Princess and the Frog, The (United States, 2009)December 10, 2009
When Disney mothballed traditional animation in 2004 following a series of disappointing box office underperformers, the blame was placed upon changing tastes - that viewers preferred the more eye-popping style of computer-generated images to the "old fashioned" approach that had dominated for nearly 70 years. Little or no consideration was given to the decline in quality of the animated productions, especially where the story was concerned. Disney had strayed from the tried-and-true formulas that marked its greatest animated successes and the company was harvesting crops from neglected fields. So hand-drawn animation was dumped, but what at the time seemed to be a permanent measure became temporary once the Disney/Pixar merger was finalized. With Pixar in charge of all animated projects, the decision was made to revive traditional animation but, in doing so, to return to its "roots." The result is The Princess and the Frog and, if you didn't know better, you'd swear this had been made in the late 1980s or early 1990s, alongside The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
The elements are all in place. The movie has a loose connection to a fairy tale (The Frog Prince), seven Broadway-style animated numbers (penned by longtime Disney collaborator Randy Newman), a plucky heroine, likeable animal sidekicks (a jazz-loving crocodile and a firefly besotted with a star), a fairy godmother type, a villain who uses black magic, and a stew of romance and comedy. The Princess and the Frog is so in synch with the early entries into Disney's so-called "second golden age" that one wonders how the company could have gotten away from these movies in the first place.
Much has been made about Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) being Disney's first African American "princess," but Disney has never been afraid of branching out. Lead females have included an Arab (Jasmine, Aladdin), a lioness (Nala, The Lion King), a Native American (Pocahontas), and a Chinese girl (Mulan). Tiana has just as much spirit as any other Disney standout (and she spends most of the film as a frog anyway). It's certainly time (or past time) for the Magic Kingdom to embrace a black character, but I suspect this has more meaning to those who write about such things that it will to the movie's target audience - children of all ages, genders, and races.
Tiana is a hard-working waitress who holds down two jobs at the eateries of New Orleans. She dreams of amassing enough money to one day open her own restaurant - a dream engendered in her at an early age and encouraged by her father (voice of Terrence Howard) and mother (Oprah Winfrey). Her best friend, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), has an equally ambitious goal: to marry a prince. This looks feasible when Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a foreign dignitary, visits New Orleans. Unfortunately, he falls afoul of the voodoo of Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who turns him into a frog. The first woman he meets is Tiana, at a costume ball where she's dressed in a princess costume. He convinces her to kiss him, but the results aren't what either expects. Instead of Naveen regaining human form, Tiana is turned into a frog. Now, with the help of a jovial crocodile named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and the firefly Ray (Jim Cummings), the two must avoid the shadow-creatures of Dr. Facilier while attempting to locate the voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), who may know how they can become human again.
From a visual standpoint, there's little to differentiate The Princess and the Frog from the likes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, all of which shared a similar style. The strongest link lies with co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who also helmed two of those three: The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Backed by an army of animators, Clements and Musker imbue the streets of New Orleans and the bayous of Louisiana with the same subtle magic that gave life to an undersea kingdom and ancient Baghdad. The film's comedy finds the right mix of jokes that will appeal to children and adults. The sidekicks are cute but not too cute. And the romance is of the sort that humanizes the characters. The best animated Disney films have often been romantic comedies, and this is no exception.
For the most part, the characters are voiced by low-profile actors, all of whom are well-chosen. There are some big names in the cast - Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman - but all have supporting parts. If one elects to trace the beginning of the decline of '90s animated films to Pocahontas, it's worth noting that this was the first time (but not the last) that Disney employed an A-list actor (Mel Gibson) for voice work. If there's something to be said for relative anonymity, the statement was made by The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.
Randy Newman's songs are catchy and are effective within the movie's context, but I can't see any of them having "legs" beyond the screen the way tunes from the earlier animated musicals did. Newman, who has frequently worked with Pixar on computer animated films, was a safe choice as the composer and his score combines elements of jazz and gospel that amplify the locale and themes. One could liken Newman's work on The Princess and the Frog with that of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens on Anastasia: songs that are enjoyable and advance the story but are generally not remembered afterward (at least until the fourth or fifth viewing).
If there's little that's new or challenging in The Princess and the Frog, therein lies the core of its charm. The movie is delightfully "old school," if that term can be applied to how the genre looked a mere 20 years ago when The Little Mermaid reinvigorated it. The structure and composition is the result of careful planning, but it comes across as inspired. Tiana is the next great Disney princess and The Princess and the Frog is a worthy entry into a genre whose resurrection is welcome.
Princess and the Frog, The (United States, 2009)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Ron Clements, John Musker, Rob Edwards, Greg Erb, Jason Oremland
Music: Randy Newman