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 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.