Movie Review – The Princess and The Frog
Title: The Princess and the Frog
Starring: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Jim Cummings
DVD release date: March 16, 2010
Since disastrous 2-D animated films like Treasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Home on the Rang, Disney has turned exclusively to 3-D animated films with Pixar. It’s ironic that Pixar’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter, championed Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation in 2006 by green-lighting The Princess and the Frog, written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules). Though The Princess and the Frog may not quite live up to Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, or The Lion King it nevertheless towers over some of the other products of Disney’s renaissance era like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Princess and the Frog’s 2-D animation is simply breathtaking – drawn with pencil and paper and then scanned onto computers, with digitally created backgrounds. The film is a modern twist on an old Grimm brothers fairytale (The Frog Princess) set in Jazzage New Orleans, and it follows Disney’s traditional Broadway style with music composed by New Orleans native Randy Newman (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., and Cars). The story centres on Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) – Disney’s first black princess – a young waitress who longs to open her own restaurant.
Tiana comes from a humble background like other fairytale princesses, but she has loving parents, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey) and James (Terrence Howard) and a best friend, Charlotte “Lottie” La Bouff (Breanna Brooks and Jennifer Cody). She works two jobs, making time for little else. Soon, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) breezes into New Orleans to find a rich bride to fund his expensive lifestyle. He settles on Tiana’s wealthy best friend Charlotte, a spoilt but generous Southern belle. Naveen unexpectedly crosses paths with the “Shadow Man”, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who transforms Naveen into a frog in an elaborate ruse to take over New Orleans from Charlotte’s father, sugar baron
Eli “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman). Before long Tiana runs into Naveen in his frog form, kisses him, and he becomes a frog herself. The two frogs run off to the bayou to escape Facilier’s minions and to find the benevolent Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), a 197 year-old voodoo priestess.
Tiana is spunky, more akin to Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She’s goal-oriented, hard-working, sharp as a tack, and not easily swept away by “happily ever after”. She’s a great role model for young girls can indeed be shafted for the love of a prince. Charlotte, Tiana’s best friend, is a nightmare role model for girls – spoilt rotten, shallow, boy-crazy. But, she and Tiana share that elusive thing in film: a true female friendship. Both women support each other, love each other, and sacrifice for each other. Neither fights over the man. Prince Naveen is one of Disney’s best, and most memorable, princes. He’s funny, charming, light-hearted, and affable. He does not take himself seriously and he loves good food, women, and jazz. He’s obsessed with his independence, not his royal status, and he’d rather be jazz musician than a prince. While other Disney princes are either beasts or boys, Naveen evolves into Disney’s first actual man. Unfortunately doctor Facilier, though delightfully evil, is a bit of a weak link. He’s a great trickster, but he is made far less frightening because his magic is reliant on his powerful friends “on the other side” with whom he makes deals for favours. His plot to take over New Orleans from the La Bouffs, using Prince Naveen is complicated and more a cinematic ploy to force the two frogs into an adventure in the swamp than a way to create real tension. He’s simply more proof that Disney’s greatest villains – with a few exceptions – are female.
The soundtrack’s 10 original songs aren’t as spectacular or as catchy as those of other Disney films. Composer Randy Newman’s problem has always been that his style is far too distinct, and if one doesn’t like it, it’s difficult to get into his groove. While some songs do stand out (Tiana’s Almost There, Mama Odie’s Dig a Little Deeper and Keith David’s dastardly perfect rendition of Doctor Facilier’s Friends on the Other Side) it’s more the soundtrack’s jazz blues, and gospel style that lingers. Indeed, two of the film’s three 2010 Oscar Award nominations were for Best Original Song. (The other was best Animated Feature).
It’s a shame that Disney’s first black princess and one of their few princes of colour spend so much time in frog form. Disney barely even mentions race, which is strange because Prince Naveen arrives in the segregated south and because of his rather indistinct ethnicity couldn’t legally have a chance with Tiana or Charlotte. Dreams do come true in New Orleans, as one of the songs states, but these dreams are even harder to achieve for the city’s black population at the time. While Charlotte can realistically dream of becoming a princess, Tiana can only hope she can serve people trays of food – Disney, for all its progress, won’t even address the south’s tense racial climate of the 1920s.
It may not be a classic, but Tiana would say it’s “almost there”. It’s a heart-warming fairytale for a modern era. The heroes are unforgettable, even if their songs aren’t. Whether or not Disney’s 2-D renaissance begins its second era remains to be seen. But even if it doesn’t, The Princess and the Frog will be something parents share with their children for at least another generation.