My Favourite Films #43: The Princess and the Frog

Long time readers will know that I’ve been doing the Disney Classics films in order, but I’m going to jump ahead to include this on my list of favourite movies.

This movie was Disney returning to their roots with a fairy tale inspired story rendered in traditional animation and introducing the latest Disney Princess. And it ticks a lot of boxes, boasting a quality soundtrack, a funny script, a great villain and an involving central story. On it’s own merits it would rank high on my Disney list but what makes it a personal favourite is a sentimental attachment.

This is the first movie that MWF and I watched together, before we were a couple and just friends. We’d hung out for the day chatting and then put this on as MWF insisted I had to see it. It would be a while after this that we got together, but the movie and the day we spent together when we watched it were when I started to genuinely fancy her.

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The movie riffs on the traditional Frog Prince story, but gives it a clever twist. The old tale is retold in New Orleans, at the start by Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey), a black seamstress to the daughter of her white boss and her own daughter, and the boss’ daughter dreams of meeting her prince. The seamstress’ daughter wants to run a restaurant with her father, but he reminds her that it takes hard work as well as wishing to get things done.

We then jump forward to the 1920s, and the seamstress’ daughter Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is now a young woman, still chasing her dream of the restaurant by working two jobs and saving every penny she can. Her social life suffers and her mother worries that she is failing to enjoy her life and is working too hard. An opportunity to get the money needed for the building she wants for the restaurant arises when her old friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) offers her a catering job as her wealthy father is hosting a big party.

Charlotte, still obsessed with landing her prince is excited as the party is hosting Prince Naveen, a handsome, suave young man.

Naveen (Bruno Campos) is a bit of a playboy and used to having money, although his parents have now cut him off. Arriving in New Orleans with his valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) he wants to live the high life but Lawrence reminds him he needs to settle down and get married if he wants to get back on the gravy train.

Naveen and Lawrence meet Doctor Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo witch doctor who reads their fortune and then tricks them into a bargain. His magic transforms Lawrence into Naveen, while Naveen becomes a frog who they lock away. Facilier plans for Lawrence to marry Charlotte, after which he will kill her father Big Daddy (John Goodman) and get his fortune and influence.

Naveen escapes and at the party meets Tiana, who has just been told her bid for the building has been rejected. Inspired by the story he tells Tiana she needs to kiss him, thinking she is a princess. She is reluctant to do until he promises to give her the money for her restaurant. When they kiss, however, it is Tiana who is transformed, becoming a frog as well.

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Naveen turns on the charm

Naveen realises that Tiana, despite her costume, is not a princess and that’s why it didn’t work. She in turn learns that he is broke. Both then get lost in the swamps and must try to find their way back in order to stop Facilier’s plan and return to their human form. Along the way they are assisted by Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) a trumpet playing alligator who dreams of playing Jazz and Ray (Jim Cummings), a cajun firefly. They are led to meet voodoo queen Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis) who they hope can help them.

The movie works because it’s got bucketloads of charm and a host of cool characters. And unlike a lot of Disney movies the leads are among the best characters on show here, with both Tiana and Naveen being very likeable. Their dynamic works brilliantly with the strait laced Tiana clashing with the laidback, pampered Naveen. Naveen oozes suave charm throughout and his carefree approach to life is fun, although he comes to learn that some things require work and that sometimes sacrifice is needed. In the same way he helps Tiana loosen up and realise that there are more important things than work and success.

Tiana is one of the better Princess heroines, as she’s shown to be smart, tough and hard working throughout. While she may need her priorities sorting out she is still a great heroine, being very proactive and swinging into action when needs be. She’s a very modern princess and works well, telling the audience that it isn’t enough to wait for good things to happen, you have to go out and make them happen.

The supporting cast are great, particularly Ray and Louis their guides in the swamp. Louis’ stupidity is endearing and his bizarre dream works well, and Ray is just flat out brilliant. With his bayou accent and spirit he is more than just comic relief and serves to educate the leads as to what love is about.

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And Tiana’s loud, brassy friend Charlotte is a great character, full of life and chattering constantly she could easily be a simply ridiculous character, but the script gives her a chance to show greater depths of friendship, decency and kindness. All of this without diluting her over the top character.

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Charlotte- Ditzy but sweet

Of course, all the best Disney movies have a great villain and here the film scores a big win with the sneaky, smooth talking Doctor Facilier, wonderfully voiced by Keith David. During his songs and speeches he delivers funny asides and is shown to be a smart, scheming foe. Distinctly creepy at times, it also works because Facilier doesn’t have power in a real sense, having received his gifts as part of a deal with his “friends on the other side”. It means that he too is under the cosh and the dark forces are kept at the fringes although they do make menacing appearances, and his main skill is reading and exploiting people’s weaknesses.

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The plot flows well and the development works, with the relationship feeling real and the turns making sense. There’s also a gut punch in the final act which continues a Disney trend of actually sneaking in some dark moments into what people dismiss as cheesy and cheery kids films. Even as a grown man it left me with a lump in the throat.

Of course, it all ends well, and the ending is satisfying. It’s a very rewatchable flick and the music, influenced by the New Orleans setting is filled with some crackers, especially the villain song and Ray’s ode to his distant love Evangeline.

Fun, charming and well done this is one of my favourite movies and high on the list of my favourite Disney movies too.

Disney Score: 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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My Favourite Films #42: The Thing (1982)

My Dad introduced me to the films of John Carpenter, and this is one of my favourites, a tense, gripping sci-fi horror.

Set almost entirely on a remote Ameeican research base in the Arctic it deals with a group of scientists and their support team who must confront a shapeshifting alien beast that assumes the appearance and mannerisms of anything it devours.

The unease starts right at the top when a sled dog races across the icy wilderness, pursued by a helicopter. The pilot is killed in an accidental explosion and the passenger begins firing at the dog only to be shot by Garry (Donald Moffat) the commander. The dog is put in the kennels and after they ID the man as being from a Norwegian base they investigate.

Right away you have questions about what the hell is going on and why they wanted to kill that dog so badly, and then the plot thickens as they find the Norwegian base in disarray, with a burnt grotesque humanoid form outside in the ice.

It turns out the Norwegians found something in the ice and when it woke up it made short work of them and they tried stopping it. The alien being could change shape, hence the weird body, and escaped. Disguised as a dog.

At this point animal lovers might want to look away as the dog-Thing snacks on the dogs. It’s all pretty grizzly and they only stop it when one of the team blasts it with a flamethrower.

This member of the team, MacReady is played by Kurt Russell and that’s an indicator that this is going to be a good movie as the Russell and Carpenter team was dynamite (Escape from New York, Big Trouble I’m Little China). Russell is on great form here as the tough, quiet MacReady who is way out of his depth and not entirely sure how it all works, but who endures through grit and common sense.

“I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done”

It’s his simple reasoning that leads to the blood test that sets up one of the film’s best sequences. Working out that every tiny part of the creature can live separately he comes up with a test. Using blood samples and a hot piece of metal he will work out who’s human and who isn’t.

The whole scene is grippingly tense with the characters eyeballing each other and the unease growing. The final jump scare still gets me out of my seat after repeated viewings and it’s this, not the gleefully gory physical effects that I remember.

Trust breaks down quickly

That’s not to say the effects aren’t great. I’m a big fan of old school effects that look like you can reach out and touch, and the grizzly creations here are very well done, especially a scene where the chest of one opens up to sever the arms of the man trying to revive him. My Dad is not a fan of this scene, possibly because he’s a doctor himself. 
The alien is gory and with no distinct shape it appears as mutant, horrifying blends of the forms it has devoured.

Dude, you fugly.

While the creature has an ick factor that holds up the film’s real success is the atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia that Carpenter creates. Just as the characters aren’t sure of who they can trust, the audience is never sure of who’s still human. Even MacReady’s movements can’t be accounted for.
It means you never know who is going to turn on who and it keeps you on edge for long periods.

This all builds to what I think is one of the greatest endings of all time. With the base in ruins after a massive explosion MacReady sits alone in the snow. And then Childs (Keith David) appears. Childs went missing a short while earlier and the two sit opposite each other, neither trusting the other, when asked what are they going to do MacReady delivers the last line of the movie; “Why don’t we just wait here a while? See what happens.”

It’s a remarkably bleak ending, but works extremely well and leaves lots of questions. Is the beast really dead? Is Childs human? What will happen if/when a rescue team arrives?

It’s a great movie, with solid performances from all involved this is an unsettling thriller that sticks with you and rises above the gore to be a genuinely clever thriller. And it can be rewatched over and over without losing it’s appeal.

This is the first John Carpenter movie I’ve included on my favourites list, but it won’t be the last.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films 23: Pitch Black

This is a corker of a sci-fi movie, shot for a relatively small budget ($23m according to Wikipedia) with a relatively unknown cast at the time and a wonderfully simple premise.

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A space ship on a long journey with it’s crew and passengers in stasis is hit by meteors and nosedives towards a nearby planet. With the captain killed during the meteor strike pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) takes the controls and tries to bring the ship down safely. With the ship overladen she wants to jettison the passenger compartment, but her navigator Owens (Simon Burke) stops her by blocking one of the safety doors.

Carolyn brings the ship in for a crash landing, but many of the passengers are killed leaving a small group of survivors. Owens is mortally wounded in the crash and with the first aid cabinet lost in the wreck dies a painful death. The survivors are grateful to Carolyn and make up a rag tag bunch- Muslim Imam (Keith David) is taking three young charges on a pilgrimage, settlers Zeke and Shazza (John Moore and Claudia Black), posh antiquities dealer Paris (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) and teenager Jack (Rhiana Griffith). Also aboard is cop Johns (Cole Hauser) who has in his custody Riddick (Vin Diesel) a notorious and violent criminal.

The gang have problems- they need a way to broadcast a distress signal and to find water, and things get worse when Riddick escapes. The planet they find themselves is a desert and they discover it orbits three suns, meaning that there is no nightfall.

Water is not found, but they discover an abandoned mining facility with an old ship which Carolyn believes she can get running with parts from their ruined ship.

While half the group is away, Zeke who is burying bodies is killed and suspicion falls on Riddick, who warns them that they have more things to fear on the planet. Carolyn investigates a series of caves near Zeke’s death and is attacked by alien creatures. She escapes and they realize the things hate the light.

Consulting the left over info in the facility they discover that something happened 22 years ago and when they move a solar system map they discover that every 22 years an eclipse occurs, with a larger planet blocking the suns and plunging the world into darkness, for what appears to be a considerable length of time.

They leg it back to their ship where they plan to get all the energy cells but the eclipse occurs and thousands of the aliens burst forth.

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With the group getting picked off they realize they must make a run for their escape ship, using whatever lights they have left to protect themselves and keep the critters at bay. Armed with a dwindling supply of torches, welding equipment, flares and flammable spirits they head off.

Adding to the problems is growing mistrust between Carolyn and Johns, who she discovers is a bounty hunter posing as a cop to make transport easier, and the fact that they must trust Riddick to be their guide, due to him having undergone a surgical procedure while in an underground prison to enable him to see in the dark.

Riddick and his shiny eyes lead the group

Riddick and his shiny eyes lead the group

Will Carolyn and Johns be able to keep their secrets from the rest of the group? What other secrets do the survivors hide? Can they pull together to survive? And will their lights last until they get to the ship?

I remember seeing this flick on VHS way back in the day, and being completely blown away by it. I’m a massive sci-fi geek and I loved the idea and the low key way it was executed.

The idea is simple, and anyone who picks “what are the chances” holes is a joyless pedant who should be avoided. The idea of darkness surrounding them means that the filmmakers save a ton by just having us hear and not see the critters as they swarm around, which is a good idea for all low budget filmmakers. It also means that a lot of tension is wrung from the fires guttering out and torch batteries fading.

What I really loved though was the character of Riddick, who ticked a lot of boxes for what a teenage boy would consider badass- he was ripped, spoke with a gravelly voice and was a jaded anti-hero (I also loved Clint Eastwood and Snake Plissken at this point, and still do, and they are clearly Riddick’s forebears).

Vin Diesel was relatively unknown at the time, aside from voice work in The Iron Giant and a supporting role in Saving Private Ryan, but I was deeply impressed with him in this movie and raved about it to all my friends. I predicted he was going to be the next big thing in action cinema and as he followed this up with The Fast and the Furious, it looked as though I was right. That may have not panned out but I’m glad he’s back on top after returning to the Fast series and with Riddick due out soon.

Diesel makes Riddick a total badass with a wolfish smile and sarky one liners, and is aided by the crazy eyes idea. It sounds daft but see earlier comments about “what are the chances” and sometimes you’ve just got to go with it (like ignoring the fact that evolving to be hurt by light on a planet where it’s only dark every 22 years is ridiculous). The badass is built up by having him sneak around the place like some kind of slap-headed ninja, appearing fleetingly in the background or shown to be ridiculously close to other characters, and his penchant for knives. I remember thinking at 16 that the scene where he shaves with a knife and engine grease was one of the coolest things ever.

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It’s Diesel’s film and he steals the show, but credit should also go to Hauser and Mitchell, who do well in their parts. Hauser is a big bloke so he looks like he could hold his own in a scrap, but his real gift is this dead eyed look which makes his “screw everyone else to survive” attitude and he does a good job of slowly letting the character’s scummier side rise to the surface, all traces of charm being chipped away until a ruthless, selfish bastard remains. He’s a cracking villain.

Hauser as Johns

Hauser as Johns

Mitchell does well as the guilt ridden pilot and is rather tough, taking charge of the situation and controlling her fear of Riddick and the monsters.

The rest of the cast are pretty much all cannon fodder although genre favourite Keith David does the business as usual and Rhiana Griffith is quite good in the role of Jack even though the “she’s a girl” twist is so obvious even the blind aliens could see it coming.

It’s a shame that Claudia Black buys the farm early on as I’m a massive fan of hers thanks to Farscape.

David Twohy directs it in taught, relentless fashion, keeping the action and tension running throughout while still managing to let his characters breathe a little bit in between. The script is terse and no frills but there are a couple of good lines (“How much do you weigh now, Carolyn?”).

It’s basically a brilliant example of a genre film done in a low budget, no nonsense way and an extremely gripping sci-fi thriller with some nice touches and in Riddick, an enduring cinematic badass. I’m totally stoked about the upcoming film and despite initially being disappointed with the at times ludicrous Chronicles of Riddick, I must admit it’s not as bad as I remember and alright fare, still, here’s hoping Riddick’s third outing is closer to his first in style and execution.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.