With the release of Disney’s first animated fairytale in many years, fans get to experience what was once an annual ritual – the release of a new musical soundtrack. Originally intended for long-time Disney composer Alan Menken, The Princess and the Frog was eventually re-assigned to John Lasseter’s self-professed favorite composer, Randy Newman. In this instance, Newman’s presence makes sense; his roots in the New Orleans musical culture fit well with the film’s setting, and his wry and witty lyrics mix with stand-out vocal performances by the film’s cast to create a thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack.
My listening experience with this album was slightly odd due to the fact that I’ve seen only part of the movie, amounting to about four of the songs. With the visuals for these tracks already in my head, I had a much quicker connection to those numbers. In the roughly two weeks since I received the album, though, I’ve grown familiar with the rest of the album and it all meshes nicely. Newman’s songs cover a range of styles from the Louisiana region, providing a nice variety and keeping things from getting stale.
Skipping the album’s first track – more on that later – takes us to the first of the film’s songs, a melodic prelude that you might have heard in the film’s trailer. Performed by Anika Noni Rose, the voice of the film’s heroine, this little prologue sets the tone of the film nicely.
The next track kicks up the tempo with an upbeat tour of the Crescent City, Down in New Orleans. One of the great things about this soundtrack is getting Randy Newman’s songwriting without the downside of Randy Newman’s singing. Instead, our introduction to the film’s world is performed by New Orleans musical legend Dr. John – a perfect fit for the material. His bluesy, boogie-woogie tempo makes this Dixieland-inflected piece an appropriately energetic way to start the film.
It became codified in the 1990s that every Disney fairy tale had to have an “I want” song, in which the “princess” in question would sing about her hopes and wishes. Almost There fills that role in Princess and the Frog, but with a noticeable shift in tone. Instead of pining for lost love or adventure, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) asserts her vision for the future. A waitress with a life-long goal to become a restaurateur, Tiana doesn’t sing about what she wants to happen – she sings about what will happen. It’s very affirmative and upbeat, and Rose’s voice is a superb fit for the character. It’s technically proficient, but also full of good humor and charm.
Her voice is so good, in fact, that you find yourself hating that this is her only solo number in the film. That’s obviously necessary for story reasons (this isn’t some 3-hour musical from the 1960s, after all), but her voice fits the character so well that it leaves you wanting more. A few previous Disney features, notably The Lion King and Lilo & Stitch, have released a second soundtrack with music “inspired” by the film. Far be it from me to suggest anything to Disney marketing, but I’d kind of like to see a Newman-produced album of jazz, blues, and songbook classics featuring the voice cast of the film.
Disney musicals also need a villain number, and so we get Keith David’s Dr. Facilier and Friends On The Other Side. This piece could only have been in an animated film, because if there had actually been real scenery, David would have devoured it whole. They might have had to actually build a few sets for him to chew on anyway. Dr Facilier is larger than life, and indeed this song is strongly evocative of Poor Unfortunate Souls from The Little Mermaid. It’s the most operatic piece in the soundtrack, incorporating quite a bit of dialogue and plot into its lyrics. This makes it a little more true to the Disney model, but David’s booming voice is perfect for the character and the song’s bluesy undertones and he really makes the most of it.
When We’re Human is a jazzy Dixieland piece featuring the now-transformed Tiana and Naveen (Bruno Campos) as well as the jazz-loving alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley). Veteran trumpeter Terence Blanchard contributes his considerable skills to this song, which underscores the markedly different goals of the characters (Tiana want to become human again to get back to work on her restaurant; gadabout Naveen wants to get back to the ladies). The song’s pretty fun, has some nice musical moments, and moves at a brisk pace.
We’re introduced to Jim Cummings’s Cajun firefly Ray with the zydeco-infused Gonna Take You There. This is probably the most comedic piece on the album, and while it is indeed catchy it’s my least favorite of the tracks due to my general indifference to zydeco.
Cummings fares much better with the next number, the Cajun waltz My Belle Evangeline. The relaxed tempo conveys the appropriate feeling of moonlight on the bayou, and there’s more great trumpet work by Terence Blanchard. Thankfully, despite the fact that Ray seems to be the film’s comic relief, they play this song pretty straight. In many ways, it’s a descendant of Kiss the Girl from The Little Mermaid, and it’s a lovely song that might be well-served by a cover version in the future (if only Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm would make amends!).
The soundtrack peaks with the gospel blowout Dig a Little Deeper, featuring Jenifer Lewis (as Mama Odie) and the Pinnacle Gospel Choir. This is a huge number, with quick, brassy lyrics, and it leaves one feeling like you’ve been to a revival yourself. It’ll be wild on the big screen.
The last song on the soundtrack is a reprise of Down in New Orleans by Anika Noni Rose, and it’s the perfect way to end the film. Rose totally blows it out, and the performance is so lively that it feels like the curtain call at a packed Broadway show. Did I mention that I’m totally crushing on her voice? This number will no doubt leave fans hyped and ready for whatever Disney has coming next (just try and forget for the moment that it’s Winnie-The-Pooh).
The songs on this album are pretty consistently great – consistent in a way that Disney soundtracks haven’t been in a while. The sad exceptions to this are the seven excerpts of the film’s score that flesh out the remainder of the tracks. New Orleans has such a long musical tradition in so many genres, it seems shocking that these seven tracks from the score are so blandly orchestral. True, people rarely listen to these soundtracks for the purely musical sections; after all, the big set pieces of these films are the songs themselves. Still, with all the superlative work that artists like Michael Giacchino have been doing on animation soundtracks recently, one comes to expect more that a run-of-the-mill underscore with some light music cues underlining the action.
Newman has done good scoring work before, and there are bits and pieces on this album that hint at greater Dixieland or jazz possibilies. The bulk of the score, though, seems sadly underwhelming, conventionally orchestral, and highly forgettable.
What I wish I could forget, though, is the aforementioned track that leads off the album – a mind-numbingly bland piece of R&B called Never Knew I Needed. This song, which I assume plays over the film’s end credits, is the conceptual descendant of the “hit single” covers from the Disney animated soundtracks in the 1990s; these dull, adult-contemporary radio ready singles by artists like Celine Dion provided the flavorless, synthesized soundtrack for a million elevators and dentists’ waiting rooms in the previous decade.
This isn’t to say that the song, by someone called Ne-Yo, is really awful or tasteless – it’s just breathtakingly, astoundingly boring. Of course, that statement applies to my general opinion of all modern R&B anyway. Again, going back to the New Orleans music tradition, they couldn’t find a more appropriate way to make a single for the film? Heck, get Harry Connick, Jr. if you want the radio-friendly vibe. The problem, of course, is that Disney is no longer peddling to the middle-of-the-road adult crowd. This single is aimed, like everything else, at the Disney Channel market, and it’s the first truly pandering move I’ve seen from this film’s marketing so far. What’s funny is that they’ve taken a genre and a label – Ne-Yo comes under license from Def Jam Records – that tends towards the scandalous, and filed off any rough edges to make it unthreatening enough for the Disney Channel pre-tweens and their moms. What’s left is neither tonally appropriate for the film, or even an interesting song in its own right. At least in the 90s they stuck these at the end of the album; this time, we get it stuck at the first so you have to fast forward every time you pop in the CD.
But that’s one track out of seventeen, and that’s certainly not a bad slugging percentage. The songs from the actual movie itself are catchy and fun, and musically interesting. I’m looking forward to seeing them all in context on the big screen, and I would recommend this disc to anyone who is a fan of animated musicals, New Orleans, or singing amphibians. It’s fun to see Disney getting back to its roots, and doing it in style.
The Princess and the Frog: Original Songs and Score can be purchased online at Amazon.