It is unlikely that The Princess and the Frog would have been called anything resembling a classic ten or fifteen years ago, and yet in 2009 it comes very close to feeling like one- this is undoubtedly due to the endangered movie going experience it manages to recall. This is the first feature-length 2D animated film from Disney since 2005 (and the only one since 2002 worth mentioning) and it thoroughly demonstrates that computer generated imagery is not the only way to animate a kid’s film in the 21st century. Fortunately, the strong and refreshing visuals are backed by a story and batch of characters that are dynamic, well fleshed out, and often very funny.
The film takes place in the French Quarter of New Orleans as well as the swampy bayou of Louisiana (the former channeling Lady and the Tramp, and the latter Bambi), and tells the tale of Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), the young daughter of a seamstress mother (Oprah) and a father with culinary aspirations (Terrence Howard). Tiana is set up straight-away as a practical and no-nonsense little girl, in contrast to her rich prince-obsessed friend Charlotte La Bouff* (daughter of the kindly captain-of-industry, John Goodman’s Big Daddy La Bouff), and when we skip ahead to Tiana as a young woman, she remains so. Working two jobs to fund her dream restaurant, she has no time for fun or friends and is missing out on life and the possibility of love (at least from her mother’s perspective). It is here that the film creates a difficult thematic struggle for itself that seems a little misplaced in this post-financial crisis atmosphere- a strong, honest, hardworking character is constantly being reminded and encourage to stop and smell the roses, and to settle for less in exchange for love (I’ll touch more on that later). The visiting Prince Naveen- an ethnically ambiguous playboy prince from “Maldonia” who possesses no concept of work and has been sent packing by his royal parents offers no such dilemma- it’s obvious from the start that motherfucker needs to get a job.
The film wastes no time introducing its strongest feature: the villain. Keith David’s Dr. Facilier (or, The ShadowMan) is the single element of The Princess and the Frog that is undeniably classic, and he ranks high among the best of Disney’s villains. The voice work here is absolutely superb and David infuses Facilier with the slick sleaze of a conman palm-reader, and the frightening mystery of a voodoo priest. Facilier is supported by his ever-present shadow that often acts with a mind of its own, and is legitimately spooky. Facilier, plotting to off Big Daddy La Bouff and take control of New Orleans, cons the naive Naveen into giving up his form and becoming a frog, bestowing his handsome visage onto Naveen’s stuffy British manservant Lawrence (via a magical amulet). This is all set up in one of the film’s best songs “Friends On the Other Side” that uses tarot imagery to add background to Prince Naveen and Lawrence as well as show off some dazzling voodoo spectacle. (If the song was a few notches catchier, this sequence might have rivaled “Be Prepared” of The Lion King as the crowning Disney villian’s song.)
Tiana meets up with the frog prince at a party for Charlotte and the visiting (now body snatched) Prince, which she is catering to earn the last bit of cash she needs to buy her restaurant building (that will honor her father). When the froggy prince convinces her to kiss him, the spell backfires and turns Tiana into a frog as well, launching them onto an adventure that will take them through the bayou and back again.
The frog prince and princess are joined for most of their journey by a
trumpet-obsessed alligator named Louis, and a scantily-toothed cajun
lightning-bug named Ray (noticing a jazzy trend?). Ray in particular
brings a lot of soul to the journey, though the fate of the character
is blatantly telegraphed by virtue of his unusual love-interest (which
is, admittedly, payed off extremely well). The supporting cast is
uniformly funny and energetic, from the
frenetic, spoiled, but ultimately compassionate Charlotte, to the
quirky while matter-of-fact Mama Odie (the sunshine happy voodoo Queen
that mirrors the evil Facilier).
What is fascinating about The Princess and the Frog is how it manages to feel classically Disney, and yet is in many ways a post-Pixar Disney film- Lasseter is all over this one. There are the obvious nods to the Lamp Camp- the Lou Romano, retro-style animation used in one of the film’s stronger songs, “Almost There,” for example. The influences also lie in the subtler elements of the film though, emerging in the attention to character detail and a more classic shading to the humor. In fact, the strong character work helps the film remain vibrant despite a fairly rote structure of ticking clocks, reversals, and inevitable endings (spoiler: they’re happy).
Beyond allowing for the voodoo elements and providing a strong musical backbone, the city of New Orleans is a valuable asset to the film, its inhabitants and architectural charm filling each frame. One of the cleverer bits of the story weaves a unique princess element into the actual culture of the city, and marries it well to the set of supernatural rules the story plays by. The exploration of the city at the beginning is a memorable sequence, and the use of the Mardi Gras parade turns the tired “ticking clock” into something with at least some natural relevance. The parties, floats, and costumes also allows the filmmakers to play with throwbacks to old Disney films- you’ll have fun spotting references here and there (though the best homage occurs in Mama Odie’s boat-shack in the swamp when it turns out her walking stick and “guide dog” is essentially Kaa The Python from The Jungle Book).
It can not be said enough how excellent the animation is. I believe we are finally seeing an effective marriage of technologies in animation as the digital backgrounds and elements are gracefully entwined with the completely classic forms and volumes of the pencil-and-paper animation. The backgrounds have their own unique approach to texture and depth, and they constantly provide beautiful stages for the action. Some of the classic Disney features from the “90s Renaissance” experimented with digital environments and camera work with jarring results, but the technologies have advanced far enough that the computer work melts into the film (nearly) seamlessly.
Looking back at the story, the largest misstep of the film is that it never quite strikes the climactic tone necessary to truly satisfy. The final moments between Facilier and Tiana are well handled, but the build up isn’t structured in such a way that it registers as the FINAL CLIMAX until it’s over (SPOILER: Which is a shame, because The Shadowman getting dragged to VooDoo hell is a fucking great villain dispatch). Also, repeat viewings will determine how well they managed to strike a moral tone favoring moderation, but I maintain that it is dangerous philosophical ground to tread, spending the entire movie’s runtime trying to teach an ambitious, motivated, hard-working, and extremely competent black woman a lesson in easing up and slowing down.
Though the core story is unremarkable, The Princess and The Frog is buttressed by a bevy of very strong decisions, great animation and excellent character work. The film never quite manages to cross into GREAT territory (though some moments come close), but it is consistently competent, constantly entertaining, and a true return to form for Disney proper.