A Cajun Tale of Frogs and Princesses
The 2006 Disney/Pixar merger was cataclysmic in the world of animation, and it changed a lot of lives. Some of those lives were those of the animators who had been laid off in 2003 when Disney, panicked by the implacable success of Pixar, DreamWorks and the other new Young Turks of the animation field with computer-generated imagery, laid off all its traditional animators. Besides being abrupt and unnecessary, that had been a mistake, because one of Disney's big advantages was its legacy of hand-drawn animation which always lent its films a distinctive and appealing look. Ironically, it took the influence of the new Pixar people, John Lasseter in particular, to reverse this decision and hire back the skilled animators. The first result of this backtracking was "The Princess and the Frog" (2009), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team that brought Disney some of its greatest successes with "The Great Mouse Detective," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Hercules." If you find anybody who has directed four better animated films in a row than those, well, let us know, because we can't think of anyone.
|Tiana, reaching for the stars|
The idea for "The Princess and the Frog" came from E.D. Baker's "The Frog Princess." In addition to going back to traditional animation, Musker and Clements also revived the musical format that worked so well in the 1990s. Musker and Clements, incidentally, had retired in 2005, and Lasseter had to ask them (nicely) to come back to once again, as with their 1980s hits, reverse a long Disney losing streak. The two directors were given carte blanche, and they used it in several different ways, including ignoring critics who argued that setting a fairy tale in New Orleans was an affront to Hurricane Katrina victims. This was one of those situations where getting the right old pros at the right time worked to perfection, because "The Princess and the Frog" indeed reversed the fortunes of Walt Disney Animation Studios to the upside, turning a profit and currying much favor in the Black community.
Tiana lives in New Orleans, where she is a waitress with dreams of owning her own restaurant. She works two shifts in order to raise the money to buy an old sugar mill, which she intends to use as her restaurant. Eli "Big Daddy" La Bouff runs the annual Mardi Gras masquerade ball, and his daughter, Tiana's childhood friend Charlotte La Bouff, hires Tiana to provide catering services. Big Daddy wants to use this particular occasion to set up his daughter with the visiting Prince Naveen of Maldonia. With the proceeds from this job, Tiana will be able to buy the sugar mill and fulfil her dream.
|Big Daddy, Eudora and Charlotte|
Prince Naveen, though, has been disinherited and is penniless and jobless, though still accompanied by his faithful servant Lawrence. He wants to marry a wealthy woman to restore his fortunes, but he falls in with a voodoo witch doctor, Dr. Facilier. The witch doctor transforms Naveen into a frog and gives Lawrence a voodoo charm full of Naveen's blood that enables Lawrence to look like Naveen. Facilier is intent on having Lawrence marry the wealthy Charlotte so that he, because he controls Lawrence, will become wealthy.
|Tiana and the Frog|
Naveen meets Tiana at the ball, and he asks her to kiss him to reverse Dr. Facilier's curse. She agrees because she thinks she will need more money for her restaurant, but instead of turning Naveen back into a man, the kiss turns Tiana into a frog herself. Together, they escape to the nearby bayou. Lawrence, meanwhile, romances Charlotte, but Dr. Facilier's potion wears off and he reverts to his regular form. In order to keep the charade going, Dr. Facilier tells Lawrence, they will have to get more of Naveen's blood. In order to locate Naveen, Dr. Facilier makes a deal with the voodoo spirits in which he promises to offer up the souls of the people of New Orleans once he gains control. The voodoo spirits agree and dispatch shadow demons to locate Naveen.
Tiana and Naveen meet trumpet-playing alligator Louis in the bayou, who leads them to Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess, and Ray, a friendly firefly. Ray is in love with Evangeline, the Evening Star. Mama Odie tells Naveen that he must kiss a true princess to reverse the curse, and the best choice would be Charlotte, because Big Daddy is king of Mardi Gras, meaning Charlotte is (sort of) a princess. That opportunity, though, will expire at midnight, when Mardi Gras ends, so time is an issue. Before Naveen can act upon this suggestion, though, he is captured by the shadow demons and brought before Dr. Facilier. Ray intervenes and frees Naveen, and they also steal the charm with Naveen's blood and give it to Tiana, but Ray is killed in the struggle.
Desperate to get the voodoo charm back, Dr. Facilier changes Tiana back to human form and offers to fulfill her restaurant dream if she will give it to him. She refuses, but one of the shadow demons steals the charm anyway. Dr. Facilier then changes Tiana back into a frog, but she uses her frog tongue to steal the voodoo charm back, destroying it in the process. The voodoo spirits, angered at Dr. Facilier's incompetence, then abduct him for his own soul.
|Keith David, who does a great job, and his character|
Tiana and Naveen, meanwhile, have fallen in love, and they explain the situation to Charlotte. She is touched and kisses Naveen in order to transform the pair back into human form, but it is too late - Mardi Gras is over. The two lovers decide to remain as frogs, content just to be together, and are married as such. Once the ceremony is concluded, though, Tiana herself becomes a princess and her own kiss reverses the spell. Louis then helps them to purchase the sugar mill, and the happy couple live happily ever after.
|The DVD is very attractive, as usual with Disney|
"The Princess and the Frog" is an amiable take on the old fairy tale, and the voice actors are all relatively little-known with the exception of John Goodman as Big Daddy and Oprah Winfrey (who has to get into every high-profile Black-centric production, it seems, and before you get upset at me over that, consider there might just be other black actresses that need the jobs more than her) as Eudora, Tiana's mother. Anika Noni Ross plays Tiana, Bruno Campos is Naveen, Michael-Leon Wooley is Louis, Jennifer Cody is Charlotte, and Keith David plays Doctor Facilier. Among many other things, "The Princess and the Frog" is a return to the days when voice actors weren't just celebrities brought on board as a marketing gimmick. None of the voice actors of "The Princess and the Frog" became major stars as a result (Noni Ross had been in "Dreamgirls," but she is no Jennifer Hudson), so their contributions are relatively unique to the film and make their characters distinctive.
|Kissing the frog|
A special animation process, Toon Boom Harmony, was used in place of the old Disney CAPS system. Traditional pen and pencil drawings were scanned into the computer system, where digital effects such as smoke and shading were added. One sequence, the "Almost There" dream sequence, uses an Art Deco style (the film is set in the 1920s, though that makes little difference to the plot), which helps give the whole project character.
|The film poster is one of Disney's best|
Modern commercial software products such as Adobe Photoshop were used to add special effects. In a further ironic twist to all the reversions, Disney decided to stop trying to make hand-drawn animation look like the computer-generated kind, marking a complete break with modern technological advances in the field. Many people enjoy not having to wear the 3-D glasses that have become standard at animated feature films for, to be truthful, little or no advantage. It also is nice not to have to pay the premium such films demand.
|Prince Naveen and Tiana|
Being set in New Orleans, there were plenty of musical infuences from which to draw. Randy Newman and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band combined on "Down in New Orleans" sung by Dr. John, while Newman did the rest of the score in a jazz/blues style. Probably the biggest draw of "The Princess and the Frog," though, is that the characters are representative of the African-American community and helped Disney to expand its audience in that demographic. Critics can no longer slam Disney as not having any Black princesses, and the fact that the script is clever and witty helps make "The Princess and the Frog" an enjoyable experience for everyone. However, there was one major marketing problem with the film that Disney was careful never to repeat: the use of the word "Princess" in the title. When the story of Rapunzel came around, it turned into "Tangled," and "The Ice Queen" became "Frozen." Those films did better, and the odds of "Princess" or something similar appearing in another Disney title any time soon are between slim and none.
|Louis and the happy couple|
"The Princess and the Frog" does not belong in the true pantheon of Disney classics simply because it is fairly low-key, without major stars or hammy, show-stopping performances such as by Robin Williams in "Aladdin." The music is distinctive and fun, but does not have the sweeping, popular impact of the songs from the great Disney animated musicals of the 1990s. For what it is, though, an affectionate politically correct look at a unique community, "The Princess and the Frog" is well worth your time and is an enjoyable way to spend an evening.
Below is the trailer for "The Prince and the Frog."