When the formula falters

My girlfriend and I went to see The Princess and the Frog last night, and it was fun. Not great, but fun. Unfortunately Disney has managed to capture the spectacle but little of the soul of past great Disney movies (which is mildly ironic, given the movie’s setting). The Princess and the Frog was exquisitely executed (beautiful animation, great voice acting and characters, high-energy music) but something was missing, a core component that left the movie feeling ever so slightly flat.

My first inclination, comparing the film with my Disney favorites Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin was that Princess and the Frog had used those prior movies as a formula and that was what was jarring. Upon further thought, though, I realized that the use of a formula wasn’t the problem; I’d never noticed before Princess and the Frog made me think about it, but Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin follow strict formulas themselves. Heck, they’re practically the same movie:

  • The movie opens, and shortly after introducing the main characters our heroine (or hero, but most of them are female for this particular sampling so for simplicity I’ll stick with the feminine) is brought to the villain’s attention. The villain reveals that the heroine has something that makes them uniquely important to the villain’s personal goals (Ariel is the key to Triton’s power, Belle is the only girl worthy of conquest, Aladdin is the only one who can gain the power of the lamp)
  • Early on, our heroine reveals their core motivation via song (Part of Your World, Belle’s opening song, One Jump Ahead)
  • A spectacular musical number reawakens our interest (Under the Sea, Be Our Guest, Friend Like Me)
  • At some point, the villain has a lone musical number, partially spoken or otherwise not as melodic and memorable (Gaston’s song being something of an exception, likely because he’s more of a passive antagonist otherwise so they had to compensate somewhere to make him interesting)
  • Various filler songs occur here and there, typically to advance the plot
  • A love song occurs at the primary moment one (or both) of the love interests realize their feelings (or otherwise reach a turning point in their relationship)
  • A showdown occurs with the villain, the heroine triumphs, and the culmination of their triumph is the marriage to the love interest and achievement of their dreams

You can break the formula down even further past the musical numbers to specific characters (villain’s humorous sidekick, heroine’s non-human helpers, etc.), but you get the idea.

It wasn’t that The Princess and the Frog followed a formula, then, that impaired the movie. In point of fact, the way it nails almost every aspect of the Little Mermaid/etc. formula may well be its greatest strength. Disney obviously brought a lot of budget and creativity to bear to bring the movie to life in the same vein as their old hits (even making the comparison explicitly in their previews, which is what cued me into comparing the two as I was watching it). Yet unlike Little Mermaid or Aladdin I didn’t walk out of the theater wanting to see it again, or utterly captivated by the characters, or excited and eager to tell my friends about the movie. I came out of the theater and thought, “Well, that was fun. Don’t really need to see it again.”

I’ve been pondering, and come to the conclusion that what the Disney movies of the early 90’s that I remember so fondly had that Princess and the Frog lacks is the spark, the soul, the story that needs desperately to be told. Without that inspiration, the formula falters, the pieces pull slightly apart, and the viewer is left with the realization that there is a formula and that it isn’t quite working.

Great movies happen because creative people get excited, and if they’re lucky they have the budget and direction they’ll need to create something fantastic. I think that people got excited about Princess and the Frog, but I don’t think that it was because of the story that drives the entire project forward. I think they got excited about the spectacle, the fun characters, and the setting. And in the end, that made the difference between a film destined to be a classic and one that is merely diverting.

The more near misses I see in the theater the more I’ve come to believe that story is the driving creative force that must exist for any narrative work to succeed, be it cinema, literature, or otherwise. Certainly, great characters are a part of the puzzle. A well-tested formula can help clarify and ease the story’s delivery. Talented people well directed can breathe a lot of life into any tale. But unless these things are born out of a story that needs to be told the pieces won’t quite snap into place.

The Princess and the Frog is not a story that needed to be told. It’s a decent story, an amusing story, a story that pleasantly reinforces our own delusions about ourself and our culture; but it isn’t a story that needs its telling so badly that it grabs the imaginations of its makers and viewers alike and refuses to let go even once the curtain has closed.

I don’t know where stories come from, or even how crafted and calculated the Disney movies of yore that I loved might have been behind the scenes. All I know is that in Princess and the Frog Disney has produced a film that sparkles, amuses, and tweaks gently at the heartstrings yet fails to achieve the vivid life bequeathed by story.

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