Walt Disney Animation Studios recently released their latest effort, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, to home video on DVD and Blu-ray disc. The film, highly publicized as Disney’s first traditionally-animated release since 2004 and their first fairy tale since 1991, also received a great deal of attention due to its protagonist – the first black lead in a Disney animated film, and the first black Disney “princess”.
So, you know, no pressure. With animation fans seeing the film as a deciding factor in the future of traditional animation at Disney, and the project’s significance as the first greenlight of the Lasseter era of Disney feature animation, the studio dug deep to try and recreate the magic that ushered in Disney’s second golden age twenty years ago with The Little Mermaid. They brought back directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Disney vets who had directed Mermaid and several other films before eventually leaving the company. Many other animators, like Eric Goldberg, also returned to Disney after departing in the diaspora following former CEO Michael Eisner’s decision to switch the company entirely to computer animation. The Princess and the Frog would be, Disney hoped, the film that vaulted them back to prominence once more.
With all this baggage circulating in the background – the long-awaited return of hand-drawn animation with its future hanging in the balance, not to mention the vast number of pitfalls provided by the race issue – it’s not surprising that the film itself occasionally got lost in the shuffle. But while the picture itself isn’t a home run, hampered by story issues as well as stylistic nitpicks, it’s still a solidly entertaining offering with some lovely visuals, good music, and engaging vocal work.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a Disney fan, which means that by now you’re at least somewhat acquainted with the story. Tiana, born to a poor black family in jazz-age New Orleans, dreams of opening her own restaurant. Naveen, a visiting prince from the fictitious nation of Maldonia, is a wastrel gadabout who leads a life of leisure but has had his purse-strings cut by his parents. When Naveen is turned into a frog by voodoo conman Dr. Facilier, it leads to the traditional series of madcap hijinks and self-actualization. The froggy Naveen and the also-transformed froggy Tiana must make their way through the bayou with a trumpet playing alligator and redneck firefly to find a voodoo priestess who can turn them back to their human selves. So, you know, your usual.
The first act moves along at a good clip and introduces the characters efficiently and effectively. We get Tiana’s backstory without too much needless melodrama, and we quickly are shown her ambitions and how hard she’s willing to work to achieve them. The upbeat tempo of the story is aided by Randy Newman’s peppy New Orleans-inspired score and songs, which help to set the stage for the film and move things along.
The story starts to drag in the middle, as the two frogs go on their adventure in the bayou. Here the films starts to feel episodic, and I can’t help but wonder if this is an effect of the balance of power being more in the hands of the animators. At the very least, there seems to have not been a clear voice making the hard calls on what to cut, and the result is that some sequences – most egregiously the scene with the redneck hunters – feel straight out of the more turgid Disney films of the late 1970s. I’m sure they were fun to board and animate (and are, usually, generally entertaining), but they grind the film to a halt. The real problem with these shenanigans is that they elbow out scenes with more character development that would help in making the characters’ arcs – especially the budding froggy romance – seem less rushed and arbitrary.
The rushed feeling isn’t helped by the fact that the film has too many characters; I can think of two that could be completely excised without any harm to the narrative whatsoever. Louis, the trumpet-playing alligator, is a hilarious character with plenty of good bits and great voice work, but he takes up a great deal of screen time without adding anything to the story. He doesn’t even lead the two frogs through the bayou; that task is left to Ray the firefly. Why is Louis there?
The same can be said for Naveen’s manservant, Lawrence. Aside from being visually unpleasant with his squishy chimp-like features, he only serves to provide some comic relief when he betrays Naveen and, using voodoo shapeshifting magic, takes the prince’s place in wooing wealthy heiress Charlotte LaBouff. Why Dr. Facilier needs this incompetent lackey to act as his proxy is unclear, and it would make far more sense for Facilier to just transform into Naveen himself and cut out the middle-man. It would also eliminate the need for Lawrence at all, and save us from some needless slapstick sequences in the middle of the film.
The ending of the film is a mishmash, with so many balls in the air that everything is forced to come together rather haphazardly. There are some really nice turns here, and some truly poignant moments, but there’s also a lot of rushed exposition and a heapin’ helping of deus ex machina. Still, although it stumbles to the finish line, the film ends on a really strong note with perhaps its strongest asset – Anika Noni Rose as Tiana, belting out one of Newman’s jazz numbers.
Visually, the production design was spectacular and a lot of the work on backgrounds, layout, and effects animation was really wonderful. There are a few excellent sequences where the animators play with the style a bit, and I enjoyed these greatly. The first, during Tiana’s number Almost There, visualizes the restaurant she hopes to build in a lavish, art-deco inspired graphic style. Facilier’s big song, Friends On The Other Side, features a great deal of effects work and swirling, black-lit voodoo masks. It almost hearkens back to the experimentation in the package films of the 1940s, and these are by far the most interesting sequences in the film. I seem to differ with most reviewers, though, in that I have a problem with some of the character animation.
A great deal of the animation in The Princess and the Frog is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. They do fairly well in not using a lot of the clichés and visual shortcuts that permeated latter-day feature animation releases. But there’s a general inconsistency in the tone of the animation that really bothers me. Simply put, a lot of the characters seem like they’re from different movies altogether. Some, like Tiana, are drawn in a caricatured but somewhat realistic style – they stay on model, and seem to occupy the same physical universe as the rest of us. Others seem to squash and stretch at random, limbs flopping around without any underlying physiology and eyes bugging out like old Warner Brothers cartoons. There are far too many extreme poses used for the sake of a gag – whether it be a smashed, disfigured frog or someone’s hair standing full on end in shock. You can have exaggeration and caricature while maintaining the “plausible impossible” – a textbook example being Bill Tytla’s work on Stromboli for Pinocchio. But too many of the gags in The Princess and the Frog seem straight out of the notebook of some CalArts Chuck Jones fanclub. And some of the work is positively Bluthian. Special notice for this inconsistency should go, once again, to the trio of hunters that the two frogs encounter in the swap. I don’t know what movie or Kricfalusi TV show they wandered in from, but it’s a completely different universe than the rest of the characters we’ve seen.
A big example of this is on a character that’s received a lot of plaudits from the animation community – Eric Goldberg’s work on Louis the alligator. Now I’m a great fan of Goldberg’s, and have a great deal of respect for him. But this character is all over the place visually, which is fine for a blue genie but less appropriate for a mere mortal alligator. Again, I’m sure it was fun to animate and shows a great deal of skill – and his work for the film has garnered a number of animation awards – but it’s too “big” for my tastes. Too “loosey-goosey”.
On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of animation “academics” speak ill of Nik Ranieri’s work on debutante Charlotte LaBouff, but it’s my absolute favorite work in the entire film. Charlotte, too, is a “big” character, devouring the scenery whenever she’s around. But you also get a sense of structure; all that energy is packed into a single, well-defined form that still seems to follow the niceties of physics and anatomy. Charlotte’s a hilarious character, with lots of subtle movements tucked into her big, dramatic flourishes. It’s hilarious work and Ranieri should be proud.
Final praise should go again to the voice cast – to Anika Noni Rose for her sympathetic work as Tiana, as well as her sublime singing voice; to Keith David for his fantastic, growling work as villainous Dr. Facilier; to Jennifer Cody (Charlotte) and Michael-Leon Wooley (Louis); and lastly to Jim Cummings – the most pleasant surprise of the entire film, as the Cajun firefly Ray.
I was prepared to hate this character. He appeared, at the outset, to be the kind of dippy sidekick that you tend to enjoy only for the sake of campy awfulness. But while he did get the lamest jokes in the film – the flatulence jokes as well as the “my butt is a lightbulb” gags – he wound up being shockingly entertaining and sympathetic. In fact, he runs the risk of stealing the entire film in the third act; in the end, his willingness to take up action to affect the outcome makes him the hero of the finale far more than either Tiana or Naveen.
One cannot discuss The Princess and the Frog without addressing the issue of race, not only because the film takes place in Jim Crow-era New Orleans but also because Tiana’s place as the first black Disney heroine was a huge part of the public narrative behind the film’s release. Mostly the race issue is ignored within the film itself, an issue which some find absurd. Typically, I would say that it’s unnecessary for a film to be “required” to address any specific issue, but with these characters, and this time, and this place… well, it’s an issue.
That’s not to say that I wanted the film to underline these points. It’s better done subtly, and I like the dissolve from the ritzy mansions to the less-scenic row houses as Tiana takes the streetcar home from work. Unfortunately, several changes in the film’s story were made early on to appease critics, and that somehow muddled the world of the film. Tiana’s mother was originally intended to be a cook in the LaBouff household, rather than a freelance seamstress who made dresses for the spoiled young Charlotte. This would lead to Tiana (originally called Maddie) growing up in the household, and eventually becoming chambermaid to the wealthy girl. That original storyline would explain their close relationship far more realistically than in the finished film, where they have an undefined friendship that, while nice to see, seems improbable for the era.
In fact everyone seems on their best behavior racially in The Princess and the Frog which, again, while being pleasant, seems at odds with history. New Orleans was more cosmopolitan than most southern cities of the era but everyone mingling and hobnobbing across social and economic barriers makes the issue more obvious than it might otherwise be. While I wouldn’t suggest that Disney do anything as trite as using the frog transformation as an obvious metaphor for “it only matters who you are on the inside,” it does seem that there are several thematic threads drifting through the film unrelated to each other. It would have served the story better, I think, to pick one and have something to say about it rather than just giving lip service to many different themes.
The result is that The Princess and the Frog feels like a film that’s supposed to have a message, but it’s unclear what that message is. The thesis, revealed by voodoo priestess Mama Odie towards the end of the film, is that you have to “dig a little deeper” and “find out who you are.” Essentially, if you can’t get what you want, you have to get what you need.
It’s hard, though, to see how this applies to Tiana. We see her working hard at the start of the film, taking two difficult jobs to save money to open the restaurant that was the dream of her and her late father. The film plays with the notion that she’s working too hard and not enjoying life, but it’s hard to find fault in someone determined who’s busting their tail to make their dream come true. Although she’s billed as a Disney princess, Tiana is actually the antithesis of the mindset typical to animated fairytales. She has no interest in adventure or romance, she just loves to cook. And what’s wrong with that? I actually found myself wishing I was a little more like her during the first act, which doesn’t usually happen in cartoons. Her determination hasn’t made her hard or bitter, it’s just hard work in pursuit of something she loves.
Yet somehow there’s a false equivalence between Tiana’s situation and that of Naveen, a layabout ladies’ man with no obvious skills or abilities besides smooth talk and a pretty face. I think the movie’s telling us that they need to meet in the middle, somehow, but if I were her I’d be just as irritated with him as she was. Let’s face it, if you’ve been turned into a frog by a witch doctor and are trying to survive in a dangerous bayou, you might not have any interesting in stringing up the banjo and having a hoedown.
And in the end, of course, they fall in love – although it feels rushed and not completely natural. Perhaps if we’d had some indication that Tiana did want more than her restaurant, that she wanted a little excitement and romance but was keeping it on the back burner because she thought that’s what she had to do, then her journey would seem more necessary and believable. In the end, after all, she just winds up where she wanted to be in the first place – her restaurant.
As is their fashion, Disney has released three versions of Princess and the Frog for home theaters. A single-disc DVD, a single-disc Blu-ray, and a combo package that includes both those discs with a third containing a digital copy of the film. I’ll save you all the audiovisual chatter – the film looks incredible on both Blu-ray and DVD, and the various surround mixes are of the quality that home theater fans have come to expect.
Disney continues their trend of feature-light DVD releases with this disc, which features a handful of deleted scenes and one real gem – an audio commentary by John Musker and Ron Clements, who wrote and directed the film, and producer Peter del Vecho.
Four deleted scenes are presented as story sketches and rough animation, with each clip featuring an introduction by Musker and Clements. These scenes are intriguing, as a few of them present elements of character development that were left out of the final feature. One scene, in which Tiana’s mother Eudora is prevailing upon her to settle down and have a family, illustrate a possible alternative to Tiana’s hardworking single life that is never explored in the finished film. Another scene, with Naveen in his frog form, features a very different character design that is both more frog-like and far more visually appealing than his final appearance.
A music video by Ne-Yo for his song Never Knew I Needed rounds out the extras, along with the obligatory interactive game and an assortment of trailers.
The Blu-ray release contains all the extras from the DVD version, as well as an assortment of new material. Most prominent is the 22-minute “making of” documentary, Magic in the Bayou: The Making of a Princess. There are also six short featurettes that were originally released to promote the movie’s release in 2009. They focus on the characters from the film, as well as the legacy of Disney animation. There are a number of art galleries detailing the film’s development, which is nice to see, and an excellent and unheralded feature – a workprint version of the film that can be viewed with picture-in-picture along with the finished product. That’s a very cool extra, and something that I’d love to see for every animated film.
Overall I found The Princess and the Frog to be highly enjoyable if flawed. While obviously the story needed to be streamlined, even when the plotting dragged there was always something worth watching. Most of the characters were well realized, the voice acting was great, and the music suited the proceedings perfectly. In fact, it’s hard to get many of those ditties out of your head afterward.
The future of Disney animation is murky at the moment, with no further traditionally animated films announced beyond 2011’s Winnie-the-Pooh. But while The Princess and the Frog didn’t smash records at the box office last year, it’s a more than welcome addition to the Disney canon and a film whose characters, animation and music will continue to be appreciated for years to come.