You may or may not be able to fathom how freaking excited I was to watch The Princess and the Frog back in 2009. Too excited, maybe. The return of Disney to traditional, hand-drawn animation, with a movie directed by Ron Clements and John Musker nonetheless (the guys behind The Little Mermaid) was the promise of going back to the studio’s greatest years. A promise for yet another Disney Renaissance. In early 2014, with Frozen having just become the highest grossing animated movie of all time, it would be easy to argue Disney is officially back to its early nineties greatness. Although it’s important to mention that the traditional animation is still missing. You see, The Princess and the Frog didn’t exactly set the box office on fire (at least not enough for Disney to want to do another hand-drawn movie).
Even if The Princess and the Frog doesn’t go down in history as an unmitigated and game-changing success, if some sort of Disney scholar wants to regard this period as a “second Renaissance”, then they better include Princess and the Frog, because, if nothing else, it fits incredibly well as the first part of an informal trilogy of Post-Modern Disney Princess. The second and third movies in the trilogy would be Tangled and Frozen. All three of these movies share essentially the same plot-structure (female lead and male lead that she doesn’t quite get along with go on an adventure and fall in love), but also try to spin the “Disney Princess” trope into something that would feel fresh and new in the 21st Century. The movie at hand is the weakest of the three, but it’s also very ambitious -maybe the most ambitious- in terms of trying to play with the Princess stereotype.
Let’s start talking about what is undoubtedly great about The Princess and the Frog, which is also talking about one of the movie’s very ambitious fronts. I’m talking, of course, about the movie’s visuals. Disney’s return to 2D animation, as far as the technical aspect is concerned, was nothing if not triumphant. The one complaint I could give about this aspect of the movie is that the design of some of the supporting characters doesn’t feel very inspired. I guess that, since the movie is set in the 1920s or thereabouts, they wanted to evoke the look of classic cartoons of that time, but the designs aren’t stylized enough to feel intentional. They look rather trapped somewhere between retro homage and typical Disney cartoons. But, hey, otherwise, this movie is freaking gorgeous. Especially because it seems like the animators took to task to show people how amazingly good-looking hand-drawn images can be. Above all the visuals, the gorgeously painted backgrounds make this one of the most beautiful movies Disney ever made. Just look at the art direction of the Louisiana bayou landscape in this number.
The movie’s other big, and unmitigated, “yes” is the music. As you might have seen in the clip above, the music goes after an early jazz style vibe (otherwise what would have been the point of setting the movie in 1920s New Orleans, right?). The man responsible for the soundtrack was Randy Newman, who had been scoring lots of Pixar’s movies throughout the 90s and 2000s. He does a commendable job with songs that do precisely what they’re supposed to, and what’s more, don’t even sound like Randy Newman songs most of the time.
Now that we’ve talked about what’s great, it’s time to talk about the aspects of Princess and the Frog that aren’t quite as successful. Obviously the big elephant in the review, and the only thing people seemed to be able to talk about in the months before the movie came out (and all throughout its production) is the fact that Tiana is the first African-American Princess in the Disney filmography. A big scandal went down when people learned about Disney’s original plot for the movie, which had Tiana being the maid of wealthy white family. Complaints were giving all over, and the people behind the movie decided to change Tiana into a hard-working waitress who wants to save enough money to open her own restaurant. I don’t think anyone can argue with the complaints about the original treatment of the character. Setting a movie in 1920s New Orleans was going to be tricky, and people had all the right to fear an insensitive portrayal of what it was like to be an Affrican American at that time.
But while Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is amongst the better fleshed out and more assertive female leads in the Disney Canon, I can’t help but feel like the movie indulges in a little bit of whitewashing. I guess the question of whether (and how) you want to introduce very young children to the concept of segregation is a very delicate one, but it does feel a little disingenuous to have Tiana work in a restaurant where black and white costumers dine happily side by side. I might be wrong, but as far as I know, that just wasn’t the case in New Orleans at the time. I must admit, though, that that is a problem that I can easily overcome. There is also the fact that we have our African American Princess, but she isn’t actually a Princess, she becomes one when she marries a Prince. I really don’t want to get into too much of a discussion of whether or not the movie does well by its black characters. Suffice to say that it seems to be as wiling to give them personalities (righteous and unrighteous) as it does the white ones.
What does end up being a problem with the movie, at leas tin my opinion, is the humor. Some of the stuff works. Particularly things that aren’t supposed to be too comedic, like the idea of firefly Ray (Jim Cummings) being in love with the moon, which is more cute than funny, but is just too sweet to resist. I also find Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), Tiana’s spoiled, rich friend to be quite funny although not all that original (it helps that she has a superbly animated arsenal of cartoony facial expressions). On the other side of the spectrum, however, The Princess and the Frog has way too many jokes involving gross things like farts, snot, mucus, or other things like that. It’s been a couple days since I saw the movie, so my memory could be faulty, but I wold venture to say absolutely none of these jokes work. They just feel too cheap. The biggest victim of this is the character of Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), a blind lady who practices voodoo magic in the middle of the bayou, who reads as the creators trying way too hard to make her a sassy and fun old lady.
I feel like I may be coming too hard on the movie, so to clear the water I’ll say that besides its gorgeous look, The Princess and the Frog is a really sweet movie. I mentioned the Ray story, but I also really appreciate the characterization of Tiana (at least as initially presented in the film). She is not only the first African American Princess, which is a nice milestone, but not a very important one in terms of narrative. She is also the one with the biggest agency and strongest personality. She is a hard-worker who is determined to fight for what she wants. I really appreciated that, although it does bother me that the movie’s message of love being the most important thing in life kind of undermines her ambitions. Ultimately the movie does try to make a point of Tiana teaching Prince Naveen that hard work is important, but the movie doesn’t do a very good job of reconciling its vision of love and its vision of work.
This is all to say that this is a solid film, but that it doesn’t quite go all the way into greatness, which wouldn’t usually be a problem, except for the gigantic expectations that were put upon it. I, too, am guilty of putting too many hopes on the film. Going back to their traditional style of animation, plus finally having an African American protagonist proved to be a little too much for Disney, and while The Princess and the Frog is certainly enjoyable, it isn’t the masterpiece that we (or I) was waiting for.
Next Week: Computer generated technology meets a traditionally Disney story for the first time in Tangled.