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Disney to return to two-dimensional animation

Cassie Belek | Tuesday, November 27, 2007

“Enchanted” may feature only 14 minutes of traditional two-dimensional animation, but those few minutes are only a baby step before Walt Disney Animation Studios takes a giant leap back into the world of feature-length 2-D animation with “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009.

It may seem odd that producing a 2-D animated film would be something unusual for Disney, but when the studio announced that 2004’s easily forgettable “Home on the Range” would be its last 2-D animated feature, the art form that Walt Disney built his empire on appeared dead to the House of Mouse.

“The Princess and the Frog” may be just what the studio needs to usher in a third golden age of animation. The film, which formerly went under the working title of “The Frog Princess,” is set in jazz-age 1920s New Orleans and will mark a return to the fairytale as it features Disney’s first African American princess, Tiana. Tony Award-winning actress and “Dreamgirls” star Anika Noni Rose will provide both the voice and vocals for the newest Disney princess. Plot details are sparse, but other characters include a southern debutante and her plantation-owning father, a Voodoo magician (the villain), a 200-year-old Voodoo priestess (the fairy godmother), a prince from the fictional nation of Maldakesh and a firefly and alligator – the obligatory animal friends in the film.

Ron Clements and John Musker have returned to Disney Animation Studios to direct “The Princess and the Frog.” The duo was instrumental in bringing about the renaissance of Disney animation almost 20 years ago when they directed 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.” They subsequently directed the 1992 hit “Aladdin” and 1997’s “Hercules,” but were forced out of the company after their failed “Treasure Planet” in 2002. Now they return to direct a musical fairytale, which they proved they could magically accomplish with “Mermaid.”

Although it was originally announced that composer Alan Menken would tackle the music for the film, it has since been decided that Pixar-favorite Randy Newman will take over the job. Menken is the composer behind “Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and with lyricist Howard Ashman they won multiple Academy Awards for their work with Disney. Ashman, who died in 1991 of AIDS, and Menken have also been credited with helping to revive Disney animation in the early 1990s. It was Ashman who came up with the idea to make Ursula an overweight, voluptuous drag queen character and Sebastian a Trinidadian “Under the Sea”-singing crab.

Therefore, the choice of Newman is an interesting one, but not too surprising – the musician is a New Orleans native. One speculation is that Menken was taken off of the project because he wrote the music for “Enchanted” and the studio did not want to seem too repetitive.

These overdue happenings at Walt Disney Animation Studios occur after an unsuccessful try at 3-D animation. In 2005, Disney decided to enter the CGI race sans Pixar with the underwhelming “Chicken Little,” proving that it wasn’t the technology that mattered to the public; it was the quality of story-telling.

After Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, John Lasseter, a former Disney animator and Pixar founding member, became the chief creative officer for both Disney Animation and Pixar. Lasseter has made it clear that the Disney studio will not revert back to 2-D animation alone, but he has still paved the way for traditional 2-D animated films to be possible again.

In addition to discontinuing the production of straight-to-DVD Disney sequels, Lasseter has announced a return to the production of theatrical animated shorts. “How to Hook Up Your Home Theater,” starring Goofy, will premiere before “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” which is set to be released on Dec. 21. “Home Theater” is the first Goofy theatrical cartoon since 1961’s “Aquamania.”

With all the changes happening at Disney in the post-Michael Eisner regime, it appears that traditional 2-D animated features are on the brink of another renaissance. “Enchanted” is the first step as it lovingly pokes fun at its predecessors and points out the glaring passive stereotypes of the earlier princess films.

There is no doubt that Tiana will build on the active roles of Ariel and Belle and set a new standard for Disney princesses. And after a five year break from 2-D animation, it will be time for Disney to reclaim its roots and find a better balance between commerce and art.