Monday, November 16, 2009

But where's the pop culture sass-talk in 3D?

Wall St. Journal has an interesting story on the labored process of bringing next month's The Princess and the Frog, Disney's bid to revive hand-drawn animated musicals, to the screen.

Frog is a gamble for the studio, not so much for the generally accepted "reason" that today's audiences only want computer-animated movies, but because Disney has hyped the film as the return to its early '90s heyday (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King are prominently featured in Frog's original trailer), and deviated from the standard Hollywood pattern in the way that they made the picture.

As the article reports, cel-animation workstations were recreated or hauled out of storage, and writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, Mermaid), who'd been laid off when Disney closed its traditional animation department, were rehired to make Frog. Additionally, news that the story was set in New Orleans, featuring a mainly African-American cast, was not received without controversy.

All of which sounds pretty risky for a studio not known for such behavior in recent years. No surprise that Pixar founder John Lasseter, who now also heads Disney Animation, is behind the bold moves. Pixar got to where it is by taking chances, and the Mouse House will have Lasseter to thank - or blame - for Princess and the Frog's performance at the box office.

The most important thing that Lasseter brings to Disney, though, may be his belief in the idea that story trumps everything else. In a veiled reference to Disney's relative lack of success in both hand-drawn and computer-animated fare over the past decade, WSJ quotes Lasseter as saying, "I've never understood why the studios were saying people don't want to see hand-drawn animation. What people don't want to watch is a bad movie." It's hard to believe that the average moviegoer sees a film based on what kind of animation methods it employs; whether or not the film's story is compelling and emotionally affecting is, generally, a much better gauge of why audiences connect with certain pictures.

Having said that, I trust Lasseter, and I'd like this foray back into hand-drawn animated features to do well, but I'm just not sold yet. The trailer is...a little boring and familiar:

But maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. On the plus side, Randy Newman wrote the songs, so it's got that going for it. Thoughts?

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