Disney has released its 2007 annual report and, while it may be the dullest and least informative annual report ever (how bare must your calendar be if you have to slap High School Musical on the cover? You couldn’t even give us some DCA renderings?), it at least has a nice new image from The Princess and the Frog:
This 2009 animated release marks the first return to traditional animation for Disney since 2004’s execrable Home On The Range and is the first true animated fairy tale from the studio since Beauty and the Beast. So far, most of the film’s buzz has resulted from publicity about the lead character, Tiana, being the first black Disney “princess”. While admittedly the whole “Disney princess” marketing jihad gives me the galloping creeps, Tiana is a nice change of pace and so far the limited amount of conceptual art to be released from the film has been intriguing.
Far more interesting to me than the possible demographic breakthroughs of the film, though, are the potentials presented by its setting. Set in New Orleans during the Jazz Age, The Princess and the Frog (wow, it would be so much easier to type its previous title, The Frog Princess) promises a world of French Quarter elegance and mystical bayous, as well as “a soulful singing crocodile, voodoo spells and Cajun charm at every turn.” Done well, this could be a film dripping with atmosphere from smoky jazz clubs and arcane voodoo ritual in the decadent decay of the Crescent City.
Since rumors started to leak out about this film, I’ve been reminded of an old computer game by Roberta Williams entitled The Colonel’s Bequest. Set during the same period as Princess, the mystery game overcame its now-primitive graphics with a complex and engaging story wrapped in layers of creepy Louisiana atmosphere and the art deco elegance of the period. Another Sierra On-Line game from a few years later, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers by Jane Jensen, featured a story in modern New Orleans involving themes of voodoo and explored locations from the city’s gilded age. Both of these stories stick out in my mind years later as great examples of atmospheric storytelling and if Princess can come close to evoking these moods (with far, far more artistic resources at its disposal) then it will be a success. My only fear for the film is the excessive watering down of locales or themes for the sake of accessibility or political correctness; this is a rich, varied world and they should make the most of it.
The film itself has had an interesting development history. Directed by John Musker & Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), it’s based on an original story the duo brought to Disney when they returned to the studio in the wake of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull’s ascention as animation czars. Having departed after the failure of their Treasure Planet in 2002, they returned in spring of 2006 with the intent to make Princess the first return of the traditionally animated musical. With songs to be written by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, the film was to tell the story of a New Orleans chambermaid named Maddy and was titled The Frog Princess.
By the late fall of 2006, things had changed. The title was now The Princess and the Frog, “Maddy” was now “Tiana”, and John Lasseter had overridden Clements and Musker and replaced their choice for songwriters with Pixar staple Randy Newman. While this decision was the source of some controversy considering Menken’s long ties to the studio and Clements & Musker in particular, it was justified by Newman’s New Orleans heritage and jazz ties. The film was eventually announced officially at Disney’s annual stockholder presentation in March of 2007.