Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Princess and the Coelacanth: Back to the Future

Sitting in front of Avatar (or, even, sitting ‘within’ it), goggles strapped on, the IMAX screen yawning open 50 feet away like the Stargate, was quite a memorable end to the cinematic decade. After 10 years of Hollywood becoming a grim sequel factory, here was an industrially-produced film with no pre-release recognition, and an original storyline (pace Poul Anderson). Its subsequent rise to the Most Successful Film Of All Time seemed inevitable, but justified: the film was doing something far beyond the norm.

The most intriguing thing, however, was the manner in which it delivered this ‘new’ experience. The audience was deliberately allied with Corporal Jake Sully (as we sit immobile in our cinema seats, he in his wheelchair), trapped in a grey almost-2D world. But then, he slipped into his headset-Avatar-wire-getup, just as we'd slipped into our goggles, and we escaped away with him into the gloriously eye-popping dreamworld of PANDORA, a 3D paradise. No other film has so self-consciously dramatized the transition between two cinematic media since (at least) 1939, when Victor Fleming swept Dorothy out of monochromatic Kansas, and into the Technicolor land of Oz. Dorothy Gale and Jake Sully are two classic audience surrogates, holding our hands as we enter a new world.

This transition towards the ‘New World’ of cinema has been apparent for some time. And nowhere more so than in the North American animation industry: ever since the release of Toy Story in 1995, 3D CGI has been leading cartoon audiences away from cel-animated flops such as The Emperor’s New Groove, and Treasure Planet, and into endless franchises, such as the infamous Shrek. The gloomy situation was summed up by Guy Adams, in The Independent:

By 2006, Hollywood, the birthplace of Mickey Mouse, hadn't a single hand-drawn department left. Some of their former employees were simply sacked; others retrained in the new-fangled computer technology. Thousands of creative careers hit the scrapheap. An entire art form seemed to be heading for extinction.”

John Musker tells Adams “they even decided to scrap the desks we'd worked on, and throw away the paper that we used to sketch”, at which his co-director Ron Clements points out that animation has always been a “craft passed on from generation to generation. [My] apprenticeship was under Frank Thomas, one of Walt's 'nine old men’. If we'd left things idle for too long, connections like that would have disappeared. I'm not sure we'd have ever got them back.” Clements, once apprenticed to the man behind the ‘pink elephants on parade’ in Dumbo, appears here stranded in a wilderness of scrap-paper, as Avatar, a 3D goliath, stomps onstage to conclude short process of extinction, just as The Wizard of Oz once did for black-and-white.

Yet on Friday February 5th, a new Disney film was released in the UK. It is resolutely 2D, and has been created by the greats of lo-fi yesteryear (Musker and Clements, with their ‘sacked thousands’), painstakingly reinstated by John Lasseter, the former head of Pixar. This is an act of humility, but also of historical reverence: The Princess and the Frog is set at the exact time that Walt Disney founded his first animation studio: on October 16th 1923. The film is locked into a very deliberate historical age and place… not the ‘fairytale’ no-time of Snow White, but a segregated South, an uneasy world in which our African-American heroine is first glimpsed sitting at the back of a bus, with her mother.

Musker and Clements take advantage of this historical setting, the most precise of any Disney film to date, and range through the music and culture of the Jazz-Age South. Instead of the glib pop-culture references throughout Dreamworks’ Shrek and Shark Tale, we first meet Louis the Alligator as he plays the opening of his namesake Armstrong’s 1923 hit ‘Dippermouth Blues. These characters are moving through a New Orleans painted according to Tennessee Williams (with a character called ‘Big Daddy’ calling for his ‘Stella’, and an alligator named after Marlon Brando), huddled beneath a star named for Longfellow’s Cajun ‘Evangeline’ (the titular character in a poem dating from 1847). Running throughout, Randy Newman’s music is – at last – relevant, the biting satire and New Orleans detail of his solo work employed in a far more meaningful way than in Toy Story’s pleasantries (‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’).

This precise and ambitious framework, ranging from Longfellow to Williams, through literature and music, underlines the directors’ awareness of cultural context, and emphasises the boldness of their choice of a segregated world (with its glimpses of undercover-drinking during prohibition) for the first African-American leading character in the ‘Disneyverse’ since 1942’s Song of the South. As Guy Adams notes: “away from the White House, America has rarely seen a more potent symbol of change in recent times than Tiana.” She is a princess of the future, a feminist, far more self-reliant and able than the prince: a heroine it is possible (for once) to believe in.

Perhaps as surprising as all of these up-to-date cultural/political signals, however, are the constant references by Musker/Clement to the history of their own ‘extinct’ art form, references that dominate the film from its opening sequence, in which the young Lottie’s shelf is seen to boast figurines of Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’. These scenes are set in the pre-WWI era (prior to Walt’s earliest dream of owning Laugh-O-Gram Studios), yet our heroine already has dolls relating to films released during the height of the Cold War.

The Princess and the Frog is, in fact, a painstakingly reconstructed work of prophecy, a vision of the entire legacy of the hand-animated film, set in the year that Disney was working on his first masterpiece, Steamboat Willie (glimpsed in the opening logo, newly designed by Lasseter). Just minutes into the film, with Lottie’s dolls, it is apparent that we are watching a work of careful anachronism, as deliberate (and as strange) as the use of Wagner’s Rheingold in Terrence Malick’s ‘New World’ of 1607, or of Ennio Morricone’s 1970s Rabbia E Tarantella in Quentin Tarantino’s WW2.

These references, as the two directors (trained by Walt’s ‘nine old men’) take stock and remember their almost-extinct art form, proliferate to a gradually overwhelming degree. In one viewing, the following references stood out:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: adrum-solo’ prompted by trying to hit animal with sticks (a fly in SW, a frog in PF)
Pinocchio: wishing on a star
Dumbo: pink elephants dancing (lit green and pink) evoked during the frogs' underwater dance
Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty: dolls on Charlotte’s shelf
Peter Pan: Dr. Facilier’s shadow, with a mind of its own
Lady and the Tramp: tongues as spaghetti, pulling them to kiss

The Jungle Book: Fireflies light up Louis as Baloo with pineapple on head and grass skirt, and his song evokes King Louis’s (‘I Wanna be like you’)

Robin Hood: Hiss the snake appears as Mama Odie’s snake
The Rescuers: musical aligators
Basil The Great Mouse Detective: Dr. David Q Dawson (‘Watson’) as Lawrence, Naveen’s servant
The Lion King: idea that stars are fireflies (originally Timon’s idea)
Pocahontas: raccoon at funeral

Having a quick look through the various reviews posted online so far, two other (even more obscure) references crop up:

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad: Mr. Toad’s horse, Cyril Proudbottom, is glimpsed outside a shop
Aladdin: a woman is seen cleaning the distinctive Magic Carpet in the street

And the most obscure of all:

Firefly Five Plus Lou: Louis’s band is a reference to the 1950s jazz band ‘Firehouse Five Plus Two’, in which the animator Frank Thomas (Clements’s original mentor) played piano

These references span three-quarters of a century of animated films, and creep into almost every sequence. It seems, given the sheer number that can be glimpsed on just one viewing, that Musker/Clement have almost certainly embedded references here to every film in the canon, as our off-screen Walt ‘prophesies’ his own future, in 1923.

In doing all of this, the film manages to provide a vision of a thrilling artistic future, through an exhaustive understanding of a cultural (and national) past. The filmmakers rely on a cinematic tradition that began with Walt Disney’s five films prior to America’s entry into WW2 – Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi – a 'run of five' unmatched by any other filmmaker in history (with the possible exception of Kubrick, over the much longer period of 1964-80: Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining).

If Musker/Clements’s deliberate nods to these classic Disney works, combined with the ingenious ‘prophetic’ framework of the film, does indeed signal a Renaissance, then the once-sacked animators need not be unduly worried by the rise of Avatar, or by the sad death of Roy E. Disney (only weeks before the film was released). Indeed, anyone who'd given up on the 'extinct' medium by 1996 (a year after Toy Story), would have missed the greatest Disney film since Pinocchio – the dark masterpiece that was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Especially in its formidable musical sequences, The Princess and the Frog offers us more glimpses of this delight in painterly animation, of image-by-image invention and originality completely lacking from the action sequences that define a much lesser film, such as Up. Perhaps these images, and the deliberate historical focus of the film, hint that we can look forward to something very special, soon: an artistic Coelacanth, lurking in the shadows...

‘Cos remember, just two years after The Wizard of Oz announced the end of black-and-white cinema, Orson Welles released Citizen Kane.