The Princess and the Frog


The Princess and the Frog

For every princess, there must be a prince, frog or not.

(2009) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Terrance Howard, Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Jim Cummings, Bruno Campos, Randy Newman, Emeril Lagasse, Jennifer Cody, Peter Bartlett, Michael-Leon Wooley. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Once upon a time, all animation was hand drawn in a painstaking process that took years for each feature to be completed. However, computers not only made the process faster, allowing for more animated features to be created every year, those who were more programmers than artists created an onslaught of computer animation that had little soul and nothing much to recommend them while still doing great box office. The days of hand-drawn animation seemingly at an end, Disney shut down its pen and ink division and decided to go full time to computer animation. When their own in-house efforts yielded less-than-stellar results, Disney wound up buying Pixar (whose films they had distributed from the get-go) and installing their chief, John Lassiter, in charge of Disney’s entire animated division, including Pixar.

But Lassiter did a funny thing for a computer guy; he re-instated the traditional animation department, hiring back many of the animators who had been let go. Their first effort is this take on “The Frog Prince” only with a distaff sensibility.

Tiana (Rose) is a young waitress in jazz-age New Orleans with a dream. She wants to open up her own restaurant where she can serve up her daddy’s gumbo recipe, with just a dash of hot sauce. Her daddy (Howard) died in the Great War, leaving her and her momma (Winfrey) to care for each other. Tiana’s ditzy best friend, Charlotte LaBouff (Cody) and her doting dad (Goodman) are out to get Charlotte a prince, and when one drops in her lap, she’s ecstatic.

That Prince is Naveen (Campos) from the impoverished country of Moldonia. He needs to wed a rich lady to help restore the empty coffers of the Moldonian treasury but quite frankly, Naveen is more interested in playing music and letting Le Bon Tomps Roullez in the French Quarter. He also attracts the attention of the evil and nefarious Dr. Facillier (David) a.k.a. the Shadow Man, who casts a voodoo spell on the Prince, turning him into a frog while his soul is transferred into the body of Naveen’s manservant/butler/attaché Lawrence (Bartlett) who would then hand over control of the money and Moldonia to the evil Doc.

In desperation, Naveen tries to find a princess to kiss him and restore him to his former shape, but mistakes Tiana, dressed up for the engagement party of her friend Charlotte, for a princess and the kiss only turns Tiana into a fellow amphibian. Chased by Dr. Facillier who needs the frog prince to refill his magical potion that keeps Lawrence in the form of Naveen, Tiana and Naveen head to the swamp where they meet up with allies of their own; the practical firefly Ray (Cummings), the trumpet-playing crocodile Louis (Wooley) and his buddies (Lagasse, Newman) as well as Mama Odie (Lewis), a voodoo priestess who perhaps alone can reverse the curse of Dr. Facillier.

Is this a return to the form that saw Disney create classic after classic in the 90s? Yes and no. While this doesn’t quite measure up to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, it’s much better than recent attempts such as Home on the Range or Brother Bear. As a matter of fact, while it doesn’t hit the high notes that Pixar’s movies tend to, it’s still a pretty solid effort.

Rose makes for a feisty princess, the kind that Disney can easily market not only to young African American girls but to the legions of princess-happy tots whose parents deposit hundreds of millions of dollars into Disney’s coffers. The cast has a great deal of energy, particularly Cummings, Cody and Wooley, and the movie barrels along at a jolly pace.

The New Orleans locale is inspired, albeit this is something of a fantasy Big Easy, but it’s recognizable nonetheless. New Orleans is the kind of city that has enough mystery and romance that other cities can only hope for; only New York and San Francisco among American cities have the kind of cachet that the Crescent City possesses, and the jazz age New Orleans is something special again.

There are some passable musical numbers but oddly enough, many of them bring the movie to a grinding halt as the characters go into a song and dance routine that temporarily halts the story’s progression. Personally, I might have cut two or three of the numbers, but I might be in the minority on this one; certainly kids will love the brassy, jazzy music that has a touch of modern hip-hop, gospel and even rock and roll on the edge. This isn’t your mommy and daddy’s Disney.

And yet, in a very real way, it is. This is very much the kind of movie that Disney was making ten years ago to great success and had it been released then, it might well be considered a classic on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid. Even so, it is better than most of the Disney releases before and after that incredible run in the last decade, and marks a welcome return of an art form that was certainly on the endangered list. For that accomplishment alone, regardless of the social implications of an African-American princess (which are certainly important in their own right), this movie deserves a respectful audience, who will be rewarded with a rollicking good time.

WHY RENT THIS: The first hand-drawn Disney animation in six years is worth celebrating; it is also a return to form for an artform that has widely lost its luster with the explosion of computer animation which Pixar helped usher in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Two many musical numbers stops the films momentum dead in its tracks from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences – c’mon, it’s DISNEY, you know.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is this the first Disney film to feature an African-American princess, it is the first to feature a left-handed princess (Rose is also left-handed and she requested that the animators make her character the same).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes featurettes on the history of Disney Princesses and how the newest one fits in. There is also an interactive game for the kids, as well as a music video of Ne-Yo’s “Never Knew I Needed You.” All in all, chock full of goodies as is the way Disney normally does things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $267M on a production budget of $105M; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Morning Glory

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Drag Me to Hell


Drag Me to Hell

This isn't exactly the girl-on-girl action I had in mind.

(Universal) Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Jessica Lucas, David Paymer, Dileep Rao, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee. Directed by Sam Raimi

Director Sam Raimi made his bones, so to speak, in the horror genre. His Evil Dead trilogy still remains today a classic of the genre, hallmarks of Raimi’s patented horror-with-laughs style. After doing Army of Darkness, the last of the trilogy, Raimi moved on to doing the Spider-Man movies as well as a couple of other non-horror movies, but the genre has never been far from his heart – his Ghost House Pictures production shingle has been responsible for such fare as The Messengers, 30 Days of Night and The Grudge trilogy.

Now he makes his return to the genre as a director with this nifty little film. Christine Brown (Lohman), a sweet, mousy blonde, is gunning for a promotion at the bank where she works. If it were given on competence alone, she’d be a lock but the slimy, smarmy Stu Rubin (Lee) is undercutting her and looks to have the promotion sewn up. Her boss, Mr. Jacks (Paymer) tells her that she needs to be making tougher decisions.

She puts this into practice when Mrs. Ganush (Raver) comes to her desk, begging for an extension on the third mortgage for her house. Christine is inclined to give it to her – she doesn’t have the stomach for throwing an old woman out into the street – but she reeeally wants that promotion so she turns her down, even when Mrs. Ganush gets down on her knees.

Christine has forgotten one of the basic rules of horror movies – never humiliate a gypsy. Has she learned nothing from Stephen King? Apparently not, so she reaps the consequences and hideous they are. Mrs. Ganush levels a curse on her that gives her three days before a demon drags her soul straight to H-E-double hockey sticks.

Before she gets there, however, she will go through all manner of being terrorized and grossed out, having all sorts of bodily fluids vomited onto her by the demonic Mrs. Ganush and her minions. Her incredulous boyfriend Clay Dalton (Long) thinks she’s out of her mind at first, but is supportive nonetheless – and as unexplainable things begin to pile up he too becomes a believer, sorta kinda.

She’s not alone in her fight, however; Indian spiritualist Rham Jas (Rao) helps her figure out what’s going on, and takes her to see legitimate psychic Shaun San Dena (Barraza) who fought one of these curses once before and lost, so is eager to redeem herself. It won’t be easy though, and with every possibility exhausted, there remains one last desperate hope for Christine, one that involves doing something terrible.

Most horror movies these days are either remakes of iconic franchises from the ‘70s and ‘80s, remakes of far superior Asian films, or the kind of torture porn of the Saw and Hostel series. It’s refreshing to see a good horror movie that has some great scares to it, a reasonably original premise and is a great ride to boot. Raimi hasn’t forgotten his skills as a genre director and has added to it the experience of making big-budget mega-effects driven movies, which help him increase the scope of his vision here.

Lohman has had something of a checkered career as an actress, but here she nails it. Her character doesn’t necessarily lack a moral compass in that she knows the right thing to do; she just doesn’t have the backbone to follow it. That makes her far more human than either a complete saint or an utter bitch might in that role.

Raver makes this a career highlight reel; she is astonishing as the old woman and after a career of soap operas and TV show guest appearances, she gets the kind of role finally that really lets her cut loose, even if you can barely recognize her under all the make-up. She takes a standard gypsy character and turns her into one of the most frightening movie characters of the last decade; it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they bring her back to curse other people in sequels to this if Raimi decides to make one.

While the rest of the cast is solid, kudos should be directed at Rao who turns his charlatan psychic which was meant to serve as a plot explainer into an integral part of the movie’s success. It’s not strictly comic relief, but suffice to work that he works similarly to what the Suresh character does in the “Heroes” TV show.

There are plenty of scares here and not all of them are the artificially manufactured kind, either – you know, the ones with the jumpy soundtrack, loud crashing noises and cats jumping out of dark spaces. Nope, this is a movie where the scares are earned, and the laughs that follow them legitimate. While the movie didn’t do gangbusters at the box office (only raking in $40 million domestically), it was so cheaply produced that it turned a tidy profit so the powers that be at Universal may be amenable to sequels, even though the movie doesn’t really seem to promise one.

For my part, I’ve found the American horror movie in something of a rut in the 21st century for all the reasons outlined above. While some terrific horror movies have come from places like Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and England, there have been very few to come from the States and there is something galling about that. Fortunately here comes Sam Raimi to deliver a movie that shows you why few movies can scare the bejeezus from you like an American horror movie can.

WHY RENT THIS: This might just be the best horror movie so far of the 21st century. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Christine is so ditzy and spineless at times it’s hard to really feel sympathy for her. The ending was a bit of a disappointment.

FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty scary, gang. Seriously, unless your kids don’t ever have nightmares, think twice about letting them see this – some of the imagery is really, really intense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Sam Raimi in which actor Bruce Campbell didn’t appear (he was busy with his television show “Burn Notice”).  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While the DVD and Blu-Ray covers trumpet that this is an unrated version, the difference between this and the theatrical release is a single scene; the unrated version is actually nine seconds shorter in total than the theatrical version. 

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Charlie St. Cloud

Clash of the Titans (1981)


Clash of the Titans (1981)

Calibos is bummed that he couldn't get tickets for the Duran Duran concert.

(MGM) Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Jack Gwillim, Burgess Meredith, Susan Fleetwood, Sian Phillips, Tim Piggott-Smith, Flora Robson, Neil McCarthy, Donald Houston. Directed by Desmond Davis

Among sci-fi and fantasy film geeks the name Ray Harryhausen is spoken in a reverent whisper. He was the stop-motion special effects guru responsible for such films as Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C. and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He worked with the great director George Pal on Mighty Joe Young and brought to life the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The last film he worked on as an active special effects producer was this one.

Zeus (Olivier) is plenty peeved at King Acrisius (Houston) who is attempting to drown his daughter Danae and her infant son Perseus. It has been foretold that Acrisius would die if Danae would give birth to a son. In addition, she had the child out of wedlock, a big no-no in ancient society. However, unbeknownst to Acrisius Zeus himself is the father and as we all know it’s generally a bad idea to piss off a Greek God. Zeus orders Poseidon to unleash the Kraken, a Titan with a very nasty temper held captive by the Gods to be used to do their dirty work. The Kraken levels the King’s city and Zeus himself punches Acrisius’ ticket to the underworld, ironically fulfilling the prophecy that he was trying to avoid. Karma is a mean mo-fo and you just can’t get away from it.

Zeus arranges for mother and son to wash up on gentler shores, but things aren’t going to go much better for the two there. Hera (Bloom), the wife of Zeus, is pretty hacked off that her husband’s been stepping out on her and, now wanting to suffer the wrath of her husband, decides to take things out on Danae and her son.

Some years later infant Perseus is now strapping young man Perseus (Hamlin). In order to make a name for himself he must return home to Joppa whose Queen Cassiopeia (Phillips) has pledged her comely daughter Andromeda (Bowker) to Calibos (McCarthy), the son of the goddess Thetis (Smith). Once a handsome prince, he has been cursed by the gods to become a hideous misshapen grotesque. In order to secure his prize, he sends a prehistoric bird to fetch Andromeda’s soul in a gilded cage. To win Andromeda, Perseus must combat Calibos and solve a riddle posed by Cassiopeia herself or risk immediate execution. Love was sure tough back in the day.

In order to follow the bird to combat Calibos, he needs a flying horse. The only one for the job is Pegasus, and Pegasus is being kept by the loathsome Medusa, a snake-headed monster whose gaze can turn a man to stone. Perseus lops off the head of the monster and uses Pegasus to fly to the lair of Calibos, whom he defeats in combat. Calibos, humiliated, pleads with the gods for justice; the angry Thetis warns Cassiopeia that the Kraken will be released on Joppa unless she sacrifices her daughter. Can Perseus, who has by now fallen deeply in love with the beautiful Andromeda, save the day?

Even in 1981, this was an old-fashioned movie. Many of Harryhausen’s aficionados consider this an inferior work, despite that he had the largest budget he ever worked with and the movie would be the biggest hit of his career. Still, it’s a throwback to the movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, relatively bloodless but entertaining. There is none of the gore that movies of the ‘80s were already awash in which may have worked against it. Despite the movie’s success, fanboys groused that the movie was too mild and boring.

Personally, I found such accusations immature and baseless. The movie is entertaining from start to finish, full of the kind of magic that first drew me to the movies to begin with. It has an absolutely dazzling cast, and some of them are having a grand old time. Olivier, in one of his last roles, still manages to command attention as Zeus; while his breathing is clearly labored (he suffered from pleurisy and a variety of respiratory ailments) he remains stentorian, a lion amongst lesser predators.

Hamlin, pre-“L.A. Law” is sufficiently callow and handsome. He makes a fine classical hero, and is matched very nicely to Bowker who sadly didn’t have the career afterwards that Hamlin did. The remainder of the veteran cast, from Meredith as a shabby poet to Andress a Aphrodite, elevate the proceedings above a typical “B” movie.

Still, the attraction back then was the fantastical creatures Harryhausen brought to life. Even in 1981, stop-motion animation was a bit of a dinosaur, as optical effects had taken over much as computer graphics have now. By today’s standards the effects are dated and a bit clumsy, but the care that went into them is easily apparent.

The recent Blu-Ray edition of the movie seems little more than a means of promotion for the remake. While the film has been cleaned up digitally somewhat, the effects shots remain grainy. Also, as Da Queen put it, there is a distinct smell of cheese throughout, particularly in the mechanical owl Bubo, who while Harryhausen claimed was conceived in the early 70s, still seems to be a sort of R2D2 by proxy.

The old master is still alive and will turn 90 this June 29. While the success of Clash of the Titans led to several offers, those films would never come to fruition; shortly after the release of Clash Harryhausen announced his retirement. He appears from time to time doing vocal work on animated features, or in retrospectives of his own work. Is Clash of the Titans his best work? I think it has some of his best work in it (the battle with Medusa for example) but it probably isn’t the best movie he ever made. Still in all, it’s the kind of movie they really don’t make any more, even back when it was made. It has a sweetness and charm to it that is all but lost to Hollywood, and was made by someone with the heart of a child. It is a reminder of an era and a storytelling style that is more or less extinct, but thanks to the magic of DVD and Blu-Ray we can still revel in it anytime we pop the disc into our player.

WHY RENT THIS: Clash has a place in cinematic history. It has the kind of fresh-faced energy that modern CGI films lack. The cast is amazing, considering the budget.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The look of the film is grainy even after the digital clean-up it received. There is a cheese factor that at times overwhelms the strength of the performances. Bubo the Mechanical Owl is clearly meant to appeal to the R2D2-obsessed kids on the block.

FAMILY VALUES: Very clean by modern standards; the monsters are for the most part not terribly scary compared to the computer-generated nasties of current cinema.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Kraken is not a beast from Greek mythology but rather from Scandinavia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 2002 interview with Harryhausen that comes from the original DVD release but surprisingly (considering the hugely hyped remake coming out shortly) little more.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Clash of the Titans (2010)