Rhett Wickham: Rhett Wickham: At Long Last: Welcoming Back the Graphite Gifts of Ten of Disney's Finest
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AT LONG LAST:WELCOMING BACK THE GRAPHITE GIFTS OF TEN OF DISNEY’S FINEST
There was a time when Hollywood anxiously promoted the return to the screen of long absent stars. Mind you, that was when an absence of two years was a long time, but not so long that theatre owners asked “who?” It was also a time when the phrase “star studded” meant that more than just Mr. & Mrs. Pitt were on the roster. The names of everyone both above and below the title had a fan club of their own and a cigarette card still in print. Not so much these days.
Several years ago, Julie Andrews made a return to the screen in Disney’s “The Princess Diaries”, but very few people took notice of the fact that it was her first time starring in a major studio feature in nearly six years. Six years is six generations of “new Hollywood”, who seem to sprout a “the next great (fill in the blank)” pretty much every nine months, so it’s pretty easy to be forgotten if you so much as go on vacation. Just a couple of decades earlier, Ms. Andrews, who had begun her rise to Hollywood stardom with Disney over four decades prior, would have been seen as making a “come back”. As it was, her glorious, long overdue, and much welcomed performance was proof of what true star quality is – lasting, powerful, reliable, and entirely satisfying, raising the bar for everyone else in the cast.
It isn’t quite the same way in animation. For one thing, it’s mostly the voice actors who get the push in the press. Yet, the much buzzed about “Princess and the Frog” feels a lot more like the Hollywood of old, a new American fairy tale, appropriately set nearly 100 years ago in what was then, and still is, America’s most European city, steeped in mystery, magic, romance and tradition. The American South has always been more dramatic and a bit “over the top” and its peculiar passions and troubled social and economic history provides a perfect setting for grandeur and grace, manners and mayhem. So it is that “The Princess and the Frog” feels a great deal more like a pre-war “studio film” than just another bit of contemporary boulevard fare made special by putting on 3-D glasses.
It seems only fitting to take note of who will star in this sweeping bit of traditional magic. After a measurable and considerable absence from feature animated films, audiences will be re-introduced to the talents of ten amazing actors who are supervising the animation on Ron Clements’ and John Musker’s “The Princess and the Frog”. These accomplished film performers may render their characters with pencil on paper, but they are powerful, accomplished, and capable actors who have impressive resumes, and very specific career paths like any other fine film thespians. They are each passionate about the traditions that made Disney animation great. Their skills have not been dampened by time or dulled by working in service of keystroke driven dalliances on CG animated projects. Their collective skills are as impressive, if not more so, than any star-studded mega hit Hollywood could tout. To see these ten stars back in action, and all together again, is enough to raise the rafters on any multiplex.
The roster is headed by the incomparable MARK HENN, who is supervising Tiana, the princess at the center of this uniquely American fairy tale. It is a fitting return for Henn, whose breathtaking direction of “John Henry” is worth a mention. The proud, stirring and visually stunning short film has been lost to near obscurity, save for its having been included on a poorly marketed DVD collection. Henn’s enlightened and evolved perspective makes the folk-tale relevant and righteous, rather than simplistic and convenient. His character designer on that project, Carole Holliday, used a combination of folk art references and graphic simplicity to give the cast a powerful presence set among a landscape inspired by traditional American quilting. Mark Henn’s sensitive and purposeful direction pays attention to truth and makes the rural legend sing with power and pride rather than sorrow and pity. Ultimately, John Henry deserved a much wider audience than its too easily forgotten presence on the Disney’s American Legends DVD.
Mark Henn’s prolific talent as an animator has elevated key scenes of Ariel and Belle, and a memorable star turn supervising the title character in “Mulan”. It will be a great treat to feel his heart pouring forth through Tiana later next year. Henn’s mastery of feminine grace and his ability to tap into the life force of intelligent, capable and ambitious young women makes him an ideal casting choice for a young woman coming of age and falling in love in the lamplights of 1920’s New Orleans. Henn is particularly adept at taking advantage of the vocal performances that inform each character he helms, using a near empathic sensitivity to something deeper than the surface notes; plumbing into the emotional core and serving up a rich and organic whole. Tiana promises to be a force to be reckoned with, a majestic young woman who will stand uniquely on her own in the great canon of Disney heroines.
Rounding out Tiana’s family, supervising the animation of her mother and father, is one of Disney’s most gifted and easily assimilated talents, RUBEN AQUINO, best known for supervising the deliciously wicked Ursula in the film that put Clements and Musker on the map, “The Little Mermaid”. Aquino has an astounding range as an actor. His Annie Award Winning animation of Captain Li Shang in “Mulan” was but one-half of his work on that feature. He gave grace and inner strength to Fa Li, Mulan’s mother. Aquino followed this with a dizzying double duty turn on “Lilo & Stitch” where he animated both David and the rubbery and wickedly funny Pleakley. His last hand drawn performance was Denahi in “Brother Bear”, nearly six years ago. For “Princess and the Frog”, Aquino is not only helming Tiana’s parents, but also stepping in to provide support on Tiana and Prince Naveen in their amphibian form. As this author has noted previously, Aquino’s ability to shape shift so easily from human to animal, comic to serious and broad to reserved is marked by an enviable lack of telltale quirks or signature tricks that make other artists’ work easy to spot. Not so with Aquino, whose only recognizable trait is his diversity. His peers frequently refer to him as “an animator’s animator” and his return to a desk with a disc and a pencil sharpener is great news. Like his powerful Chief Powhatan in “Pocahontas”, Aquino’s work always provides an anchor of emotional stability, which will be particularly valuable to balancing the sorcery and sentiment certain to haunt the French Quarter in this feature.