Week 49: The Princess and the Frog

You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper, Disney

princess and the frog

Originally Released: 2009

Watching The Princess and the Frog again during this project was a very interesting experience for me. I had the fondest of memories of this film from when it first came out in 2009. Back then, the hype for Disney’s triumphant return to 2D hand-drawn animation was in full swing, and as a result, watching the film was an obvious opening-night event for me.

My thoughts back then can be approximated as follows:

-2D animation!

-The return of musical numbers!

-It’s a princess! Those are always good movies!

-2D animation!

-Based on a Grimm’s fairy tale!

-Ron Clements and John Musker!

-The return of 2D animation!!!

Tiana waitress

“One Breakfast Special with some special Disney Kool-Aid and a shot of Tabasco sauce, coming your way!”

Yes, Disney had brewed some powerful Kool-Aid, and I was lapping it up gleefully. This could have been a movie the quality of the second Transformers film, and I wouldn’t have cared one bit. I was excited, and I was going to enjoy it. And that’s exactly what happened. I left that theater thoroughly satisfied with the experience.

But life goes on, and I didn’t watch The Princess and the Frog again ever since opening night in December 2009. And time has a funny way of changing perceptions when it comes to film. My viewing during the project let me examine the film in more of an unbiased way and see the movie for what it is. No, this isn’t “The Best Disney Movie Since The Lion King” as is plastered on the front of my blu-ray copy. If the filmmakers just had “dug a little deeper”, they might have had a true masterpiece on their hands. Or maybe you could say The Princess and the Frog is “Almost There.” But at any rate, while it’s not the masterpiece it was hyped to be, it is still pretty good overall.

A couple of of positive thoughts I had during my second viewing of the film did mirror my reaction in 2009. I love the little references to Disney magic of times past, such as the following two gems:

homage to a great scene

I absolutely love this reference! Its so perfect!

jiminy cricket he is not

“They’re fireflies…fireflies that, uh, got stuck up in that big blue-ish black thing.”

Another nice nod to the Disney past is at the masquerade ball where people are in costume as Ariel, Aladdin and Jasmine (kinda), and others.

One other thing I appreciate still is…the 2D animation! And why not? The Princess and the Frog has a sharp look to it and is visually quite impressive.

However, a couple of things did bother me a bit this second time around. The pacing is a little iffy, and I found myself feeling a bored from time to time. Not all the characters were that entertaining, and some of the situations they got involved in felt like tired, overused scenarios.

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Maldova is code for Brazil, maybe? Maybe not, but that’s where actor Bruno Campos, who voiced the fun-loving Prince, is from. There’s some Disney trivia 101 that I didn’t know before.

The music by Randy Newman (sadly, I’ll never look at him the same ever since I saw that “Family Guy” clip…) was often toe-tappingly fun, but was just as often very forgettable.

One thing I entirely overlooked my first viewing, but that really stuck out this second time around is the fact that Disney opted for a Satanic voodoo villain, complete with devilish minions. That’s some seriously dark stuff, and how they approved it for a film geared towards small kids is beyond me.

And what’s with the portrayal of Cajuns in this film? Are we not past the age of ugly stereotypes? I can’t help but wonder why it is that, much like a 30-year-old white male is the only unprotected class left in the workplace, the Cajun population seems to be one of the few groups that is fair game for blatant mocking in today’s culture. It is stereotyping at its worst right here. Kudos to Disney for the strong portrayal of one under-appreciated group of people (Tiana is a hard-working great example for anybody). Shame on Disney for knocking another group in the process, though.

why are cajuns fair game still?

The thing I love about Disney animation is that just about every movie is going to be enjoyable, and depending on who you ask, it may even be his or her favorite. The Princess and the Frog is good enough that it may just be some people’s favorite film. After watching it with a fresh set of eyes, I would say that while I still like it, I have to sing “I’m gonna take ya down, gonna take ya down, I’m gonna take ya down” a few spots on my Disney rankings. But at least it shows Disney still has what it takes to tackle 2D animation.

family. isnt it about time

too evil

sick

happily ever after

 

Week 30: Beauty and the Beast

What Every Animated Film Wishes To Be Like

Belle

Originally Released: 1991

When I was young, my family didn’t buy many movies on VHS. Much less the expensive Disney ones. So imagine my surprise when one winter night I find a copy of Beauty and the Beast in our living room. If I remember right, it was meant to be a Christmas present to the family. But whatever the reason for the purchase, I do know that this particular gift made at least one member of my family very, very happy. Beauty and the Beast put me under its spell that winter and has never let go.

Rose

Much has been said about Beauty and the Beast. Its praises were many upon its release in 1991, and the following awards season was very kind to the film as well (which, no doubt, had some influence on our family to obtain a copy). Personally, I think every bit of praise is absolutely deserved. Beauty and the Beast is a marvel. The splendid animation, the show-stopping music, and the touching theme and message combine to make this a spectacular film (side note – it always saddens me when I think that society, or at least the part of society that runs the Oscars, preferred a film about a cannibalistic serial killer over a film with such an uplifting message as Beauty and the Beast – alas, but that is a story for another day). Not only is it my favorite Disney animated film, but it is one of my favorite films, period. Though there have been some great animated films released before and after Beauty and the Beast, to me, this is still the film that is the standard-bearer for animation.

And the winner for "Best Kiss in an Animated Film" goes to...Beauty and the Beast! They literally created fireworks with this kiss.

And the winner for “Best Kiss in an Animated Film” goes to…Beauty and the Beast! They literally created fireworks with this kiss.

I could go on and on about how much I like this movie, but I decided to go in a different direction for this post. Disney was kind enough to include in their Blu-ray package an unfinished version of the film, and this presented a unique opportunity for my blog. I decided to watch the unfinished version and then post some side-by-side shots of both the work-in-progress version and the finished product. The work-in-progress screens include storyboards, original sketches, and various stages of animation. So this blog post is now not only my Beauty and the Beast appreciation post, it is my “All-the-Hard Work-that-Goes-into-a-Disney-Feature” appreciation post. Hopefully you find it as interesting as I do to see some of the different stages in creating an animated masterpiece.

Opening storyboard

Opening scene with Belle leaving her home. It stayed very close to the original storyboard.

Opening scene with Belle leaving her home. It stayed very close to the original storyboard.

 

Belle Castle sketch

You can see that the very early version of Belle looks a little different, but this scene stayed remarkably true to the original vision shown in the sketch.

You can see that the very early version of Belle looks a little different, but this scene stayed remarkably true to the original vision shown in the sketch.

 

Beast Castle Sketch

The same scene, but with the beast. You can see that the beast's look changed, and for the better.

The same scene, but with the beast. You can see that the beast’s look changed, and for the better.

 

Lumiere rough

Thankfully, the character animators didn't need to animate the flames on Lumiere. This was done later.

Thankfully, the character animators didn’t need to animate the flames on Lumiere. This was done later.

 

Dance rough

I thought this was really cool to see. The mixture of 3D and 2D animation, in negative form. The finished scene was incredibly beautiful and a highlight of the film.

I thought this was really cool to see. The mixture of 3D and 2D animation, in negative form. The finished scene was incredibly beautiful and a highlight of the film.

 

Beast Gaston rough

I can't make a post of this movie with out at least one reference to Gaston. Great villain with biceps to spare.

I can’t make a post of this movie with out at least one reference to Gaston. Great villain with biceps to spare.

 

Belle-Beast 1

Belle-Beast cleaner

Here we can see three different stages of animation. The first is still pretty rough, the next is getting cleaned up, and finally there is the finished product.

Here we can see three different stages of animation. The first is still pretty rough, the next is getting cleaned up, and finally there is the finished product

Transform rough

The effects animators did an awesome job with this transformation, as did the Beast's animator Glen Keane. Others have parodied this moment, but only because it is so iconic. I love it.

The effects animators did an awesome job with this transformation, as did the Beast’s animator Glen Keane. Others have parodied this moment, but only because it is so iconic. I love it.

Week 28: The Little Mermaid

Disney Was Sick of Swimming and Ready to Stand

Ariel reprise

Originally Released: 1989

The Little Mermaid is the first real movie theater experience I can remember as a child. I can still visualize being at the theater with my older sister and watching the musical story unfold on the screen. I think it is safe to say that as most kids grow up, that first movie theater experience earns a special place in in his or her heart. That was definitely the case for me. Because of this significant event, The Little Mermaid automatically qualifies as a cherished film in my book.

I’m fairly certain, though, that it is cherished by more people than just me. Even setting personal nostalgia aside, The Little Mermaid is a bona-fide classic and stands tall in the Disney hall of fame. The story is great, the characters are beyond memorable, and the music is simply spectacular. After watching in rapid succession the films released during Disney’s so-called “dark ages” and then following that up with The Little Mermaid, it is more clear than ever to me that this one is special.

dinner

The way The Little Mermaid came to be was something of a perfect storm, with the right people coming together at the right time. After getting kicked off the studio lot, the animators realized that they needed to really perform or they would likely lose their jobs. Peter Schneider was brought on to head the animation department, and he emphasized collaboration and open communication. Disney also brought on the talents of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to work on the songs and score for The Little Mermaid. Ashman was a Broadway guy and was instrumental in restoring musical storytelling to Disney films. He eventually became involved in the story development of The Little Mermaid as well. Many other people also had positive contributions that added to the wave of creativity.

Under the Sea

The result of this storm of creativity is a product that meshes story, animation, and music in a wonderful manner. Each separate aspect adds to The Little Mermaid in its own way, but they combine together to form something truly great.

Consider the song “Part of Your World.” It is a lovely melody sung by the beautiful voice of Jodi Benson. But these pieces only get so far alone. Similarly, the lyrics alone are not going to inspire anybody. They talk about a girl who wants more gizmos, gadgets, and thingamabobs. The lyrics require the context of the story to make any real sense. But by putting all these elements together, the story moves forward very effectively and we also connect much better with Ariel. Before this piece, we may think of Ariel as just a rebellious teen, but after the song, we can understand her a little better and see her in a different way.

Ariel

Knowing the story and hearing the music helps a lot, but now add to the scene some truly inspired and gorgeous animation by Glen Keane that portrays Ariel earnestly hungering for her desires. The end result is incredible. Again, each storytelling piece on its own is good. But as a completed whole, it is an amazing thing to see and hear (imagine my surprise when I learned that one man almost cut the whole piece from the film!). In my opinion, “Part of Your World” is a perfect showcase of the animation medium. If you want to see what animation is capable of, there aren’t many better examples than that.

Ursula

Really, though, The Little Mermaid has many great moments. Ursula is a top Disney villain, Sebastian is an excellent sidekick, and the other characters are fun, too (somehow when I was young my favorite character was Flounder. I wouldn’t pick him today, but for some reason I did back then). As far as music goes, “Under the Sea” is deserving of its academy award and is another example of all elements combining to create an even stronger whole. Also, I love the score. It perfectly matches the tone of the film. And there is great animation and special animation effects littered throughout.

Moonlight Fireworks

In short, I am a pretty big fan of The Little Mermaid. I don’t have much negative to say about it. Of course, I may be a little biased considering it was my first childhood movie experience, but surely nostalgia is not the only thing that will get someone to appreciate this film. It has enough going for it that many people would happily let it be part of their world.

Triton

Kiss the girl

Voice

Castle

Week 16: Sleeping Beauty

Stunningly Beautiful

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Originally Released: 1959

Let me just begin by getting this out of the way: I love Sleeping Beauty. I love the art. I love the music. I love its sense of humor. Maleficent is probably my favorite of all the Disney villains. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. While I consider it impossible to pin down my favorite Disney film of all, Sleeping Beauty is a strong contender for that coveted #1 spot. Some days it actually makes it to the top in my mind.

Knowing that, it should then come as no surprise that this was a highly-anticipated week for my project. It doesn’t take much coaxing to get me to watch Sleeping Beauty. And, unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the movie yet again.

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Let me begin with the art. I did actually learn something new this time around. The look of the film is largely attributable to a man named Eyvind Earle, who I previously did not take the time to learn about. He was a younger artist in the Disney studios, and he did a bit of training under the talented Mary Blair (who I mentioned in previous posts).  Walt Disney was impressed with his art and some of his ideas. In fact, he was so impressed that he made Eyvind the Art Director for the film, and gave him a large amount of authority over the other artists, including the animators. Walt wanted the original concept art style to make it to the final film without being “watered down.” I did not previously know that Eyvind was the source of the distinct look of the film.

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Eyvind personally had a hand in most of the backgrounds. I consider the backgrounds to be masterpieces in Sleeping Beauty. They are bright, colorful, highly stylized, and have incredible detail. This was the second Disney animated film to use a widescreen format, and Eyvind made the most of it. The backgrounds are practically bursting from every corner with intricate details and beautiful work. Everything from the bark of the trees to the small cracks in the stone walls of the castle, and from the townsfolk to table-top items is a sight to behold (as a side note, watching Sleeping Beauty on blu-ray for the first time was an absolute revelation. Before I watched it, my general opinion was “there’s no way an old 2d cartoon will look any better in high definition.” I was wrong, wrong, wrong). This is one film that I can pause virtually anywhere in the film and have an image I would want to hang on my wall. It is that beautiful.

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Look at the large tree. Then look at the two other trees and the bush. Then look at the trees even further off in the distance. The detail never ceases to amaze me.

As much as I’m a fan of the artwork, I am also a fan of the music. The music was adapted from the old ballet version of the story which was composed by Tchaikovsky (of Nutcracker fame), which was a brilliant move by Disney. To me, the Tchaikovsky music adds an extra bit of elegance to this film that separates it from some of the earlier Disney releases. And add to the Tchaikovsky score the perfect casting choices for the voices of Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip, and the result is highly satisfying music in Sleeping Beautywhich complements the art and animation in a great way.

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The art and music alone would be enough to win me over in this film. But it also has memorable characters. The three fairies are vintage, true Disney characters and I love the way they play off of each other. The baking/sewing scene has always been a favorite of mine, with their ineptitude at being mere mortals shining through. There is Phillip, who is the first Disney prince to have any real personality and animation/screen time. And of course, there is the vile Maleficent, voiced by Eleanor Audley, the same woman who did such a great job as Lady Tremaine in CinderellaThere is no real complexity to Maleficent that we know of. She is just pure evil, and is superbly animated, styled, and voiced. Combined, it results in a villain that is not soon forgotten.

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All of these things did not come easily for Disney and his team, nor did they come quickly or cheaply. Sleeping Beauty was in active production for roughly 8 years, and it was an extremely expensive film to produce. It demanded a lot from the animators and artists. But the result was something to marvel at, and it paid off in the end. It really shows in the final product that there was a great amount of hard work that went into making the film what it is. I, for one, am very glad they gave all that effort. If there is any Disney film that deserves to be called “classic,” Sleeping Beauty is it.

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Skumps, Skumps, Skuuuuummmmmps!

Skumps, Skumps, Skuuuuummmmmps!

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Week 12: Cinderella

Disney Triumphantly Returns to the Full-Length Animated Feature

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Originally Released: 1950

Considering just how famous this movie has become, it is very interesting to know that Walt Disney took a big risk by working on Cinderella and releasing it as a full-length feature. Besides Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, none of his previous full-length animated films was a financial success, and the package films were only moderately successful. Thus, the entire future of Disney’s feature animation hinged on the success of Cinderella. If it failed, Disney would likely have shut down the feature animation studio. Luckily, Cinderella was a big hit with audiences. It was so successful that it gave Disney the cash flow to not only continue production on future animated films, but it also helped progress other parts of the company, including Walt’s endeavor to create Disneyland. Additionally, it began what could be considered a bit of a Disney Renaissance with its films.

Unlike the fairly obscure Disney package films, Cinderella should require no introduction or plot summary. If there is someone who either has not seen it, or who is unfamiliar with the fairy tale in some form, I would be quite surprised. And though there have been other adaptations of the tale, I am willing to bet that when most people think of Cinderella, they think of this version.

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Yet despite this popularity, whenever I am about to watch Cinderella again, for some reason I tend to think that I am not going to enjoy it as much as I would some of the other Disney classics. My reasoning may vary each time this occurs. For example, I may say it is a “girl movie.” Or I may tell myself the story is very thin, or that the mice take up too much of the screen time gathering stuff and getting chased by Lucifer. However, as valid as my excuses may be, once I sit down and simply watch the film, all those negative thoughts just seem to disappear as I get lost in the story, music, and animation. Each viewing of Cinderella exceeds my expectations and I find myself happy to have watched it again.

This time was no exception. I was struck at how well the movie conveyed different emotions, and how much I cared about what happened to Cinderella. I felt bad that her life was awful, and was glad she was able to triumph in the end. The scene with the key was actually suspenseful because the film effectively made me want to root for Cinderella.

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Somewhat related to the first topic is that this time I really noticed the great good shown by some characters (by now we should know that it is very smart to have a mouse for a friend – see Dumbo for another example of this), as well as some truly despicable evil from Lady Tremaine, Cinderella’s stepmother. Unlike many Disney villains, she doesn’t have supernatural powers, but her rotten heart more than makes up for it. Lucifer, the cat, doesn’t fall too far behind in this category, either. Both relish seeing Cinderella suffer. There is a clear contrast between good and evil in this film.

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Finally, the music was just as good as ever. It ranged from sweet to silly, but it was always fun and memorable. A good example was the “Sing Sweet Nightingale” part. It starts off silly with the stepsisters skewering the song, but then it transitions to a beautiful rendition accompanied by a gorgeous visual scene involving harmonizing Cinderella reflections in soap bubbles.

Most of the songs got stuck in my head for the next day or so, but I didn’t mind because the songs are great. I didn’t even have a problem when I noticed I was singing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi Boo” to myself. And while I’m on the topic of memorable music, an interesting side note is that Cinderella is the film that started Walt Disney’s music publishing business. Walt knew that the music would be very popular, so he decided that they might as well make the money from it instead giving the profits to someone else. It proved to be a smart move.

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So in the end, while there may be some flaws or something or another to complain about in Cinderella, the magic of the movie to me is that these flaws and complaints quickly go away and are forgotten. It is easy to get pulled into its world, and that’s what the Disney magic is all about. (Oh yeah, and there’s also this).  Cinderella is a top-tier Disney gem.

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These birds got caught in Cinderella's magic spell.

These birds got caught in Cinderella’s magic spell.

If a monocle makes you want to say "indeed," in an English accent, you can probably thank this movie.

If a monocle makes you want to say “indeed,” in an English accent, you can probably thank this movie.