Disney returns to its roots with this release of The Princess and the Frog, the first of its kind since Home on the Range in 2004. For too long, the studio proper has languished in the domain of CGI features that simply don’t measure up to those produced in collaboration with Pixar, even less impressive DisneyToon features and – at the bottom of the barrel – the seemingly endless stream of direct-to-video prequels and sequels. As such, The Princess and the Frog has been set up as something of a renaissance movie, akin to Cinderella in 1950 (which saw the studio’s post-war return to feature animation) and The Little Mermaid in 1989 (which saw the start of a new “Golden Age” for Disney animation).
The film tells the story of Tiana, a young black woman who dreams of opening her own restaurant. A great deal stands in her way, but she is tenacious to the point of denying herself even the smallest of pleasures in life. Things are complicated even further when a foreign prince (Prince Naveen of Maldonia), a voodoo magician (Doctor Facilier) and a curse are thrown into the mix. Offering a twist on the fairy tale of “The Frog Prince” (courtesy of The Frog Princess E. D. Baker), when Tiana kisses the amphibian version of Prince Naveen, she turns into a frog herself and a quest is started so that the pair can become human again. Along the way, the rack up a number of allies – Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator and Ray, a lovesick Cajun firefly – and visit Mama Odie, a blind voodoo priestess who serves as a kind of “Wizard-ess of Oz” as they travel down not a yellow brick road, but a murky river in the swamps near New Orleans.
The “Oz” reference might seem a little obscure, but it points to the main weakness in the storytelling. While invested with charm and a whole lot of energy, there’s something textbook about the proceedings and parts of the film – particularly in the middle – are weighed down by a lack of spontaneity, feeling as though they are recycled from other stories we’ve heard before. Twists in the narrative – and there are a few – lock heads with this sensibility and it’s ultimately more than a little frustrating. Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun, but Disney’s greatest storytelling triumphs have been making the stories appear as if they are being told to us for the first time. Marketing aside, that’s the reason why so many times “the Disney version” becomes the definitive version.
That quibble aside, there is a lot on offer in The Princess and the Frog: the main characters are largely memorable and the voice work is appealing. Tiana is motivated and, in an age where princess entitlement seems to be the largest transferable quality when it comes to the little girls of today, it’s great to see her working hard for her dreams and to see that, even with a little help, that forms the basis of her success by the end of the story. Disney princes have almost all come under fire for being wooden, but this cannot be said of Prince Naveen whose modus operandi is to behave in as unprincely a fashion as possible.
As respective representatives of the two sides of the voodoo coin, Doctor Facilier and Mama Odie do the job. Although Facilier is perhaps more serviceable than truly threatening, his presence creates a springboard for a host of really scary supporting characters – the spirits that hover under his precarious command of them – and an surreal and stylised animation sequence that recalls the Disney of the 1940s. Mama Odie is altogether more satisfying on the whole, quirky like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother but who tells you not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Now that’s a refreshing take on stock character of the fairy tale genre.
As for the sidekicks, Louis is a great deal of fun and his antics enhance much of the film’s considerable comedic elements. And it is a testament to the storyteller’s efforts that Ray, surely a contender for one of the most annoying Disney sidekicks in the studio’s history, is still able to elicit some sympathy for his plight – and his fate.
The animation seemed a bit hit-and-miss to me. Some of the visuals are breathtakingly beautiful, others seem to be little better than the best moments in the Disneytoon or direct-to-video releases. Perhaps its not in the animation itself, then, but in the draftsmanship and there was something in particular about the way the colours were shaded, I think, in some sequences that made me pause for thought. At a push, I’d say it lacked subtely or that perhaps it looked too digital. I’m not certain what it is, but something didn’t quite gel for me.
The element I’ve left for last in this review is Randy Newman’s song score. Let’s get the Alan Menken comparison out of the way first. No, it’s not The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. Newman just doesn’t seem be as dexterous or as melodic as Menken. The songs in The Princess and the Frog are driven primarily by rhythm rather than melody. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, nor does it mean they are not memorable. “Almost There” and “Dig a Little Deeper” are probably the pick of the bunch; “When We’re Human” and “Gonna Take you There” are a good bit of fun; and while it’s no “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, “Friends on the Other Side” certainly provides the foundation for some super visuals.
What didn’t work for me was “Down in New Orleans”. The song provides a great opening and finale to the film when segments are performed by Tiana, but the full version early on in the film lost something for me because of it’s performance by a disembodied voice. Perhaps if it had all been presented by an impartial narrator, the consistency of the convention would have held it together. Even better, Newman should have found a way to make the characters sing New Orleans to life. That would have been something to see and hear.
So is The Princess and the Frog the renaissance movie Disney fans hope it will be? Well, I hope it sets a precedent for further traditionally animated films – for better ones too. It’s not a film that ranks amongst the best of Disney’s best, but it is solidly crafted and largely entertaining despite a few shortcomings – and as Disney has basically had to reinvent their 2-D animation department to bring this film to fruition, perhaps we can extend a little generosity in the hope that this rebuilding process continues long after the sun has set down in the bayou.