The Princess and the Frog
Disney is back to form with clever updating of classic tale
The Princess and the Frog
Directed by John Musker & Ron Clements
Cast: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard
A few years ago, Walt Disney Pictures tried to declare an end to “traditional” hand-drawn, 2-D animation. Then they bought out cutting-edge 3-D animation studio Pixar, which promptly took over all cartoon-related duties at Disney. Pixar seized the opportunity to announce that the death of traditional animation was greatly overstated. (God love those Pixar people.) So here we are, several years later, ready to ogle the first honest-to-goodness Disney toon in the classic mold in many a moon: the fairy tale-informed The Princess and the Frog. Ignoring ill-advised computer-animated experiments like Meet the Robinsons and Bolt and direct-to-video junk like Bambi II and The Emperor’s New Groove 2: Kronk’s New Groove, this is the first time Disney’s looked like Disney since ... 2002’s Lilo & Stitch at least.
Disney obviously had faith in this new project, even pulling the writing-directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker out of the closet. Clements and Musker were variously responsible for Disney standards like Aladdin, Hercules, The Little Mermaid and The Great Mouse Detective. Here they are, back in fine form, contributing to a film that does its damnedest to fit on the shelf alongside classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.
Yes, The Princess and the Frog is another in Disney’s trademark “princess” line (which also includes The Little Mermaid, Mulan and Aladdin). Over the years, these characters have been derided as not the most progressive models of the female gender. Nonetheless, they remain like candy-coated crack to gals of the single-digit age group, most of whom are addicted to all things glittery and pink no matter how strongly modern parents try to steer their tastes in other directions.
The Princess and the Frog also has the distinction of having the first African-American princess in Disney’s history—which basically sets it up for way too much cultural analysis. Sweep all that aside and just watch The Princess and the Frog and you’re likely to be most favorably impressed. While it may not re-create the timeless magic of Snow White, it’s a pure Disney effort on par with 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
For starters, the film is smart enough to realize its place in history. It’s savvy, clever and self-referential without being preachy or relying on the sort of too-timely references that more-or-less consigned Aladdin to the pop cultural dustbin. (Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations? Ed Sullivan impersonations? William F. Buckley impersonations? Give it a rest, Robin.)
Our heroine for this tale is Tiana (voiced by Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose). Tiana lives in Roaring ’20s New Orleans. Her father died in the Great War, leaving her to be raised by her hardworking mother, but not before imparting a fine piece of fatherly wisdom: “Wish upon a star, but work hard.” Tiana takes this twist on the old Disney axiom a bit too much to heart. Now in her late teens, she’s slaving away as a waitress, scrimping every penny in order to open her own restaurant. Admirable as Tiana’s work ethic might be, she’s sacrificed much in the way of friends, family and (most importantly) love. Working is good, says the film, and waiting on a fairy godmother is silly. ... But you’ve still got to leave a little room in your life for impossible dreams.
Contrasting self-reliant Tiana quite deftly is her best friend, a giggly debutante named Charlotte (Jennifer Cody). Lotte is an outright parody of the typical Disney princess, a goodhearted but ultimately spoiled rich girl who wears nothing but frilly pink dresses and wishes on every passing star for a prince to come sweep her off her feet. Our much-anticipated prince eventually shows up in the form of good-time playboy Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos). All the girls of New Orleans are soon swooning at the prince’s feet. Having been cut off financially from his parents for his hard-partying ways, however, the prince has got his sights set on finding and marrying a rich girl. That would, of course, be Lotte.
Unfortunately, the prince runs afoul of a voodoo con-man named Dr. Facilier (Keith David in a spooky turn) and is transformed into a frog. Running into Tiana in her Mardi Gras finest and mistaking her for a princess, the frog prince naturally asks for a kiss. Since she isn’t an actual princess, this interspecies snog only succeeds in transforming Tiana into an amphibian as well. This is the first of many clever twists in the tale.
The Princess and the Frog milks its Deep South setting for all its worth: Mardi Gras, swamps, voodoo, beignets and the glorious architecture of the French Quarter all figure into the plot. The tunes are a pleasing mix of blues, jazz, zydeco and gospel spirituals. But where The Princess and the Frog really shines is its sharp manipulation of traditional Disney tropes. We’ve got a cast of colorful, talking-animal sidekicks, including a trumpet-playing alligator and a Cajun-talking firefly. We’ve got memorable songs, genuinely funny jokes and some beautiful animation. But we’ve also got a script that uses a well-known fairy tale to deconstruct the whole idea of princesses, heroes and happy endings. This, folks, is what thoughtful genre writing looks like. From Frame 1 to fade-out, The Princess and the Frog is a glorious blending of old and new—one that says as much about Disney’s fabled past as it does about about Disney’s animated future.