I have very fond memories of early 1990s Disney animation. I grew up on modern classics like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. But around the time of Tarzan, it was clear that Disney was losing their edge. The "fairytale" genre became watered down and soon a source of parody. Lilo & Stitch provided a gorgeously water-colored alternative with Elvis music in tow, but it wasn't enough to keep Disney 2-D animation alive. This year, The Princess and the Frog looked to change all that. Disney's promotional department even led audiences to believe that this was another Disney Renaissance. I went into the film with too-high expectations and left smiling, but ready to watch my Platinum Edition copy of Beauty and the Beast. Good movie? Yes. Renaissance? No.
Drawn That Way
The Princess and the Frog
By Daniel Pellegrino
January 4, 2010
The plot follows Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) as she saves money to open a restaurant in honor of her late father. One evening, a frog mistakes her for a princess and through some voodoo and a kiss, she joins him as a slimy green creature. The two fall in love, befriend a couple swamp animals and try and figure out if they can both become human again and live happily ever after. Some songs about dreams and love happen, plus a shadowy villain lurks around every corner. All this under two hours in good old two-dimensional animation.
The Princess and the Frog is a classic story given the Disney treatment, including wacky animal sidekicks, lush landscapes and musical interludes. So what went wrong? To me, the film reminded me of why I liked so many of the older Disney titles. I kept comparing the old with the new, and sometimes the new doesn't stack up. For starters, the villain was a little weak. He was an extremely interesting character, but not a lead villain. Dr. Facilier was his name (something I had to look up on IMDb, which should tell you something), and even his main song made me long for Scar's "Be Prepared" number from The Lion King. He simply wasn't enough of a threat to any of the characters.
I also had a problem with some of the music. While I may have been tapping my toes at times, none of the songs were all that memorable. The New Orleans setting provided a great jazzy influence to the soundtrack, but the lyrics never get all that catchy. The end credits even have a slow pop song playing over them. In years past we would have been hearing the likes of Celine Dion, Peabo Bryson or Vanessa Williams. Here we have Ne-Yo. This seems off. Audiences want a vocalist in this slot. We are expected to hear long runs over a large orchestra. Ne-Yo just never struck me as much of a vocalist. The song is more Michael Bolton in Hercules than Elton John in The Lion King. These are just a few of the little things that will prevent The Princess and the Frog from joining the ranks of the first Disney Renaissance films and keep it alongside memorable, but lesser films like Mulan and Hercules.
So what was great? The visuals. It is clear that this form of animation should continue on. The New Orleans settings were beautiful. Colors popped and characters sparkled. Since 2-D animation has been out of theaters for awhile, it is amazing to see how great it can look. Nowadays, the only 2-D you see is on Nickelodeon. Television animation doesn't compare to something as complex as The Princess and the Frog. The detail in the rain, the reflection of water and the layers of the night sky are beautiful works of art in the film. I hope Disney continues to explore this medium. If they can mix their visual style with the Pixar storytelling tools that John Lasseter can provide them with, the possibilities are endless.
This form of animation is so simple. At its core, it is a bunch of talented people drawing on a blank canvas. There is something innately comforting about watching that unfold on screen. Audiences are reminded of Walt Disney and the success he was able to find by putting pen to paper, without the use of computers. Lately, art gets lost in technology. Recent computer animated films don't look like art. In The Princess and the Frog, you can see the work of an artist in front of you. Almost every frame of the film is a piece to be admired. The same couldn't be said of some of the other animated films out there.
I can't talk about The Princess and the Frog without mentioning the addition of Disney's first African American princess. It seems silly to think that this is even something to talk about. It also seems silly that there hasn't been one before. Problem is, I can't help but think that Disney simply saw the potential of having a black princess in their popular Princess Collection merchandise, rather than having the cultural background serve the story. Either way, it's nice to see Disney diversifying. Who knows what kind of princess we will see next? Perhaps a drag queen vying for the love of a handsome prince on karaoke night at a gay bar? Maybe a handicapped person wheeling through England looking for true love's kiss? Toy stores could of course sell the plastic wheel chair and doll separately. The possibilities are endless when merchandising is involved.
I also have to mention the success of the voice cast. It's nice to see an animated film without going through the theatrical resumes of the voice cast. DreamWorks seems to be great at filling the vocals with A-list actors, only to have adults in the audiences thinking of them in other films while they are voicing things like donkeys or ogres. The Princess and the Frog has a strong ensemble of voice actors chosen for talent rather than name, including the one and only Jim Cummings as the villain. He is a long-time Disney contributor, recently taking on the role of Pete in various Goofy productions. Also note the use of Bruno Campos as Prince Naveen. His character is particularly charming both as a prince and a frog.
The Princess and the Frog isn't cleaning up at the box office the way that Avatar or even the second Alvin and the Chipmunks is. It's a shame because this form of storytelling is in danger of extinction. While it doesn't have the epic feel of classics like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, it is certainly grade-A entertainment for families out there. Even if you aren't completely invested in the story, you can marvel at the lush visuals in front of you or smile at a scene-stealing musical alligator that seems destined for a made-for-DVD sequel. Please take some time to see this art on the big screen. Manage your expectations when walking into the theater. Don't go in expecting a Renaissance. Don't think about the first time you saw The Little Mermaid with a loved one, or hope for a "Whole New World" musical moment. Just take the family to enjoy some quality time together and I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the craftsmanship at hand.