The Princess and the Frog brought Disney back to their traditionally animated musical fairy tale roots. After the 2D animated Home on the Range proved disastrous, Walt Disney animation abandoned the medium altogether. Favoring computer animation for the next 5 years. With Pixar head John Lasseter’s influence in full effect, he chose to give the artform a much needed second chance. Although Bolt was a bigger success in the Post-Renaissance, it’s really The Princess and the Frog that feels like the start of something truly magical. The forty-ninth feature brought back Disney mainstays Clements & Musker, gave us a new broadway style musical, and returned to the tried-and-true fairy tale format. While at the same time embracing modern sensibilities in a way that defined what has become the Disney Revival era.
The Princess and the Frog retells the classic Brothers Grimm story The Frog Prince. In a way that’s closer to the 2002 book The Frog Princess. I don’t know much about either story outside of the basic kissing of the frog. Apart from its animation, Disney made the simple fairy tale stand out in many ways. The Princess and the Frog sets things in the magical city of New Orleans and gave us the first ever African American Disney Princess. Both worked out when distance was given between the film and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and Oprah Winfrey was brought in to improve some racial issues. In spite of its Best Animated Feature nomination, The Princess and the Frog was unfortunately not the major success Disney was hoping for…
The Princess and the Frog was exactly what my brother and I wanted to see in theaters after years of watching Disney. My more cynical 14 year old brain was proven wrong thinking I’d outgrown the magic. Although I was skeptical of Disney returning to traditional animation this far into the 2000’s, the familiar look won me over immediately. Same with the instantly catchy original songs and detailed focus on New Orleans. Whether it’s the flavorful food, jazzy music, or Mardi Gras. Of course working in a Louisiana themed restaurant increased my appreciation of the movie years later. Once Upon a time in 1920’s New Orleans, there lived an aspiring young cook with dreams of opening a restaurant with her loving father.
It took awhile, but Tiana is Disney’s first official black Princess. As well as the first from a major American city. I’m so glad they didn’t go with the unsuitable chambermaid profession and more unsuitable name Maddy. Tiana is beautiful whether she’s wearing a waitress uniform or regal blue Princess costume. Of course Tiana’s differences extend further than race. She has a strong work ethic and doesn’t believe wishing on a star will make her dreams come true. Although it takes place in the 20’s, I’m glad they don’t make any of her struggles about race. Tiana’s struggles are really about earning money and losing sight of what’s important in life. Singer/actress Anika Noni Rose has a voice that was perfect for the Princess to be. Tiana’s wealthy and enthusiastic Southern Belle friend Lottie helps push her dream in the right direction. Encouraging her to clean up the old mill with her mother to keep her and her father’s dream of a restaurant alive.
Meanwhile, the closest thing to royalty arrives in the form of Prince Naveen. An ambiguously brown Disney Prince with a Brazilian voice actor from the fictional country Maldonia. His unspecific race was a bit of a compromise for having a blackish Prince that could also be in an interracial relationship. Naveen struggles with being cut off from his parents, but makes the most of it by having fun, flirting, and playing his ukulele. Really the only one struggling is his hapless valet Lawrence. While enjoying the sights & sounds of New Orleans at first, they soon find themselves caught in its dark underbelly. Dr. Facilier is a truly memorable return to form Disney villain. It only made sense for him to be a voodoo witch doctor with the charismatic voice of Keith David and flashy style of Baron Samedi. Along with an evil shadow that earned him the nickname “Shadow Man.” Naveen & Lawrence foolishly accept his reading and Lawrence makes a deal behind Naveen’s back.
Although things seem to be going up for Tiana at Big Daddy LaBouffe’s party, skeezy real estate agents crush her dream. Lottie tries to encourage her with a Princess costume and Tiana even restores to wishing on a star. What she finds is the famous frog we’ve all been waiting for. The frog is Naveen who mistakes Tiana for a real Princess and is inspired by the book The Frog Prince to kiss her. Tiana does it in exchange for money to start her restaurant, but the unexpected happens. Turning Tiana into a frog for a majority of the film. I try not to read too much into it. Personally I like how it blends Disney’s tradition of fairy tales and anthropomorphic animals together. So frog Naveen & Tiana set out on an adventure on the bayou in hopes of finding a cure. Unaware Facilier is using voodoo magic to help Lawrence pose as Naveen in order to marry Lottie and gain LaBouffe’s power for himself. In turn, giving his “Friends on the other side” control over New Orleans.
In their small green mucus covered form, Naveen & Tiana narrowly avoid deadly alligators and frog leg hungry hillbillies. Along the way meeting two wacky Disney sidekicks of varying effectiveness. First is friendly but fearful alligator Louis who wants nothing more than to play his trumpet with a jazz band. Second is cooky Cajun firefly Ray who’s forever in love with his sweetheart Evangeline (the evening star). Ray takes them to the crazy old blind voodoo queen Mama Odie. Jenifer Lewis puts some zing into the sort of Fairy Godmother who passes on her knowledge with a message they both need to learn. Naveen needs to learn to work for what he wants and Tiana needs to learn to loosen up and have fun. Making Tiana & Naveen a Disney couple that perfectly compliment each other. He teaches her to dance and she teaches him to mince. They’re on their way to get a kiss from Lotti when she’s crowned Princess of Mardi Gras, but their feelings can’t be ignored. Misunderstandings and voodoo spirits pull them apart.
Leading to an intense climax that results in the unexpectedly dark (SPOILER ALERT!) death of comical sidekick Ray. Played a lot straighter than you’d think. Tiana crosses paths with the Shadow Man and he offers her a deal that’ll make her restaurant come true. She chooses love and breaks his talisman. Resulting in a particularly disturbing death where Facilier is literally dragged to Hell. Lotti’s kiss doesn’t work, but the subversions come to a satisfying conclusion when Naveen & Tiana’s bayou wedding makes them human again. Since Tiana is now a genuine Princess. Which is why her leafy green dress is her official look. It’s nothing short of heartwarming to see Tiana finally open Tiana’s Palace and live happily ever after. The Princess and the Frog is great at linking modern ideas with old fashion sincerity. The animation may seem like a downgrade, but they don’t need CGI to break new ground. It’s far from the director’s previous effort with Treasure Planet.
Characters have the classic Disney look, animals are the right kind of stylized, and backgrounds are made to look painted. The hand drawn look was even able to make food like gumbo and beignets look just as appetizing as they are in real life. The dearly missed broadway style music is really what Disney needed. While at the same time blurring the lines with Pixar by hiring Randy Newman to write original songs. Along with a more R&B song from Ne-Yo after the credits. There’s the Oscar nominated Louisiana anthem “Down in New Orleans.” The long awaited villain song “Friends on the Other Side.” An infectiously energetic colorful number that was the studio’s first since “Hellfire.” There’s the easygoing jazz tune “When We’re Human.” There’s Ray’s vastly different solos and Mama Odie’s spirited jubilation “Dig a Little Deeper.” Finally, there’s the very Oscar worthy Disney Princess song “Almost There.” A smooth dreamer song that greatly benefits from a black voice. Blame it on their risky choice to use 2D animation, but The Princess and the Frog is groundbreaking regardless of box-office performance.