Back in 2003, Disney was facing a sudden and very rude awakening: Dreamworks and Pixar were creating CG movies that were grossing incredible sums of money, while its own crop of films were ranging anywhere from mildly successful (The Emperor’s New Groove) to utterly disastrous (Treasure Planet). Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner then famously declared that Disney would be leaving the realm of 2D hand-drawn animation forever, and instead be focusing on creating CG animated films to compete with the likes of Woody and Shrek (Eisner, for those keeping score at home, also suggested that Disney would not benefit in any way, shape or form, from acquiring Pixar; in short, he was an addle-brained git). Fortunately, Eisner was soon ousted from the house that Walt built in a rather public coup by Roy E. Disney (Walt’s nephew), and John Lasseter of Pixar was made Senor Big-Shot of Feature Animation.
Lasseter’s first act, in addition to tweaking the in-development Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, was get back to what Disney was good at: fairy tales. He commissioned Ron Clements and John Musker (co-directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules) to come up with a treatment of “The Frog Princess,” and gave them the option to make it in either CG or hand-drawn animation. They chose hand-drawn, and in the winter of 2009, the public received The Princess and the Frog.I remember waiting for this movie to come out, mostly because the pedigree of talent (great directors, all of Disney’s best animators, an animation medium I love, etc.) made it seem like this movie was going to be the second coming of Christ, and the film’s initial trailer certainly didn’t do anything to snap me out of that mindset. I never got to see the film in theaters, though, because I was unavailable on the one night my friends all went to see it, and I didn’t manage to catch it during the Christmas break. My initial viewing came from Redbox, and the decision that yes, doggonit, I was finally going to see this movie. The Princess and the Frog is not the best that Disney has to offer, but it certainly is an excellent return to form after several years in the wilderness.
From the very first teaser footage of this film, I was incredibly jacked about it.
Flash forward several years, where Tiana is working several jobs to save up money for her restaurant; her daddy’s passed away, but her dream is as strong as ever. Charlotte tells Tiana that Prince Naveen of Maldonia (a far-off country that is never quite topographically defined) is visiting New Orleans, and that she wants him to fall in love with her at a party she is throwing that night. Tiana whips up a special batch of beignets for enticing the prince (“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”), but, later at the party, a mishap with a dog makes a mess of Tiana’s clothes.
While changing into one of Charlotte’s spare dresses, Tiana spots a frog sitting on the balcony with her. Much to her surprise, the frog speaks, revealing that he is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) and that he was transformed into his more Kermit-esque appearance by Dr. Facilier (Keith David, who positively oozes into the role), a voodoo master. Thinking her to be a princess, Naveen begs Tiana to kiss him and transform him back into a human. Reluctantly, Tiana agrees. Unfortunately, this only causes Tiana to become a frog as well, and since frogs are not especially welcome at a gala event like this one, Tiana and Naveen are forced to make a break for it and find a way to become human again.
Tiana and Naveen's journey is filled with songs, comic side-characters, and self-discovery, just the way mama used to make it.
Just about everything in this movie has an old-but-new approach to it (which makes for a great companion piece to Tangled’s new-but-old approach). The comic timing, character archetypes, and general attitude of the movie feels straight out of the Disney Renaissance; in terms of looks and tone, it feels like a spiritual sequel to Aladdin, or perhaps Hercules.
However, the movie also seems determined to reinvent itself as something new: the songs are much more Randy Newman-sounding than Alan Menkin-y, the story adds in several wrinkles that would not necessarily have been at home during the twilight years of the first Bush administration (Tiana’s focus on working hard and earning things for herself being the largest one), and the setting feels more differentiated from other Disney films (even other pictures set in the United States like The Rescuers or Oliver & Company never felt this distinctly romantic about their swamps/New York/etc.).
I have no idea what sort of fantastic jiggery-pokery was used to create the backgrounds in this picture, but brother it works.
This adds up to a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, I really like the film’s spirit of rekindling the spirit of the Disney’s 90’s heyday, and appreciate the small things it does to differentiate itself from the current crop of animated films (Roger Ebert sums it up better than I ever can in his 2009 review: “This is what classic animation once was like! No 3-D! No glasses! No extra ticket charge! No frantic frenzies of meaningless action! And . . . good gravy! A story! Characters! A plot! It's set in a particular time and place!”). However, for my money, there’s always some slight disconnect between the Renaissance-style visuals and the newer, more up-to-date sensibilities; it’s as if the movie never goes far enough to capture the 90’s nostalgia, and settles into a sort of uneven compromise.
My favorite scenes in The Princess and the Frog are the ones that eschew convention entirely and cut their own path. Early in the movie, during a song where Tiana sings about her future restaurant (“Almost There,” the best song in the movie), the animation style shifts to a more flat, art deco look; the stylization is eye-catching, and differentiates itself from the regular (though still quite pretty) animation style of the film. During the ending portion of the movie, Dr. Facilier entices Tiana with a vision of owning the restaurant, showing her images of a swanky, ballroom setting and herself in nice clothes, giving the whole scene a Last Temptation of Christ feel to it.
Princess retreads old ground just fine, but its best moments are when it's at its most inventive.
The best thing the movie has going for it is the animation. As I mentioned earlier, this movie had the cream of Disney animator crop: Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, and many others responsible for some of Disney’s most iconic characters were all gathered under one roof to kick some ass, and boy did they deliver. Characters are expressive and full of human emotion, and the backgrounds draw the viewer into the world like few I’ve ever seen.
Sonically, The Princess and the Frog is not one of my favorites, and the place where it loses the most ground as a Return To Classic exercise. Princess’s songs and score were written by Randy Newman, whom you may know as, among other things, the chief musical dude from lots of early Pixar movies. Newman has his fans, but I don’t count myself as one; while he does have a folksy appeal, his material lacks the showmanship and flair of Alan Menkin’s work from the 90’s (which the animation so desperately tries to imitate). I will acquiesce, though, that they’re perfectly fine if you enjoy Newman’s work, and don’t necessarily detract from my enjoyment of the film.
With a few exceptions, the songs in Princess just don't quite do it for me.
On the voice work front, however, Princess is much stronger. Anika Noni Rose is charming and beautiful as Tiana, and Bruno Campos’ Naveen has an absolutely gutbusting timing about him through the entire film. Gunning for the spot of top villain is Keith David, who has done stellar work in other Disney roles, and completely nails Dr. Facilier; equal parts suave and dangerous, Facilier belongs up there with some of the Disney greats. The supporting characters alternate between being fitfully charming (Mama Odie, Louis) and pants-on-head aggravating (Ray, Charlotte).
The Princess and the Frog is not the dramatic, “The Boys Are Back in Town”-style comeback that I expected, but it’s still quite a worthy film. Many of my quibbles amount to personal bias, and Princess seems on track to be a slow burn Disney classic, revealing its charms and strengths through multiple viewings, which I will take hands-down over a seen-it-once-seen-it-a-million-times movie like Robin Hood. It’s not the return to form many of us hoped for, but it’s a nice reminder that somewhere in the Disney Corporation, they finally know what they’re doing again.
Top Three Songs:
- “Almost There”
- “Never Knew I Needed”
- “Friends on the Other Side”
- Tiana and Dr. Facilier’s Last Temptation of Christ moment.
- Naveen (Facilier is a sweet villain, but Naveen’s quips and general affability made him a top pick for me)
The Jar Jar:
- Ray (even though he somewhat redeems himself at the end, I still get cheesed with his Funny Antics throughout the movie, which is what the Jar Jar does)
How I Watched It
The Princess and the Frog doesn’t look quite as eye-bleedingly gorgeous on Blu-ray as Beauty and the Beast, but it’s still a total feast for the eyes. The backgrounds I mentioned above suck the viewer in like some sort of Technicolor vortex, and the colors pop something fierce in hi-def.
Disney has been notoriously light on bonus features for its current-release movies (Bolt had next to nothing on it), but Princess scrapes together a surprisingly decent collection of supplemental material (though it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as the two-disc Atlantis release). Included on the Blu-ray is a general making-of doc that lightly covers the main bases (history going into the project, animators who worked on it, songs, etc.), which is pretty entertaining and reasonably brief. There are also several nitty-gritty features, like pencil tests, art galleries, and small featurettes on different aspects of the movie, like the history of the Disney princess. While not super deep, there’s enough bonus material on the Princess Blu-ray to satisfy the casual fan.
Next up: Lady and the Tramp