Film Review – The Princess and the Frog

If Disney’s last traditionally animated film Home on the Range failed to bring home the bacon, The Princess and the Frog should stock up the pantry nicely. From the same writer and director of past hits The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, this take on the Grimm brother’s The Frog Prince is not in the company of iconic Disney predecessors, but it should do respectably at the box office.

In 1920s New Orleans, Tiana (Anika Noni-Rose from Dreamgirls) is a young, black woman working two jobs to save enough money for a downpayment on an old warehouse, which she wishes to convert to the restaurant business of which she has always dreamed. While catering for a party thrown by her rich, white friend, designed to ensnare the supposedly wealthy Prince Naveen of Maldonia, Tiana is confronted by a talking frog who claims to be the Prince. Having fallen victim to the evil voodoo man, Dr Facilier, the prince must be kissed by a princess to restore him to his human self. Unfortunately, he mistakes Tiana in her ballgown and tiara for a princess and she is also transformed into an amphibious form.

It’s a pleasure to see the soft, Disney hues that we are familiar with, in particular during an early song where Tiana’s dream restaurant is animated in the style of old jazz posters, but there is also some subtle CG rendering as the villianous Dr Facilier sends cards and looming shadows playing into depth and perspective for his musical number. He makes an entertainingly malicious villain, if a little short on screen time, who conjures what must be the first Disney dalliance with the evil dead since Fantasia‘sNight on Bald Mountain‘. I watched for hordes of little cinemagoers running for the doors, scared witless, but there were none. It’s an indication that the film has the right balance of humour and terror.

Other supporting characters such as Louis the trumpet-playing alligator (musically enabled by Orleans Blue Note musician, Terence Blanchard) and Ray, the elderly bayou firefly provide the comic relief, and are surely a nod to jazz greats Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles. Randy Newman bangs out a solid music score of good ol’ New Orleans jazz that had my foot tapping along, and it gives jumbalaya flavour to the movie.

It was also good to see a return to the fairy godmother or mother earth figure, rather than the evil witch of the forest as this figure is so often typecast in modern western mythology. Mama Odie as the voodoo queen of the swamp does not instantly grant wishes, but leads the characters to discover their own point of enlightenment. This quietly subverts previous Disney fairytales, in that sitting back and waiting for your prince (or princess) to come and save you will not get you anywhere. Princess Tiana has to work hard to get what she wants, with a little eye-opening advice along the way from the wise. She makes an admirable modern heroine compared to the Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, who as timeless as they may be, belong to another era.

Having said that, luck in life is a huge factor in success. A bit like say, wishing on a star…

Film Review – A Prophet

Lauded with deserving praise since screening at the Cannes Film Festival last May, A Prophet is a quietly epic film with a Shakespearean lilt from director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped). This is not an obvious Godfather-like tale of a young man’s rise in the criminal underworld, but something much more symbolic and dreamlike.

The 19 year old protagonist, Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is a new inmate at an unnamed French prison. Having been convicted of assaulting a policeman, he is too young for juvenile detention and is sent to an adult prison. Here he survives and violently comes of age by submitting to the unforgiving demands of Corsican mafia patriarch, César Luciani.

Blood, violence and death are around every corner, with tension creeping up every minute under Audiard’s direction. Death as an act of sacrifice is a constant motif in the film, and Malik is constantly in death’s presence, accruing blood on his hands as a means to survive. It is a case of kill or be killed. This is most obvious in a scene where Malik is suddenly held at gunpoint, suspected of having carried out an assassination in prison.

At this crucial point, the tension is relieved by an incident of accidental animal sacrifice, one that in the eyes of the captor removes the stain of murder from Malik despite his clear admission of guilt. The next scene looks out from a beach hut onto the beautiful white sand, blue sea and palm fronds swaying in the wind. Seated on the left of the open hut is Malik. On the right, the raw and bloody animal carcass readied for cooking. It’s a fantastic piece of symbolism.

The film intertwines a credible narrative of an interred Corsican mafia, with scenes of visually poetic introspection by Malik, alone in his cell. Here he is visited by the ghost of a dead inmate who in true Shakespearean tradition haunts him, advises him, and forms part of the madness, dreams and visions through which Malik catches fleeting glimpses of future events and earns the ‘prophet’ moniker.

Malik’s identity is an issue for him and for us. He says he has no known relatives, and he shrugs off questions as to whether he is French or Arabic. His ability to be all things to all people allows him to dance the line between the two major gangs of inmates. Even when he has his own lucrative prison career, Malik is still subservient to César’s petty requests for coffee and other menial chores. César is puzzled by this and asks why he still does it, but Malik shrugs it off. It is clear that even though the prodigal son shines brighter, he still desires to have the protective father figure, no matter how brutal. In myth as in life though, the prince nearly always usurps the king.

A Prophet is a hugely involving film with incredible tension to match any thriller, balanced by peaceful and thoughtful interludes. There is no message here, no heavy moralising, it just is. That is a brave thing to do given the subject matter and Audiard should be commended for directing with such a light touch.

Film Review – The Wolfman

An American Werewolf in London? Perhaps, if you take the nationality of the leading man, but this horror film once more spills the old blood of British Victorian gothic across the silver screen. Visually The Wolfman broods with the welcome, dark turbulence of a pint of Guinness, and while the story lacks teeth, the cinematography slices and dabs with light and shadow, bringing to mind the work of old masters hanging in The National Gallery in London.

Theatre actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is called back from New York to England by a letter from his brother’s lover, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). His brother Ben has seemingly gone missing, and while the local villagers lay blame at the door of the new gypsy camp, she feels there is something more to it. Returning to his childhood home Black Moor, a decaying stately mansion, Lawrence reacquaints himself with his widowed father Sir John Talbot, (Sir Anthony Hopkins) and finds that the past digs its claws into him in more ways than one.

If the script lacks bite then the luxuriant cinematography does not. Camera focus is sharp and true. There is a wonderfully rich, controlled contrast between inky shadows and brilliant white moonlight. The colour palette of bruised black, blue and purple, filters through a romantic diffusion of malevolent mists and haze that shroud moors and corridors. Faces are painted out of darkness, as if lit by Vermeer. Old skin becomes creamy parchment, wrinkled in the candlelight. The mansion creaks from dark wood and antique furniture, dust swirling in shafts of moonlight.

If only the characterisation worked as well. Introduced as an actor playing Hamlet in the theatre of the time, Del Toro seems strangely absent from his character’s soul. A few childhood flashbacks are not enough to clothe this man in flesh and blood. As a result, there is no torment from within Lawrence, despite his childhood trauma and consignment to a lunatic asylum as an adult, where he is tortured. The theme of a man bearing an inhuman beast within doesn’t mature, because we don’t feel the arc as Lawrence loses himself to darkness. If the story is a moral discourse on the choice to become the beast, or not, then it falls short as there is no clear distinction between character motivations, and so the mythology doesn’t work.

As Hamlet’s Elsinore was shrouded in mist, so is Laurence’s home and childhood memory. It becomes clearer as the movie progresses that there is a Freudian relationship between father and son. Sir John Talbot twice calls him the prodigal son returned, but there is a slight mockery to the tone that belies something else. Hopkins still can’t seem to decide if he’s Welsh, English or Irish, but then we knew that of him from Nixon. He comfortably does the paternal figure with a glint in his eye as we are accustomed of him. Emily Blunt doesn’t get much of a look in as the love interest, but acts her part with the natural ease we have previously seen in The Devil Wears Prada.

Director Joe Johnston hails from the Lucas/Spielberg stable. Having started his career as a visual effects storyboard artist at effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, he has gone on to direct Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Hidalgo and Jurassic Park III. The problem may lie in his style of storytelling or in pursuing a more box-office friendly ’15’ certificate. Whichever it may be, The Wolfman doesn’t quite have the chops to be a psychologically terrifying horror movie, but it is beautiful to look at, with exceptional production values from camera, art and make-up departments.

It would be a great shame if this wasn’t nominated for a cinematography award, I hope the horror genre doesn’t scare the Academies away.