Sunday, 7 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Reviews: The Princess And The Frog + Invictus

The Princess And The Frog

Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. This is the much-vaunted return, after six years, to hand-drawn animation from Walt Disney - and return it does. Gone is the era of trying to compete with hyperactive TV animation with the likes of Home On The Range and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, this rests comfortably in the hands of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid directors; Ron Clements and John Musker. It harks back to classic-era Disney and it is authentically, and pleasingly, old-fashioned.

Tiana is a downtrodden, but lively-of-spirit, waitress in 1920s New Orleans who, through a series of convoluted circumstances, ends up as a frog alongside a handsome prince with a similar plight. They set out to be restored to human form and along the way encounter all manner of stock Disney archetypes from buffoonish, jazz-obsessed alligator Louis (a reptilian Baloo) to bumbling poachers, Cajun fireflies and vulgar (by House of Mouse standards) Southern belles. Doctor Facilier makes a charismatic, lithe villain. His angular, skull-infused design is the film’s best and the innovative voodoo-inspired scenes he features in are the real highpoints. He hits the right balance between comical and wicked and his shadow mercenaries are novel and well-realised.

The voice cast (including John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey and Keith David) is Creoled to the hilt and über-Southern. It occasionally verges on a slightly troubling stereotype (especially in the earlier scenes) but it’s soon forgotten when the film makes the switch to anthropomorphic mode.

To call it a complete return to hand-drawn animation is slightly bending the truth. There’s still an annoying reliance on the short-cut CGI enhancements which blighted Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast. It’s particularly noticeable in the opening shot and any scene involving water, fire or light and it never quite seamlessly blends. I can’t help but think if they managed without it in the golden era (for me) of the 50s and 60s, why can’t they show the nerve to do so here? Other modern concessions are more successful such as the simplified, graphically stark dream sequence in Tiana’s restaurant.

Unlike many recent animations there’s little concession made to adults here. This is almost resolutely a children’s’ film. There is the odd knowing nod, such as an A Streetcar Named Desire reference, but it’s never smug. It’s lively, it’s bouncy and it moves along at a cracking pace. Of course it’s got the usual Disney message (in this case, ‘it’s not how you look and what you are but how you are and who you are’) but that’s part of the deal, right? The Randy Newman music is jaunty and jazzy and the musical numbers are tunefully penetrating while being scarce enough to avoid undermining the narrative.

It may not be ground-breaking but that’s exactly the point. I enjoyed it immensely and it proves, if nothing else, that there’s still a place for this kind of thing if it’s done well.



If ever a movie had ‘Oscar-bait’ imprinted through it, it’s this. Just the very idea of a unifying, message-driven sports movie is enough but with the added elements of Nelson Mandela and post-apartheid South Africa, it tips it over into the category of supreme worthiness. The concept of a nation united through sport is hoary to say the least but in this case it’s also a proven falsehood. Were I viewing this from a here-and-now standpoint of a racially integrated, problem-free South Africa it might have rung true. As it stands, it doesn’t, and it leaves the film with an offensive aftertaste. To mask it in the realms of ‘real life’ is bordering on fabulist. If the legacies of the film’s events could be proved true, then many of them were clearly short-lived and so still serve to rob the film of its significance.

It begins with a précis of Mandela’s release and election but cleverly avoids giving a ‘for beginners’ summation of apartheid. Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is facing the turmoil of being unable to unite his rainbow nation. The white South Africans are shown as mistrusting, while the black South Africans are portrayed as revelling in their new-found democratic abilities to wipe-out any indicators of their country’s recent past. This struggle is paralleled in the failing fortunes of the Springboks rugby team under the captaincy of François Pienaar (Matt Damon). They’ve been written-off by the media and their countrymen but the impending Rugby World Cup is seized upon by the President as a cause the entire nation can get behind.

Its over-simplification is its downfall. That’s not to say I didn’t perversely enjoy it for the well made, but inherently flawed, grandstanding hokum it was. The last thing I could do was take it seriously. It’s a blunt tool used to hammer a message home when surely something smaller-scale would have delivered the point more subtly. It’s best in the quieter, head-to-head, dialogue-driven scenes which intermittently appear among the plot-furthering and scene-setting grandeur.

Where it fails most frequently, as in most ‘real-life’ flicks, are the tortuous dramatically-weighted ‘magnificent’ scenes which litter the trailers. Pienaar’s post-meeting exclamation of “I think he wants us to win the World Cup” even comes with a punctuated pause for the resonance to sink in before cutting to a new scene. It’s these earnest beats throughout the film which do it the most harm, especially when coupled with an over-literal, almost parodical, schmaltzy ballad. In some of the films most awkward scenes, Mandela’s multi-ethnic team of bodyguards serve as a supposed microcosm of the country as a whole; initially apprehensive of each other but bonding through respect for their inspirational charge and new-found regard for rugby. A similarly cloying visit to the site of Mandela’s incarceration at Robben Island is both unnecessary and disruptive.

The lead performances are generally fine, if unspectacular. More attention appears to have been paid to mastering the notoriously difficult clipped South African accent and English-speaking Xhosa than giving any real spark to the performances. The main problem with Freeman’s Mandela is that it’s almost a role he’s too right for. As a result of previous contemplative mentor roles, Freeman has almost been ascribed the same gravitas and dignity as an actor as to Mandela himself. This status given to the actor allows the film to paper over many of the cracks in both the performance and occasionally-wavering accent. Subtle prosthetics are employed to lend more credence to the look of the actors but do nothing to make up for any discrepancy in Damon’s physical stature (highlighted in a cheeky “he looks taller on television” dig). Freeman has Mandela’s shambling, aged gait down-pat and the film goes to great lengths to point out his human frailty. It makes a piecemeal attempt to point out that he’s a man, not the saint he’s often perceived as, but never has the courage to delve into this any deeper.

The rugby scenes are surprisingly unspectacular, only once resorting to the slow-mo excess you would normally expect. Although the final act introduction of Jonah Lomu as a villainous figure attempts to give the sport an unneeded glamourous sheen. Scant regard is given to shoehorning in an explanation of the rules for a generally rugby-unfamiliar US audience, which is a pleasant surprise. The odd exception does creep though. Witness a ‘teach the basics’ coaching session for underprivileged children and a stark piece of exposition in its description of the All Blacks’ haka.

The central message of the film is that greatness is achieved by taking into account the “human calculation”, as opposed to political ones. It’s a nice message, but a simplistic one – much like the film itself. However, I can’t fault the fact it is at least (dishonestly) rousing. It musters a bare pass-mark largely due to Clint Eastwood’s solid direction but there are better, and less Oscar-begging, awards contenders out there.

(Barely scraped) 3/5

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