An­i­ma­tion once again

The Princess and the Frog marks Dis­ney’s tri­umphant re­turn to hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion, fea­tures its first African-Amer­i­can lead and the voice of Oprah. Its direc­tors talk to Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

THE LAST time I met John Musker and Ron Cle­ments – the ami­able direc­tors of Dis­ney an­i­ma­tions such as Aladdin, The Lit­tle Mer­maid and, now, The Princess and the Frog – we were con­tem­plat­ing the po­ten­tial an­ni­hi­la­tion of their cho­sen art form. Trea­sure Planet, the team’s lat­est 2-D an­i­ma­tion, had cost a for­tune and looked very creaky when set be­side dig­i­tally an­i­mated Pixar fea­tures such as Toy Story 2 and Mon­sters Inc. Sure enough, the pic­ture flopped and pun­dits de­clared that John Las­seter, the Pixar supremo, had made hand­drawn an­i­ma­tion as re­dun­dant as tableaux vi­vant.

Iron­i­cally, it is Las­seter him­self who is now re­spon­si­ble for re­viv­ing the form. When he took over as head of an­i­ma­tion at Dis­ney, the great man, an avowed en­thu­si­ast for old­school car­toons, in­sisted that the stu­dio’s artists re­turn to pen, ink and sketch­pad.

“Yes. John is the only man who had the clout to make this hap­pen,” Musker says. “And it re­ally is hand-drawn. We ac­tu­ally sketched out all the char­ac­ters first. Some work is done on in a pa­per­less en­vi­ron­ment, but an an­i­ma­tor is still hold­ing a sty­lus in his hand.”

It is not strictly true to say – as so many have – that The Princess and the Frog is the first 2-D Dis­ney an­i­ma­tion to make it into cin­e­mas since 2004’s (rather good) Home on the Range. A few low-bud­get se­quels, such as Pooh’s Hef­falump Movie, were put be­fore kids at half-term. But it is cer­tainly the first pres­tige 2-D fea­ture to sail un­der the Dis­ney stan­dard in half a decade.

It proves to be a de­light. Fo­cus­ing on Tiana, an African-Amer­i­can girl in jazz-age New Orleans, as she copes with be­ing trans­formed into a frog, the pic­ture is firmly in the tra­di­tion of clas­sic Dis­ney fairy tales such as Cin­derella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In re­cent years, with mis­fires such as Chicken Lit­tle and Meet the Robin­sons, Dis­ney seemed to have lost its way. It is the dig­i­tal boffins who brought them back to ba­sics.

“In 2006, Dis­ney bought Pixar,” Cle­ments says. “I have to say that we didn’t see that com­ing. It turned out to be a good thing. Be­fore Dis­ney bought Pixar – when they were just part­ners – they were ner­vous and per­haps tried to be Pixar them­selves.”

So he is say­ing that Dis­ney, afraid Pixar might spin-off and be­come a di­rect com­peti­tor, was at­tempt­ing to de­velop an un­com­fort­ably sim­i­lar shadow stu­dio? When the Mouse House ac­tu­ally bought Pixar, they were free to be them­selves again.

“We orig­i­nally worked for Jef­frey Katzen­berg,” Musker says, re­fer­ring to the no­to­ri­ously en­er­getic for­mer Dis­ney chair­man. “And that was hec­tic. But John Las­seter is a film-maker. You ac­tu­ally get good story notes from him. When he took over at Dis­ney, he re­ally wanted to em­brace all that Dis­ney meant. Dis­ney had lost a sense of it­self. A num­ber of peo­ple there said we just couldn’t do a sin­cere fairy tale in a post-Shrek world. John knew that could work.”

Musker and Cle­ments have, in­deed, de­liv­ered a sin­cere fairy story that avoids smart-alec, post­mod­ern gags and self-ref­er­en­tial snark. Yet there are in­no­va­tions here. It has not gone un­no­ticed that The Princess and the Frog fea­tures the first-ever African-Amer­i­can pro­tag­o­nist in a Dis­ney car­toon. It’s hard to avoid the as­sump­tion that this was a con­scious choice.

“No. I’m afraid it re­ally was spon­ta­neous,” Cle­ments says. “Our first idea was to set it in New Orleans and then the idea de­vel­oped from that. We cer­tainly weren’t chas­ing a par­tic­u­lar de­mo­graphic or any­thing.”

In­evitably, there have been con­tro­ver­sies. Word got out that the prince who falls for the heroine was white. Then it was put about that, though orig­i­nally Cau­casian, the char­ac­ter had been dark­ened to pacify pro­test­ers.

“There was so much mis­in­for­ma­tion,” Cle­ments laughs. “An im­age got out of the prince with lighter skin. That was just be­cause it was a bad im­age. Then there was a story that we changed her name from Maddy to Tiana be­cause Maddy sounded like a slave name. I’m afraid none of that was true.”

One can un­der­stand why Dis­ney might be a lit­tle ner­vous about racial is­sues. This is, af­ter all, the stu­dio that tried to make slav­ery charm­ing in Song of the South.

“We did con­sult Oprah Win­frey about the story,” Musker says. “We had a long talk and she gave us some very use­ful notes. In the end she wanted to do a voice and we were happy for her to voice Tiana’s mother.”

Fair enough. Some pun­ters will, how­ever, won­der at the un­con­vinc­ingly har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ships be­tween rich white folk and poor black peo­ple in the pic­ture. The film is set a long, long time be­fore the civil rights move­ment. “Look. We didn’t want kids to get their first ex­pe­ri­ence of racism from a film like this,” Musker says. “That would not have been right. But it is also true that New Orleans was one of the most in­te­grated parts of the US at the time. It’s fair to re­flect that.” He makes a rea­son­able point. No­body wants a ser­mon from a Dis­ney car­toon. They want un­com­pli­cated charm and the new film de­liv­ers.

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