Monday, November 29, 2010

Win, lose or draw (Megamind and The Princess and The Frog)

Do you like cartoons? I love cartoons.
I'm sure it's because being born in the 80's, I was able to enjoy some of the best animated television shows and Disney's feature film renaissance of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, etc. I have a soft spot for hand-drawn and 2D characters following familiar story arcs and bursting into catchy songs.
So, it was bittersweet for me as I watched Pixar usher Disney and the rest of animation into a 3rd dimension. Sure, I love to marvel at the skill and artistry these technologies use to create dimensional and believable fictional worlds. And yes, the stories (at least the Pixar ones) were every bit as compelling and classic as the Disney favorites I had come of age watching- but it wasn't the same. There's something inherently charming about the way those movies could take a character, so obviously fake, made of ink and paint, and turn them into a living, breathing thing that we could relate to, aspire to, and love.
I was thrilled when Disney announced it would deliver a 2D feature film, just like old times. Only unlike old times, this one would feature some ethnic diversity and not so-closely adhere to gender stereotype-heavy "twoo wuv will save me!" story lines as before. I looked forward to The Princess and The Frog. I was disappointed when it received poor reviews. I decided to let some time pass, and then make up my mind for myself.

I should have listened to the reviews. The Princess and The Frog, while refreshingly pretty to look at and features great characters with great values to match, was decidedly lacking.
The story itself was terrible. Many parts of it worked on their own, but let's face it, Disney is at it's best when it's rehashing a classic fairytale. They simply changed too much about the old story about a princess, her favorite gold ball, and the frog who so tirelessly worked to get her to see him for what he truly was.
Tiana is the hard-working daughter of a seamstress. Her friend, the spoiled Charlotte, wishes only to marry a prince so that she can continue to live a life of privilege. Tiana's dream is to have her own restaurant, and she's happy to put in the elbow grease to get it. When a penniless, free-wheeling Prince Naveen comes to town, he makes a deal that changes all of their fortunes.
Of course they all live happily ever after. I'm not giving anything away by telling you that, it's a Disney movie. That's how they always end.

What cripples this movie is that the set-up for Prince Naveen and the villain he makes a deal with, Dr. Facillier, is poorly developed. The prince has just come to town, why would he so quickly strike a deal with a dastardly stranger he's just met? It's also not clear why Dr. Facillier is tricking this man. All that's shown is that he's jealous of Charlotte's father's money, but it doesn't seem very compelling.
To make matters worse, once Tiana and Naveen are turned into frogs, the main plot of movie becomes their quest to be human again. It's too simple. And we all know that they're going to get what they want, so you don't even feel particularly anxious about their quest.
Maybe this wouldn't be as apparent had Disney not already made much more successful "quest for humanity" movies such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and The Beast. On top of all of that, I felt like Pirates of the Carribean and The Rescuers had the whole "voodoo in the bayou" thing sewed up pretty nicely. It would have been nice if the movie had stayed in the city of New Orleans, but set in a different time period, that would have at least felt less like deja vu.
Disney used to excel at bringing us new and exciting worlds in every movie. Fidning Nemo, Atlantis, The Little Mermaid- all set in the ocean, but it was new and re-imagined in every one. Beauty and The Beast, Ratatoullie and The Aristocats- all set in France (the latter two in Paris) yet they didn't feel stale or boring.

The thing that bothered me the most was the simple fact that Tiana was unmistakably a dark-skinned, wider-nosed version of Belle (this picture shows Tiana with blue eyes, in the film they're light brown) same face shape, same eye shape, same eyebrows, same nose line, and same lips save for the cupid's bow:

Prince Naveen was dark-skinned version of Prince Eric, or a slightly older and darker Aladdin. In the picture you can see the same face shape and same facial features.:

Even Dr. Facillier smacked of Jafar:

It was offensive to me that they didn't give these characters their own style or unique features. Mulan, Pochahontas and Lilo were treated more thoughtfully than Tiana. Belle, Ariel, Snow White and Cinderella each have a look and style all of their own. You could not mistake one for the other. Even Cinderella and Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty) have features that set them apart from each other. Tiana deserved better.

Bruno Campos (who I only really know from his incredibly disturbing turn on Nip/Tuck) is delightful as Naveen. As much as his physical appearance may not stand very far from other Disney leading men, his personality oozed charm. His accent was funny- but not so funny that it seemed kitchsy- and His character showed some of the best facial expressions in the film.
Keith David (you may remember him as The Cat in Coraline, or as Goliath in the TV series Gargoyles [yes, I am a total nerd]) is magnetic as Dr. Facillier. So magnetic that it makes it painfully obvious that his character is poorly developed and not adequately motivated. He gets the most entertaining musical number.
Anika Noni Rose does her best as Tiana. But terrible dialogue and Belle-all-over-again look and personality make her truly forgettable. Next to Bruno Campos, she fades away. The only supporting characters that truly hold their own are Charlotte, played to hysteric perfection by Jennifer Cody, and her "Big Daddy" (Tennessee Williams is rolling in his grave), voiced unmistakably by John Goodman.
What does it say when the most interesting supporting characters in the movie are white? That the writers just weren't sure, or were too scared, to take any risks whatsoever with any of the other characters. Dr. Facillier could have been more flamboyant, he should have been out to take revenge on the sugar barons for profiting off of the hard work of their slaves and under-paid workers. Tiana could have shown the other side of the struggle, and that she didn't want free reparations, she was willing to work for what she wanted and earn the respect of those around her. Charlotte and Big Daddy could have been more sympathetic to Tiana and her family, in the end promising to give back to the black community and offer loans or support to people like Tiana who wanted to start their own business. Naveen should have been humbled by seeing the struggle of people of color in America while he had lived a spoiled and privileged life in his home country. He could have acted as ambassador and helped with integration. That would have given us dynamic and compelling characters, while still sugar-coating reality enough to be a Disney film.

For a film that was clearly made to be empowering, and with the best intentions, it was not. If you want to see an empowering Disney movie, see Mulan or Dumbo (one of my favorites). Please, do not see The Princess and The Frog. I took one for the team here.

A movie you should see, critics be damned, is Megamind. All the critics pooh-poohed and said "It's like The Incredibles, only not as good."
No! It is not like The Incredibles. Megamind is a more straightforward send-up of the Reeves Superman films, whereas The Incredibles was more teasing at the old super hero cartoons and comic books. Unlike The Incredibles, it has a more adult-oriented cast and humor.
Imagine if Dr. Evil was the star of the Austin Powers movies, that's the angle Megamind is working.
An alien child, Megamind, is sent away from his dying home planet to Earth. His journey is paralleled by a fortune-favored, handsome alien child, Metro Man. Rather than standing in the shadow of his privileged, popular counterpart, the ostracized Megamind decides to become a super villain, and he's pretty good at it. Until he manages to defeat Metro Man. Hilarity ensues.

The brilliance worth seeing here is the dialogue so perfectly delivered by Will Farrell, Tina Fey, Brad Pitt, David Cross, and Jonah Hill. The comedy talent here is peerless. The only way it could have been improved were if those offering their voices had actually written their lines. The thought of them even getting to ad-lib all in a room together is like a wet dream for your funny bone.

Is it a great work of timeless class? No. Is it entertaining? Hell yes! I laughed really, really hard. I found myself repeating the funnier parts later on and still laughing. The more sentimental story lines were sweet but slightly boring, yet not forgettable or tedious.

The thing I really thought was lacking in Megamind was a distinctive visual style. It looked like The Incredibles, and that's what hurt it so much. And seeing as though Dreamworks gave us Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar, they're clearly up to the task, so why they simply phoned it in and copied Brad Bird on the visuals, I'll never know.