The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s long awaited return to hand drawn animation, has finally hit theatres. This movie can’t be reviewed in a vacuum. It’s the first major traditionally animated theatrical film from any studio in years, it features a new Disney princess, it is the return of the musical to Disney, and it could be seen as the culmination of the Disney/Pixar merge. This film has some lofty expectations surrounding it. Does it deliver? Good enough for me.
Hard working Tiana has no time for fun in her drive to fulfill her dream of opening her own restaurant. After being cut off by his parents, Prince Naveen is looking for a rich girl to marry so he can continue avoiding work of any kind. After a run in with a scheming voodoo magician, Naveen is turned into a frog. After mistaking Tiana for a princess whose kiss can break the spell, the two opposites must join forces to make things right.
Despite all the aspects of the film that people are focusing on, nothing really matters if the story is not there, and here the story is solid enough, though a bit rushed and mostly character driven. Tiana’s all-work-no-play attitude is a little too overplayed. And the falling-for-each-other storyline comes a little too easily (though that is almost to be expected in princess movies). But the main issue with the story actually isn’t really a negative necessarily. While Tiana is obstinately the focus, she is constantly upstaged by almost every other character in the film. That’s not to say anything is wrong with her character — it’s just that the rest of the cast are so fun and memorable that she pales a bit in comparison. Naveen especially steals the show with all the best lines. Louis the alligator is the best singing sidekick since Sebastian. Dr. Facilier should put to rest the theory that John Lasseter and company can’t create a great villain. Mama Odie only gets one number but it’s a show stopper. And even Ray, a star-crossed firefly, seems to shine more than the lead. So while the actual plot may be a bit on the fluff side, it is driven by some really fun and classic characters who make the journey worth the while. In the movies released by Disney since Pixar’s people came in-house, there has been a recurring plot device used in each — an emotional twist you didn’t see coming that invests you more than you might have expected with the story and characters. This was used to good effect in Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, raising those films to a higher level then they would have been without them. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say in this film they may have taken it a bit too far. Yes it had a nice payout, but in the end I don’t think it was worth the initial cost. One last thing I want to point out for special mention is the voodoo shadows. I was blown away by this concept. Again, I don’t want to give away too much of it but it was an inspired way to portray some of the magical elements of the story.
Now I’ll admit that there might be a little sentimentality involved here, but it was wonderful to see traditional Disney animation back on the big screen. There’s a fluidity of movement, an expressiveness of emotion, and a just plain warmth that doesn’t come across the same in computer generated films. And The Princess and the Frog shines in all these respects. No hyper-realistic designs and no flashy 3-D effects mar the mood. Based on the gorgeous art alone, this film should prove that hand drawn animation is worth the effort. The only problem I had was with the mostly uninspired character designs. The title characters were fairly bland as humans and even more so as frogs. Dr. Facilier is a huge stand-out here, making the more insipid designs look that much worse.
I know a lot of people were disappointed that Disney musical legend Alan Menken wouldn’t be providing the songs and score when instead Pixar favorite Randy Newman was given the job. True, Newman’s music doesn’t always have the same catchy hooks as Menken’s. But they did make the right decision for this film. Despite the Cajun accents and the voodoo themes, what really sells the setting as New Orleans is the music. And while Menken is a great composer, Newman brings an authenticity to the score that only someone who grew up there could. The songs are fun, if not as timeless as some others from Disney’s catalog. And while normally I would never complain about letting a better singer take the mic, I would have liked to hear Newman’s take on the opening song.
As long time readers know, mismatched characters and voices are a pet peeve of mine. And I’m happy to say the voice acting in the film was suburb. Anika Noni Rose is a more than worthy addition to the Disney Princess line of actresses. Bruno Campos is unforgettable as Naveen. Keith David is one of the scariest voiced villains ever at Disney. I was a little concerned about Michael-Leon Wooley as Louis when he first appeared, but by the first note out of his mouth in his musical number I was sold. And Jim Cummings as Ray? It is about time professional voice actors got some respect from the big Hollywood animation studios!
The Princess and the Frog was definitely worth the wait. It may not rank up there with the very best of the studio from 1989-1994 (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King), but it is as good as anything from the next five years (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan). And considering how low things seemed in the early 2000’s, that is not a bad place to start. Disney is almost there.
The Princess and the Frog
Walt Disney Animation
December 11, 2009
directed by Ron Clements & John Musker