Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nostalgic and contemporary - part 2

What Disney wants us to know up front
When I was a child I would grasp any bit of information about an upcoming Disney movie (mostly re-issues) I could get my hands on. Naturally I knew all about it by the time I saw it for the first time, often I even knew the soundtrack (I actually did sing along during my first Snow White screening which not only alienated my father, as you can imagine). Knowing the story already from books somehow enhanced the experience because I was only able to see "the real thing" once (most of the time twice, thanks to my mother) while it was in theaters and then had to live on those memories of the animation for a few years. Such long anticipated screenings were sometimes more important than Christmas to me.

This holiday season I'm excited about a new Disney movie mainly because I want it to be a success with audiences even if I doubt that it is to my taste. Again, I have grasped at every bit of information I could get while carefully avoiding too many spoilers. After all, when I grew older, not knowing the progression and outcome of a story has become a vital part of the movie going experience. I like to be surprised.

On the other hand, surprises are not what we're in for with The Princess and the Frog. So let's see what amount of information we gather from just the officially available promotional material without looking at interviews and making-of featurettes.

The Teaser (1:02) 
One short scene: Over the iconic evening star (that goes back to Pinocchio and is now part of the Disney logo) Randy Newman sings "the evening star is shining bright, so make a wish and hold on tight...", then a princess on a balcony in New Orleans is kissing a mute frog that looks like a cross between Sebastian the crab and a Don Bluth character. Nothing happens, then the music changes to a characteristic New Orleans brass interlude and the princess hints at that she knows the traditional "frog prince" tale and that this movie will deviate. While Randy Newman sings "dreams do come true in New Orleans" we see the title illuminated by a Cajun firefly. Then the fireflies form the year 2009. It all seems to say: "traditional with a new twist".

So we already know the location, the two main characters (the princess and the frog) and that there will be Dixieland music. It's going to be a retelling of the fairy tale on a meta-level with the characters knowing the outcome of the original tale. And it's definitely going to be an escapist fantasy where "dreams do come true" if you "hold on tight".

Trailer 1
This (first?) trailer emphasizes the magic and majestic atmosphere of the film. There's lots of digital fairy dust and we're reminded of the hand-drawn nature of these "classic" scenes that are all taken from the renaissance features (1989-94), although the writing says "75 years of magic". The princess now meets a blander looking frog on the balcony of a stone mansion. The smug frog now talks and tells the princess that he was a prince called Naveen cursed by a witchdoctor (who we meet in a pink flashback). Until the princess reluctantly kisses the frog the scene played out quietly. From what we see the characters know the original story. The narrator then tells us that this retelling will deviate from the tale and we see the princess being turned into a frog. To a majestic choir arrangement we get glimpses of effects and set pieces from all over the movie arranged to match musical beats. This makes the 90s connection absolutely clear: "In the tradition of Walt Disney's most beloved classics", are the renaissance features really Walt Disney's most beloved classics?

the non-talking frog of the teaser
the smug fast-talking frog of the trailer

Trailer 2
While there was no direct indication in the previous trailer that it would be a full-fledged musical, this one emphasizes the song and dance and entertainment parts. We meet a whole cast of animal sidekicks and hear the characters sing songs that are about as classic New Orleans as Sister Act and Hercules (both of which came to mind when I heard the closing gospel-pop chorus). The "don't judge a book by its cover" theme is mentioned by the blind lady. As much as I remember, this is the first time a trailer for an animated Disney feature mentions the directors (not by name but by reputation). This underscores John Lasseter's claims of Disney as a director driven studio.
E.D.Baker's 2002 novel "The Frog Princess" on which the film is supposed to be loosely based isn't mentioned in any trailer I've seen, by the way.

The first five and a half minutes
The film begins with the trademark evening star and a flock of fireflies that act as fine substitutes for old Disney fairy dust. Now the intro is sung by a female voice. Horse drawn carriages and early automobiles coexist, and later a newspaper headline tells us that it's 1912 ("Wilson elected"). Like a moth attracted by the light, the camera enters an open window into a very rich child's nursery. Off screen, we hear a woman tell the tale of the "frog prince". Then we're introduced to her audience which consists of a black girl with a crown on her head and a white girl in a ludicrous princess dress holding a cat. The handsome Eudora who reads the story to them while sewing is introduced as the black girl's mother and in the eyes of the white girl's father "the best seamstress in New Orleans". It's instantly clear that she's only working in this house. The kids behave like kids and Eudora has pity with the cat.

Having seen the trailers (you certainly have if you've managed to navigate through to this preview on the Snow White DVD), we already know, that the princess who's now called Tiana will eventually end up becoming a frog. So it's maybe even funnier when we see that she's most reluctant to kiss a frog while her spoilt playmate Charlotte is a hopeless romantic who desperately wants to become a princess herself. She's the stand-in for so many girls in the audience, or at least for the dreams of these girls (I won't comment on gender roles until I've seen the whole film). But nevertheless they're best friends regardless of their social background.

While Charlotte gets spoiled by her daddy who gives her yet another pet, Tiana and Eudora leave in the shadows of the long hallway and have to travel by cable car to their humble home. Outside you can hear frogs quacking in the background. At home it is revealed that Tiana is not an orphan but has two loving and caring parents. She's also introduced as a self-reliant girl who knows how to cook. Although they certainly aren't rich, they share their gumbo with all the neighbors because "the good thing about food is, it brings people together". Later we learn that Tiana's daddy wants to open a restaurant and that Tiana herself shares that dream of having her own restaurant.

Based on Charlotte's fairy tale book, Tiana believes that the evening star can make her wish come true which is a good excuse to have her daddy spell out his life motto that you "gotta work hard and you can do anything you set your mind to". Then Tiana has to promise him that she never loses sight "of what is really important". This whole quiet scene ends with her making her wish leaning on the windowsill when suddenly a frog appears and scares her. Still wearing her fake crown she leaves the room and the preview ends.

Let's face it, The Princess and the Frog was never meant to be another Snow White, Fantasia or 101 Dalmatians because these films covered new ground in more than one area. Great films, not flawless, but exciting new films. Instead it was meant to be a box office hit in order to renew Wall Street's confidence in hand-drawn animation. It will hit all the right buttons and will appeal to family audiences all over the world. If these first five minutes are in any way representative of the whole movie - and I'm sure they are - it contains all the tried and tested ingredients.

The Little Mermaid was Disney's first classic fairy tale that didn't have an introductory scene with an opening storybook. The introduction of a fairy tale world was more subtle: on a ship coming out of the fog the human characters were introduced without the device of a voice-over narrator. This familiar world of humans (no matter where or when) was the impartial frame of reference for the stories about King Triton's kingdom beneath the sea which these humans didn't really believe existed. With The Princess and the Frog (TPATF) it's pretty much the same.

After Aladdin (1992) (whose oriental narrator only appeared on screen in the beginning) and especially Shrek (2001) and its postmodern pop reference filled successors it seems naive if not impossible to tell a fairy tale straight. Especially because for the first time, a classic fairy tale is set in an actual American city (New Orleans has been redundantly introduced ever since the first teaser). Although enough time has passed since the 1920s to legitimate a nostalgic glow and exotic colors, the setting is considerably closer to our own world and time than all the fictitious versions of medieval Europe of the previous fairy tales. In a sense, New Orleans itself sadly is a city of the past, a fact that David Fincher utilized in a poetic way to conclude The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).

So Eudora reading the rules that define the tale - "only a kiss could lift this terrible spell that was inflicted by a wicked witch" - shows us that the characters do know the story of "the frog prince" and like ourselves believe it to be a harmless fairy tale. It also fuels Charlotte's dream of becoming a real princess.

A lot of expository information is crammed into these five minutes: there are two kinds of people: the rich ones with big rooms and lots of stuff, the others relatively poor but hardworking and always happy. Although these worlds are far apart (think of the long ride on the cable car), people interact and still there doesn't seem to be any social conflict (yet). In fact, African-Americans are all shown as one great family hugging each other constantly. It's in these scenes that we learn that for these people dreams do not come true from wishing alone but essentially from working hard and never losing sight of one's goal in life. But still, they do come true.

These goals are: Charlotte would do anything to become a princess, Tiana wants to become an independent woman managing her own restaurant. It's interesting that she shares the restaurant dream/goal with her father. It's not all too useful to have two non-competing characters who are pursuing the same dream together (think of the cows in Home on the Range, 2004), so to me this suggests that this nuclear family will be torn apart eventually. One overall theme will certainly be that "food brings people together", so it's probably all about overcoming social boundaries and living together in peace. Only that we don't feel that either party is perceived as social outcasts.

It will be a more subtle sort of a rags-to-riches story like Cinderella with the twist that the "ragged" literally fabricate the dresses for the "rich". Tiana doesn't seem to be oppressed by anybody, she's just a kid with dreams from the poorer side of town. As we already know that Tiana is the one going to kiss the frog we also know that there will be overarching themes like "it's what's under the skin that counts" (Mama Odie in the trailer) and with her becoming a frog too: "walk a mile in my shoes".

From what all the promotional material tells us, this film won't be concerned with a black princess but a lower middle class girl turned into a frog. It's all about being green, not black, which is a lot less controversial territory.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shorts on YouTube

Here I try to collect YouTube- and Vimeo-links to shorts I like. It's going to be an eclectic list (in no particular order) and will be updated every once in a while. I'll start it with a short Amid posted on cartoonbrew today (24.11.):

Cornelis (Japan, 2008) by Ayaka Nakata
Grüezi (Switzerland, 1995) by Jonas Raeber 
Kebabaluba (Turkey, 1995) by Tahsin Özgür
Yellow Cake (Canada, 2009) by Nick Cross

Nostalgic and contemporary - part 1

For the first time Disney locates a typical princess story in an actual American city, for the first time the princess is of African-American origin, for the first time in its history Disney was virtually able to get any 2D animator they wanted. Nevertheless the notion that comes to mind is "playing it safe". Which is good news for mainstream audiences because they are more eager to spend their money on products (i.e. films) when they know exactly what they are going to get. That's why Hollywood trailers not only reveal the basic premise but also essential plot points. If these films pretend to tackle social issues on the surface, all the better. The best Disney can do with The Princess and the Frog is serve a gumbo that doesn't taste like it was spoilt by too many cooks.

Once upon a time...
When Disney made his first animated feature, he chose the classical European fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). His Americanized version of a fairy tale Europe was not only new and exciting, it was also a big box office hit because people weren't used to cartoon characters that made them cry. Visually it was greatly indebted to Gustav Tenggren's illustration style.

When Disney desperately needed a hit at the box office after the post-war package features, he chose the classical European fairy tale Cinderella (1950) for his comeback. The concept - one might say formula - of Snow White worked all over again. Rags-to-riches stories of unloved stepchildren always touch audiences. And like Snow White, Cinderella was a beautiful but passive girl that had only animals as friends before she found her Prince Charming. Old wine in new kegs, visually exciting because of Mary Blair's contemporary color stylings. At the end of the same decade, Sleeping Beauty (1959) should have become Walt's Opus Magnum, but his heart was clearly not in the animation department any more. This time the abandoned princess Aurora had not only animals but also fairies as friends. So the animals didn't get to be an active part of her personality, just scenery. And Aurora was even more passive than any other princess in history. She wasn't even conscious when meeting the villain and probably nobody would have noticed her sleeping forever. The man of her dreams coincided with the groom of her arranged marriage. Needless to say, it was not a hit, but beautiful to look at (Eyvind Earle's styling still draws attention to itself). No rags to riches story, by the way.

When the Disney studio, now under the reign of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, desperately needed a box office hit after the disastrous Ron Miller era, the classical Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Little Mermaid was chosen as a starting point of a veritable "renaissance" (itself sometimes referred to as a Cinderella story). Of course the ending had to be purified from bitter to bittersweet (if you count Ariel's separation from her family at the end). In 1989, a princess had to be a little more active and like Pinocchio she could also have real conversations with her animal friends. At least, she got herself into trouble all by herself and turned to the villain for a bargain in order to get the prince of her dreams. Though technically no rags to riches story (at least Ariel seems to be a half-orphan like so many Disney protagonists), in the human world, Ariel had to earn Prince Eric's love all over again without her voice the prince initially fell in love with. The issue of forbidden social mobility between "two different worlds" (merpeople vs. humans) was harmlessly disguised in fairy tale conventions. The storytelling was all tried and tested and many people wondered how well the old musical formula worked at the box office. Nevertheless it felt very contemporary and nostalgic at the same time. The follow-up Beauty and the Beast (1991), based on another European fairy tale, was received even more enthusiastic and is the only animated feature to date to be nominated for a best picture Academy Award. Later, the formula became really formulaic and the so-called decline of hand-drawn animation (which had nothing to do with hand-drawn and all with storytelling) at the box office began.

When John Lasseter and Ed Catmull wanted to revive hand-drawn animation they chose the classical European fairy tale "The Frog Prince" (like Snow White, it's Brothers Grimm again) because they desperately needed a hit at the box office. Only this time, the frame of reference didn't seem to be Snow White but The Little Mermaid and 90s Disney animation because the parents of the youngest cinemagoers have grown up on those films and feel nostalgic towards them. To get the fans even more excited, Disney decided to release the entire first five minutes of the almost finished film in high definition on the new Snow White Bluray and DVD. The featured art director this time is Ian Gooding, background and visual development artist of many a Disney 90s feature.

Next: What the first five minutes tell us
So let's see what all the officially available promotional material already tells us about the film (I don't intend to give my opinion here on how I like what I saw so far, I'm just interested in the amount of information that is transported in these first few scenes und trailers)...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Goldberg Variations?

Is it just me or has the avowed Looney Tunes fan Eric Goldberg managed to sneak a "Chuck Jones cheek" into a Disney feature? It's visible in all the official stills of Louis. Anyway, this alligator is the one character I'm really excited about.

left: standard Disney stock smile  -  right: specific Chuck Jones smile

Jones even managed to use it on Daffy's beak,

whereas Disney characters always follow the natural shape of the curved flesh.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cold and garish

There are always two or three subjects in my head and usually I don’t have the time to put them down before the next one comes up. So I lose interest in some and keep being intrigued by others without ever having written anything about any of them.

I have to admit that I become somewhat obsessed with looking at certain things from all possible angles. More often than not I get carried away with studying and lose track of what I wanted to write about in the first place. Sometimes I come to a point where I forget about that first impression that got me interested in a phenomenon at all and I’m not even sure how I feel about it. This is usually the moment when I reconsider everything and decide not to write about it at all. It’s my own unsatisfying way of procrastination, because when you try to find out all about something you’re never done and in the case of blogging this means you never get around to writing the post.

In case you followed my 101 Dalmatians posts you might have noticed that I haven’t written about “Hell Hall” yet, although I announced it at least twice. I always wanted to find out first why I liked the color combination of magenta and turquoise there but not in more recent films.

Pink light illuminates the otherwise cold hideout of the bad guys. The cold colors that haven't been used in any other part of the movie so far succeed in conveying an eerie mood.

It first bothered me when I saw The Lion King in 1994. I was 16 at the time and besides my disappointment in the animation department, I was almost outraged by the “can you feel the love tonight” sequence. It thought it was a weak song, the characters looked strange and most of all the color scheme was not to my taste at all, to put it mildly. I wished pastel colors were banned from animation forever.

Simba’s escapist exile is rendered in the most saturated warm colors one can imagine. He has just recognized his former best friend and future love interest as the sun is setting. This provides a natural transition from warm to cold colors as is seen in the the above panel of screenshots.
But the problem weren’t pastel colors per se (which I didn’t mind in Cinderella or even the kitsch-Beethoven sequence in Fantasia). Technically a fairly saturated magenta is no pastel color since it’s neither soft nor pale.

The problem was, that for me it introduced color combinations into feature film territory that were popular in the worst kind of TV cartoon shows. Of course, this is all a matter of taste and reviewing the sequence the other day I was surprised how much worse it could have been done, but nevertheless, this was the sequence that paved the way for a monstrosity like Pocahontas where unnatural saturation seemed to be the main concept.

They literally tumble into a world of cold but quite saturated colors. On all of these pictures the characters are in the shadow and not even darker than the lush background but also less saturated. As is expected in a night time setting, all background colors contain blue. Magenta, blue and turquoise are close neighbors on the color wheel. Natural earthtones are almost absent from all of these backgrounds. This color scheme doesn’t look cheap or random but the mood it evokes with violet trees and turquoise logs makes me feel uncomfortable, but unfortunately this is all very subjective. It just feels fake and highly unnatural to me which obviously couldn't have been the intention here.

As I have stated here, character hues have been increasingly affected by lighting situations in Disney movies, especially following the "renaissance" of 1989. The Little Mermaid is a picture I'll be referring to time and again in the context of the 2009 "rebirth" of hand drawn animation. The one thing that Mermaid doesn't lack is variety of color schemes:

 These two images illustrate the same basic principles: pink light in the lair of the villain on the left, the absence of sunlight (thus the bluish gray overtone) that results in red becoming magenta and green looking turquoise.

Well, today John K. has probably said all about the subject of garish colors. But I think there is so much more to it than just plain bad taste and garishness, and the promotional material for The Princess and the Frog provides me with the perfect excuse to go on about it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Allegro Non Troppo on the Big Screen

If you're living in the area of Zurich, Switzerland, don't miss this event:

Bruno Bozzetto's Fantasia parody Allegro Non Troppo will be screened twice this December:

Monday, 07.12.2009 at 6:15pm and
Saturday 12.12.2009 at 3pm

at the Filmpodium in Zürich.