The Princess and the Frog

December 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David
Directed by: Ron Clements (“Aladdin”) and John Musker (“Aladdin”)
Written by: Ron Clements (“The Little Mermaid”), John Musker (“The Little Mermaid”), Rob Edwards (“Treasure Planet”)

After five years, Walt Disney Animation – with the release of its newest picture “The Princess and the Frog” – has returned to the hand-drawn aesthetic that made the studio so popular in the late 80s and early 90s with films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”

“Home on the Range,” which was released theatrically in 2004, was the last 2-D film to come out of the Mouse House before Disney went on to make three straight computer-generated animations (“Chicken Little,” “Meet the Robinsons,” and “Bolt”). During this time, Disney also acquired Pixar Studios, who has been the clear leader in CGI animation since releasing “Toy Story” in 1995.

Now, with “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney returns to its roots to prove that 2-D animation is still a viable medium in the ever-changing animation industry. While there is much to be admired in the jazzy throwback, it seems like the animation studio has taken its idea to recreate a new “classic” too literally. Surprisingly, “The Princess and the Frog” is less of a storybook fairytale as it is a textbook exercise to recapture Disney’s most recent glory days.

Set on a vividly-drawn backdrop of New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1920s, the Broadway-style musical is adapted from the Grimm brother’s 19th century fairytale “The Frog Prince.” It tells the story of Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a hardworking waitress who hopes to one day realize the dream of her father and run her very own restaurant.

When the easygoing Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), who has been transformed into a slippery little frog by the voodoo-practicing Dr. Facilier (Keith David), mistakes Tiana for a princess and begs her for a kiss so he can turn back into his human form, things go terribly wrong. Instead of a happily-ever-after ending like in the original story, Tiana is changed into a frog, too.

With not a moment to lose, the amphibious Tiana and Prince Naveen plunge into the New Orleans bayous to search for a voodoo woman known as Madame Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who may be able to help them become human again. They team up with Louis (Michel-Leon Wooley), a jumbo trumpet-playing alligator and a Cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings), to help them get through the swamp’s dangerous twists and turns.

While much of the buzz behind “The Princess and the Frog” is based on the fact that this is Disney’s first African-American princess, we won’t play the race card here. It doesn’t really matter that Tiana is black or that she spends most of the film as a frog or that Disney decided to make Prince Naveen’s ethnicity ambiguous (he’s from the fictional country of Maldonia and has a Spanish accent). Either way, the characters suffer from an all too traditional script (how many stars can Disney wish upon?) that relies on its flashy setting and a few enjoyable songs by Randy Newman to be the driving force in a story that lacks the same type of magic of its predecessors.

“The Princess and the Frog” may be groundbreaking from a cultural aspect, but not every charming idea put on paper makes for a completely memorable adventure.

Anika Noni Rose – The Princess and the Frog

December 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Interviews

While it might be easy enough to put on a pair of fancy shoes, a ruffled dress and a shiny gold crown, actress Anika Noni Rose says there is a lot more to being a princess than an extravagant outer appearance.

“It’s not about the jewels or the castles, it’s about your state of being,” said Rose, 37, during an interview with me this past week. “You can have all the beautiful and fun stuff that goes along with being a princess, but there’s behavior that goes with that.”

In “The Princess and the Frog,” Rose, who is a Tony Award-winning singer and actress, helps prove how well-rounded a princess must be when she lends her voice to Tiana, the first African American princess in the history of Walt Disney. In the film, Tiana is a waitress living in 1920s New Orleans who is working hard to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant. When she is magically transformed into a frog, she is must find a way to break the spell with the help of a suave frog prince, jazz-loving alligator, and friendly firefly.

Before “Frog,” Rose had her breakout film performance in the 2006 musical “Dreamgirls” In the film she sings alongside Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Hudson as Lorrell Robinson, one-third of the Motown ensemble loosely based on the Supremes.

During our interview, Rose talked about how race doesn’t necessarily play a part in new animated film and whether or not she anticipates taking on any more responsibility on black issues now that she is the voice behind this groundbreaking character.

It’s no secret there were a couple of other actresses out there campaigning for this role. Was that something on your mind when you were auditioning?

I didn’t really think about who else was coming in for the part. I auditioned three times. I really, really wanted it and just put the work in. I wasn’t thinking about anyone else. It was just me against me.

Why do you think this was such a highly-desired role?

There were a lot of firsts in this movie – the first hand-drawn princess in 20 years; she is the first black princess; I am the first actress to sing the part and voice the part, which is sort of my own personal triumph. A lot of us have been waiting a long time for this princess to come along. It only makes sense for people to be excited and thrilled and to come out and try to be a part of it.

A lot of people are focusing on the fact that this is Disney’s first black princess, but do you really see race as an issue in this story?

In the story it’s not an essential part of what going on. It’s not a story about a girl and her blackness. It’s a story that happens to have a black girl at the center of it. It’s not a story about race; it’s a story about a young brown girl living her life. I think that is what is important. It’s not something that is exclusive. It is a very universal story. There is importance to the fact that a lot of us have been waiting for this character and to have her as part of the Disney princess world. It’s interesting because when you talk about young children, they are just happy to have a princess. This is the first princess they know on the big screen. That’s a good thing. We are such a mixed society right now. Our neighbors, cousins, sisters, and friends are all different colors and from different backgrounds.

Growing up, were you able to identify with anything you saw on television or in the movies?

I absolutely loved Disney animation. I loved the fantasy and the beauty of it all. When you think of those old animated films like “Bambi” and “Lady and the Tramp” they are so gorgeous. But when I was young, I was a big reader. The story was on the page, but the pictures were made by me in my mind.

What were your initial thoughts when you saw the first drawings of Tiana even before the movie went into full production?

I was thrilled when I first saw Tiana. Even when I saw her in pencil I was excited. When I saw her fully colorized it was mind-blowing. I had no idea she was going to look so much like me. I was so honored by that. That wasn’t something they had to do. It wasn’t in my contract. (Laughs)

What are some of the similarities between you and Tiana that stood out to you?

I grew up in a small town. I decided I wanted to be a performer. There was no one in my town who had ever done that. There were lots of people around me saying that was impossible. But I had parents that told me, “Why not? Yes you can. Go for it.” I was very lucky to have that kind of support around me. I understand having that huge dream and having naysayers around you and working at it until you make it happen despite everything. I get that journey completely whether someone is trying to be a chef or a pilot or a librarian.

Which one of Randy Newman’s songs resonated with you the most that you performed for the film? What was it about that song that was special?

The one that resonated with me most strongly was “Almost There.” I think it’s a beautiful song, but not the usual song you would hear from a princess. She’s not yearning and wishing and wanting for something while thinking, “Oh, this is never going to happen! Why isn’t it happening? When is it going to happen?” She’s thinking, “This is my dream. I have put in the work. I see it coming. It’s at the tips of my fingers. I will soon have it in my grasp.” I think that is a really phenomenal message.

Now that you are the face of Disney’s first African American princess, do you feel like you have more of a responsibility as an African American woman if people start asking you questions about black issues?

I don’t know if people are going to feel like they need to do that or want to do that. Do I feel any more responsibility? No, not necessarily. I’m not the voice of black America. I don’t think you can generalize it like that. I think it would be dangerous to do so. I can only speak for me and my experiences in life. I think you have to be careful when we hold each other up so high as role models. We’re people. There’s going to come a time when I take a role that someone is not going to like. I’m an actress. This time I’m playing a princess, but the next time I might be playing the villain. That being said, if someone asks for my opinion, I can give it from my point of view.

What do you think about this whole Disney princess phenomenon when it comes to real life and how so many little girls are interested in living out these types of fairytales. Is that really a good thing for little girls to aspire to be?

I think so. I think every young girl deserves to feel like a princess in their lives. I think every young woman deserves a partner who displays princely behavior. I think every young man should expect lovely and ladylike behavior from their partner. It’s up to us as people molding these children to let them know that you’re a beautiful little princess regardless. And you’re a wonderful little prince regardless of your monetary stature or where you’re sitting in life right now because it’s what inside you that matters most.

Bruno Campos – The Princess and the Frog

December 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

After a yearlong search for their perfect prince for “The Princess and the Frog,” Walt Disney Studio found their man.

Actor Bruno Campos had never worked on an animated film before, but he was eager to lend his voice to the character of Prince Naveen, a charming and easygoing prince from the fictional country of Maldonia who is transformed into a frog by an evil voodoo doctor.

“As a voice performer in an animated film, everything was a complete surprise,” said Campos, who was born in Rio de Janiero before moving to the U.S. at the age of five. “All you see are a few drawings and a few clips. I had very little idea about what the other actors were doing. I didn’t even get a full script.”

Making “The Princess and the Frog” was a much different experience than Campos was used to since starting his acting career in 1995’s Oscar-nominated Brazilian film “O Quatrilho.” Campos, who studied drama at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, went on to star in a number of TV shows including “ER” and “Nip/Tuck.”

During our interview, Campos, 36, talked about his inspiration for his princely character and how important he feels race is in a story that features Disney’s first African American princess.

When Disney cast you as Prince Naveen, what did they tell you they were looking for in terms of the type of character they wanted?

The idea was a Cary Grant-ish type of character from this mythical kingdom. They wanted him have a young and fun spirit and wanted someone who was charming. That’s what I tried to give them with the scenes I read during the audition. They had been researching for a year for this role, so they knew exactly what they wanted.

You play Prince Naveen both when he is in human form and as a frog. Did you have to get into a different mindset when the look of the character changed or did it feel the same either way?

That’s kind of the key question for this character, actually. The answer is no because the comedy part of his character comes out when he changes from the charming, dashing prince into this slimy little frog. He has no notion of that. Through the whole film he feels like he’s still got it. That’s what makes him so fun and likeable. He’s stripped of everything, but his attitude and confidence remain. He also enjoys jumping around and eating flies. He sees it as a great adventure.

Was there anyone you thought of for inspiration for your character?

My dad. He was just a very funny man. He was very charming, outgoing, and loved telling stories. He was a little man with a little potbelly. He had this infectious wit and tenaciousness. He spoke English in this melodic way. I just imitated all of his rhythms.

So much has been focused on the racial aspect of “The Princess and the Frog.” Do you consider race an important part of this film?

I think people are going to approach it differently. The symbolism of this film is undoubtedly extraordinary and significant. At the same time, I think it should feel colorless. A lot of children will approach it that way. I think they are just going to love the story, music, and characters.

What makes Prince Naveen different from other Prince Charming-like characters of the past?

What’s fun about Naveen and different about him relative to past princes is that he’s not a perfect man who shows up at the end of the film and gives the princess a kiss and whisks her away to this kingdom. He has his own issues. He’s running away from expectations that have been placed upon him. He would love to do nothing more than escape into the streets of New Orleans and be a part of the great jazz revolution that was occurring in the 20s. He learns from Tiana a way of life he doesn’t have too much experience in.

What kinds of cartoon did you watch growing up in Brazil?

I liked the Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny and MGM cartoons like “Tom & Jerry.” I remember my first experience watching an animated film was with Disney’s “Robin Hood.” I remember that moment where Robin Hood jumps off the tower and it goes up in flames. For a moment I forgot it was animated. As a kid I was desperately wondering if he was alive or not. Of course, he pops out of the water. All those cartoons, for me, captured this fantasy and exaggerated emotionality that could be carried around forever. It reaches you in a way real life does not.

Maria Gonzalez – The Princess and the Frog

December 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

While it only started as a summer job for Maria Gonzalez when she was a teenager, animation soon became her true passion in life.

Gonzalez, who moved to the U.S. from Madrid, Spain with her family at the age of seven, actually wanted to become an orthopedic surgeon. Her father, who worked as an animator, helped get her a position painting cels while she was still in high school.

“It’s funny because there are four kids in my family and we all seem to have inherited some kind of artistic inclination,” Gonzalez told me during a phone interview. “But I really liked medicine and wanted to be a doctor.”

Gonzalez continued her animation work while she studied biology at Cal State Northridge. When she earned her undergraduate degree, she decided she was enjoying animation too much to let it go and pursue a full-time career in medicine.

In 1989, Gonzalez joined the Walt Disney team for her very first full-length feature animated film, “Oliver and Company.” Since then, she has worked with Disney on different occasions over her 20-year animation career including on movies such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Pocahontas,” and “Hercules.”

Most recently, Gonzalez returned to Disney after five years to lead the animation team in charge of color styling and compositing for the new film “The Princess and the Frog.” This is Disney’s first 2-D hand-drawn animated film since 2004’s “Home on the Range,” which Gonzalez also contributed.

During our interview, Gonzalez talked about what her role as the Head of Color Styling and Compositing entails and why she thinks there is still room for 2-D animation in a medium dominated by computer-generated films.

What does it mean to be the Head of Color Styling and Compositing?

We get all the final color elements for the backgrounds and characters and do lighting for them and merge them all together so they can be in the same world. We work very closely with the art directors to set up the scenes.

How many people were on your team?

I had a crew of 10 stylists. Some of the people I had worked previously with at Disney.

What kinds of cartoons would you watch in Madrid before you came to the U.S.?

We used to watch “The Flintstones” a lot. When I first arrived to America and I saw the show I didn’t like the voices [in English] because they didn’t seem like the right ones to me. Fred wasn’t talking like Fred. I’ve always enjoyed the Disney classics, too. I saw “Snow White” and “Bambi” when I was a little kid. The first time I saw “Mary Poppins” it was in Spanish.

This is Disney’s first 2-D feature film in five years. Do you still think this type of animation can compete with 3-D?

I’ve always believed there is room for both. It’s such a different medium. What you can achieve with 2-D is very difficult to achieve with 3-D. The way we generate the artwork and what we do with it is just very different from 3-D. I think you can tell compelling stories with both. It was very exciting for me to come back to Disney and bring my experience. I had worked with these directors [Ron Clements and John Musker] before and really enjoyed the process. What I do is a blend of artistic and technical work. Technically, what I do is not very different from 3-D when it comes to lighting.

A lot of emphasis has been put on the fact that this is the first African American princess in Disney’s history. As an animator, did you think about how groundbreaking that was during your work?

It was very exciting, but to me it’s about the entire story and how it evolved more so than focusing on the heritage of the heroine. I just thought it was very clever how everyone put the whole story together and how all the characters interacted with each other.

As someone with a Spanish background, were there any animated characters that you could relate to as a child?

Thinking back, I identified with Snow White a lot because she had dark hair. I would say you could identify with any of the [Disney] princesses, if allow yourself to get caught up in their story. I never thought about how blond and white they were. All little girls identified with wanting to find Prince Charming.