems a funny addition to the list this late in the game. Still, it avoids being too preachy and fits into the formula; Tiana is more lovable than many of their early leading ladies as she scrubs, dusts, waitresses and cooks her way to the top. They couldn't completely ditch their 'All you need is love' mantra, however - Tiana is reminded by her father that while being successful is wonderful, if you don't have the man and the kids, it all means very little.

I think it's almost unfortunate that Disney chose to bring out their first black heroine at the same time as removing her fast-track ticket to dreams coming true. While you could argue that the reality factor comes with her not being a princess, it's also true that non-royal Cinderella had very little to do but sing and look pretty to find love and a crown, while Tiana seems to have an epic struggle before she finds her prince. There are hints of racial tension as her seamstress mother finishes making finery for a local plantation heiress and they subtly move to the back of the bus home. It would all be a little too political were it not for a trumpet-playing alligator, a toothless cajun firefly and a spectacular voodoo conjuror baddie. And fantastic songs. I almost choked on my popcorn as the credits informed me that the music was by Randy 'You got a friiiend in me' Newman, but the setting of the film in the roaring twenties means a jazzy southern score that is as stylish as any of the 2D classics.

As well as the toe-tapping songs, the hilarious playboy prince and spooky voodoo aspect, the performances are amazing - along with Anika Noni Rose's gutsy attitude and beautiful voice, they even got Oprah to appear as Tiana's mother. While there is one soul-crushingly sad moment (I won't ruin it for you) where you will literally feel like a five-year-old who just dropped their ice cream, The Princess and the Frog is a hugely uplifting couple of hours. I think it's safe to say that Disney's got its groove back.

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