Disney Animated Features
<< Bolt | Tangled >>
Release Date: 11 December 2009
There was much ado, back in 2004 and 2005, when Home on the Range was touted as Disney's last traditionally animated feature film in its canon of classics, and Chicken Little became the first created in the new "tradition" of computer-animated films. With the success of other film studios' computer-animated work—in particular, Pixar's highly successful films, the Shrek series, and Ice Age—the handwriting seemed to be on the wall.
But then something odd happened. Disney's three computer-animated films (Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt, not counting 2000's Dinosaur) were only modest successes. They weren't bad, per se, and in fact had much in common with the other studios' successes, including pop culture references, celebrity voices, high-quality animation, and zany action. But they lacked a little ... something ... something that would turn a good film into a great film.
Ironically, it was to be one of Pixar's visionaries—the man who created Toy Story—who realized that computer animation alone was not going to return Disney's animated classics to their previous stature. John Lasseter became Disney's Chief Creative Officer when they acquired Pixar in 2006, and he immediately recommended that the company return to traditionally animated features. Disney had pioneered the medium, and arguably perfected it, and even then no other company could do it quite as well as Disney. While some of the studio's recent films—like Home on the Range and Treasure Planet—were lackluster at best, Lasseter knew that could be fixed by a return to what made Disney the powerhouse it once was.
Just as in 1989, when five years of work from Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg revived Disney animation in the form of the blockbuster The Little Mermaid, the cure for Disney's ails in 2009 would be in returning to the fairy tale.
And indeed, that's exactly what The Princess and the Frog is—a fairy tale. Never mind that it's set in Jazz Age New Orleans instead of medieval Europe. It has everything you need in a proper fairy tale: courageous heroes, a contemptible villain, mysterious magics, and true love.
Tiana is a young waitress working overtime in New Orleans to save up enough money to fulfill her dream: opening her own restaurant. Her friends wish she'd take some time to have some fun, but she remembers what her father told her: wishing will only get you so far, and hard work is needed to get you the rest of the way. Her mother, though, worries that Tiana has forgotten her father's other piece of advice: that she never forget that love and family are what's truly important in life.
Meanwhile, Prince Naveen, a member of the royal family of Maldonia, has been cut off from his parents' fortune and travels to the United States to find a rich bride, allowing him to maintain his accustomed carefree (and responsibility-free) lifestyle. Tiana's friend Charlotte, who has always dreamed of marrying a prince, is smitten, but Tiana couldn't care less.
Naveen and his put-upon valet, Lawrence, fall into the clutches of Facilier, a practitioner of voodoo who has "friends on the other side". He schemes with Lawrence to turn Naveen into a frog, with Lawrence taking his place in marrying the very rich Charlotte. But Naveen gets free and, mistaking Tiana for a princess, begs for her help, in the form of a kiss. She reluctantly agrees, but she becomes a frog herself instead of restoring Naveen to humanity.
The two embark on a perilous journey through the bayou and back, searching for a way to get back to what they each want to be, while a few colorful allies—a trumpet-playing gator, a Cajun firefly, and a blind voodoo lady—try to convince them that what they want is less important than what they really need.
Much has been made of the fact that Tiana is African-American, the first such heroine in the Disney canon, but the movie, for its part, ignores race completely. Tiana and her family are indeed solidly black in their characterizations, and are voiced by black actors; they are working-class and live in small cottages very different from the mansions where Charlotte and her father, who are white, live. But Charlotte, while shallow and spoiled, is a sympathetic character who cares for Tiana and neither she nor her father evince any racial prejudice.
Naveen is an even more interesting case. His native country is the fictional Maldonia, apparently but not conclusively European. His voice actor is Brazilian, and his skin is brown but of a lighter shade than Tiana's rich chocolate color. Perhaps this is what allows him to be seen with both Charlotte and Tiana without raising eyebrows in 1920's Louisiana, but again the film ignores any potential issues entirely.
And that's for the best, as while it may not be 100% historically accurate, racial undertones would only get in the way of the story, which is very much in the tradition of Disney's princess stories. While the end result is fairly predictable, the route is circuitous and includes a few twists both amusing and heartbreaking. Of particular note is Charlotte, who could easily have become annoying and unlikeable, with her spoiled lifestyle and pursuit of a prince over all else; while she is flighty and single-minded, she is also kind, loving, and (mostly) gentle. The care taken to add dimension to her character is obvious and much-appreciated.
The voices are well-done, for the most part, with some well-known names in the cast but none which overpower the characters. The biggest name is undoubtedly Oprah Winfrey, who voices Tiana's mother Eudora, and while she does a good job, her part is small and doesn't rely on Winfrey to provide character. John Goodman (previously Baloo in The Jungle Book 2) has perhaps the most distinctive voice as Charlotte's Big Daddy La Bouff. Tiana herself is voiced by Anika Noni Rose, a Broadway actress who appeared on film in Dreamgirls; her Tiana has plenty of southern twang and sass to go with her beautiful, soaring singing voice.
Jennifer Lewis (previously Flo in Cars) voices voodoo priestess Mama Odie, with a big gospel-inspired production number showcasing her pipes. Actor/singer Terrence Howard is Tiana's father James, and Disney stalwart Jim Cummings affects a Cajun accent to voice the firefly Ray.
One place where John Lasseter did insist on a departure from Disney tradition was in the music, going with frequent Pixar composer Randy Newman instead of Alan Menken, who has written for Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and other princesses in his time at Disney. Newman's songs are very much in the Menken style, however, with only a few hints of the unique style he brought to films like Toy Story.
With energetic songs, well-written characters, and a tight but enjoyable story, The Princess and the Frog will easily fit right into the Disney canon and deserves to be called a classic in its own right.
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org), and the dark recesses of my own memory.