Disney Animation delivered a genuine surprise near Christmas of 2009 with The Princess and The Frog, a return to traditional animation that celebrated the culture of New Orleans in an adaptation of The Frog Prince. In the summer of 2010, Lee Unkrich completed Pixar’s first trilogy to near-universal praise with Toy Story 3, closing the chapter on Andy’s childhood and introducing us to the little girl the baton of imagination had been passed to. Later on around Thanksgiving, Disney scored big with Tangled, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale that perfected their house style of CGI animation and announced the Revival of the House of Mouse. We’re out of the doldrums with Disney at long last, while Pixar continues its unrivaled run of excellence.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Ron Clements and John Musker — the directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Treasure Planet — were enticed back to Disney by being offered the chance to helm the film the way they wanted, with either traditional or CG animation. They chose the former, making a musical comedy that updated an old fairy tale in a new setting — a classic Disney move. Instead of getting Alan Mencken they tapped Randy Newman for the music, and they combined two competing treatments of The Frog Prince that both Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Studios had been working on. They chose New Orleans as a setting for its unique American history, inherent magical qualities, and the fact that it was Lasseter’s favorite. Hey, a little playing to the judge never hurt anyone.
The film follows Tiana, a hard-working black woman who strives to carry on her father’s dream — a restaurant that would connect everyone in the neighborhood through good cooking. The problem is she’s so focused on getting enough money together to buy a place that she doesn’t have any time to actually connect with the people all around her. Prince Naveen of Maldonia is a carefree playboy who flits from good time to good time without being tied down either; his parents have threatened to cut him off from the family fortune unless he marries a good woman and settles down. The prince is transformed into a frog by the dastardly Doctor Facilier, an old-school voodoo man who then changes Naveen’s valet into the prince’s doppleganger so that they both can take power. The valet, according to the bargain, will finally get the respect he feels he’s owed; Facilier can finally pay back the dark spirits he owes souls in exchange for his power.
Tiana agrees to kiss Naveen only if he agrees to help her get her restaurant, but instead of helping him she’s changed into a frog instead! Now they’re stuck together with a few friendly swamp creatures, searching for another voodoo priest who can break the curse before the false Naveen can marry someone else and New Orleans is doomed. Along the way, both Naveen and Tiana learn the worth of bonding to the people around you and why community is such a special thing.
This is the first Disney movie to feature a Black princess, and it’s about damn time. Tiana, though, ends up taking a curious back seat to her own story; her character arc doesn’t quite drive the plot, and overcoming her flaw doesn’t allow her to make the choice that resolves the big complication. In a lot of ways, Tiana does just about everything right; she believes that while miracles CAN happen, good things generally happen through a lot of hard work. Everything she does is in service to a good end, and while she helps other people whenever she can, her disdain for the lazy Prince Naveen doesn’t necessarily cause her situation to be more complicated than it would be otherwise. It’s interesting to see how Tiana is not the hero of her own story, and that Naveen actually has the stronger arc; but then, that’s the point of The Frog Prince, right? It feels like Tiana is the main supporting character and we just happen to be in her POV.
Story problems aside, this is a really fun movie. The music is wonderfully lively and does a great job of advancing the story, adding emotional depth to the characters and celebrating the different styles of artistry there is down in New Orleans. The Princess and the Frog is black in a way that feels natural. Tiana has to work twice as hard just to have a shot at the things her best friend — a white socialite and daughter of a local businessman — takes for granted. Her best friend isn’t malicious or evil, just oblivious to her privilege and the effect of her life on the world around her. The villain — Doctor Facilier — works because he’s all about taking shortcuts; this makes a great foil for Tiana, but Prince Naveen is far more susceptible to his charms. The doctor also shows us all the different ways people justify taking those shortcuts for themselves, and his ultimate fate shows us what happens when the cost of those shortcuts come due.
The Princess and the Frog is a decent film that can’t shake the air of disappointment that hangs around it. For the first Disney film about a black Princess, you just wish it was…more. For the film that marks Disney’s return to traditional animation, you really want it to give us a reason to celebrate the art. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. It’s a well-crafted movie with a few character problems; given what the animation studio was climbing out of at the time, that’s a really solid result. Still, it would have been really nice to hit a home run with it.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Released 11 years after Toy Story 2 and a full 15 after Pixar’s first feature-length animated film, Toy Story 3 represents the end of an era for the animation studio. Like Andy, it had grown up admirably, ready to move on to its future as uncertain as it may be. Checking in with Woody, Buzz and the gang for one last adventure feels like an appropriate way to celebrate their progress and provide a bit of closure for these characters. Of course, it also helps that Toy Story 3 is a near-perfect movie that shows us how to move on without letting loss or change make us fearful and bitter.
On the eve of Andy going away to college, the toys are struggling to get him to notice them, much less play. Now that he’s moving out of the house, they’re faced with a pair of fairly unattractive options — either they’re about to be put in a box up in the attic or thrown out in the garbage. Obviously the attic is the more attractive option here, even though it makes them sad to think they’ll be collecting dust and going untouched for who knows how many years. A big misunderstanding leads most of the toys to think that Andy was going to throw them away, but Woody knows different; they were going to be put in the attic. Instead, they end up going to Sunnyside Day Care, which feels like a much better place. Kids will play with them until they age out of day care, when a whole new crop of kids will replace them!
While the rest of the toys try to make the best of their new situation, Woody is adamant about returning to Andy’s home and the attic. It’s soon discovered that the residents of Sunnyside are in something of a totalitarian society, with Lotso-Huggin’ Bear the dictator of the scene. Woody and pals have to escape, change the regime or learn to deal with an incredibly unpleasant situation.
What I love about this movie is how it uses personal experience and perspective to inform the choices we make about the kind of society we want. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, and it’s his belief that as toys they should do whatever their owner thinks is best — even if it’s not best for them. The other toys in Andy’s play room view their long relationship as something of a transaction that’s been completed; they’re sad that it’s over, obviously, but now it’s time to move on to what’s next. If they’re not needed by Andy any more, why not move on to someone who will need them? The Sunnyside toys remind me of revolutionaries after they’ve won; they may genuinely believe that they fought for equality and freedom, but after the dust has settled the policies in place are really geared towards them never having to be put in a position of subservience again. That fear of being controlled leads to the necessity of controlling others ruthlessly.
For a movie about sentient toys, the feeling of loss and death permeates Toy Story 3. Every character is dealing with it in some way, and it’s truly interesting watching how that struggles translates into action and interaction. The climax of the movie is a truly beautiful moment, as the toys of Andy’s playroom decide to deal with the situation in which they find themselves the only way they know how — together. The payoff for that scene is a wonderful affirmation of relatively minor characters in the other two movies, and comes the closest to advocating the worth of religious belief that I’ve ever seen in a Pixar movie.
Like Cars 2, Toy Story 3 plays with the rules of the universe in inventive ways that makes the world of toys that much more fun and that much more aggressively weird. Big Baby is straight-up nightmare fuel, and so is the musical monkey, and so is all the admittedly cool things they do with the Potato Head family. That kind of “adult” creativity, where the child-like spirit of play is infused with grown-up sensibilities, is my jam.
The epilogue is nearly pitch-perfect, but director Lee Unkrich goes for one last heartstring-tugging moment that deflates the whole affair. Still, even that overreach is forgivable; sending off Woody, Buzz and the gang is the one place where I think Pixar is allowed to be a little self-indulgent. Toy Story 3 is a great victory lap for Pixar that doubles as a celebration and affirmation for the animation studio as well as great final chapter for the story that originally made them.
This is perhaps my favorite modern Disney movie. Almost everything in Tangled works; the separate character arcs for Rapunzel and Flynn and how they lead to each other; the underlying moral beneath the challenge presented by the villainous Mother Gothel; the character design and animation, which feels like the culmination of Disney’s CG “house style”; all of the side characters, who are delightful one and all; the music and songs, which carry the emotional heartbeat of the film and also happen to be some of the best in a Disney musical ever. Tangled is so good it actually makes me annoyed that Frozen became the blockbuster success it did. I’m not knocking Elsa and her crew or anything, but Tangled is just streets ahead of Frozen in almost every possible way.
Rapunzel is the beneficiary of sun magic that saved her mother in childbirth. Stroking her hair and singing a song activates the magic and heals the recipient to the point that it practically reverses aging. Mother Gothel, a witch of fairly decent power, steals Rapunzel away from the King and Queen, traps her in a tower and emotionally manipulates her into never wanting to leave. Despite this, Rapunzel grows up into an amazing, curious, happy young woman who never stops dreaming about the wonders the world holds for her.
Flynn Rider is a two-bit thief on the run from the Crown’s guards for stealing the princess’ crown; unbeknownst to both him and Rapunzel he delivers it to the long-lost princess when he hides in her tower. In exchange for the crown’s safe return, Flynn must guide Rapunzel to the Festival of Lanterns, an event where the kingdom releases floating lanterns into the sky hoping that it will bring the lost princess back to them. On their trail, of course, are the Stabbington Bros — criminals that Flynn betrayed to take the crown for himself — and Maximus, one of the royal guard’s horses who is also a dashingly handsome, Lawful Good hero.
Rapunzel is one of the best Disney princesses ever. She is noble and good, but also an unmitigated geek who is unafraid about being open with her passions. She is not afraid to try something scary if it gets her closer to what she wants, and over the course of the film she comes to believe in her own strength and judgement. Her confrontation with Mother Gothel isn’t physical, but the screenplay from Dan Fogelman (creator of the excellent Galavant, by the way) does a stupendous job of making the emotional stakes high and clear. Her moral compass and easy vulnerability eventually shakes something loose within the cynical Flynn, catalyzing his own awakening into a hero who genuinely cares about other people. “I See The Light” is a perfect sequence, bringing the arcs of Rapunzel and Flynn together right in the perfect spot for the plot. It truly is a feat.
Maximus, the horse, even gets an arc that forces him to choose between his feverish adherence to the law and the clear need to break it in order to do the right thing. Gothel is such a wonderful and unique villain; instead of power or magic, she simply uses words to keep Rapunzel under her spell. She needs her adopted daughter far more than Rapunzel needs her, but in order to keep her from realizing that she subtly tries to sap the princess’ confidence at every turn. By getting Rapunzel to believe that the world is a cruel place she’s not capable enough to handle, she uses fear to turn people away from their better nature. She’s so ordinary, and she does what she does for clear and relatable reasons. But that makes her actions more despicable. We know people like her, and we see how they affect the people trapped in relationships with them all the time. What makes Rapunzel so admirable is not overcoming Gothel at the end; it’s being open and vulnerable despite the abuse she endured.
I had wondered how Tangled aged in the short time since it premiered, and if anything I’ve only come to like it more in the intervening years. It’s definitely a crown jewel in the Disney animated canon, and despite the oodles of praise and money it received during its theatrical run it’s curiously underrated.