If any studio out there knows princesses, it has to be Disney. Uncle Walt has brought us so many memorably magical moments in the realms of fairy godmothers and the rags to riches tradition. A list of such Disney characters would serve as a rather complete roll call of such familiar animated ladies: Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine, and now you can add yet another name to the growing list. The studio that invented the animated fairy tale returns to its hand-drawn animation roots with The Princess And The Frog.
When Pixar finally landed permanently at Disney, no one was more excited than I was. It seemed somehow quite fitting that the studio that invented the animation feature should now take the lead with the company that invented the computer animated feature. It was a match made in heaven, or at least Neverland. But, I was as shocked and dismayed as many fans of the medium when Disney made a rather abrupt decision to close down its hand-drawn animation studios. There was plenty of rancor from the move and more than a few talented artists suddenly without jobs. It appeared that the Mouse House had traded one legacy in to acquire another. And so it looked as if we would never again see the wonderful marvels of a hand-drawn Walt Disney creation. Ah, but we all forgot. Disney is in the fairy tale business, after all. And like every good story, just as it looks like the villain has triumphed and all hope is gone, a white horse bearing a hero can never be far behind.
In a bit of irony, credit Pixar creator John Lasseter for being one of the driving forces behind getting his new parent company back into their traditional roots. And what better way to return to those roots than with the next in a long line of Disney princesses?
Tiana (Rose) and her wealthy friend Charlotte (Cody) grew up listening to all of those traditional princess stories, often having to do with kissing a particular slimy (not slime, mucus) amphibian. But, Tiana’s dream was not to be a princess. She and her father had a dream of opening their own restaurant and calling it Tiana’s Place. Years later when the girls have grown Tiana’s father is gone, but their dream lives on in her. She’s a waitress who saves all of her tip money in cans and jars to one day open that place of her own. Her friend Charlotte is all a-flutter when she reads that Prince Naveen (Campos) is coming to town looking for an American bride. It appears her childhood wishes are about to come true. But, Naveen isn’t all he pretends to be. He’s actually been disowned by his royal family and has no more wealth. He’s hoping for find a rich American to marry for her money. Charlotte looks like just the pigeon. But greed is not confined to Charlotte or the Prince. Local voodoo witch doctor Dr. Facilier (David) has plans of his own to get his hands on Charlotte’s fortunes. When Naveen joins forces with the evil doc, he ends up a frog. But a kiss isn’t going to save him in the story. In fact, a kiss is just the thing to doom Tiana to the same fate. Now as frogs the two fall in love, but might have to give up their humanity to be together.
The two main characters spend most of their time in this film as frogs, which tends to diminish, a bit, the racial breakthrough for the character. Still, the cultural aspects and family images go a long way to turning a corner, of sorts, for Disney. It is really the city of New Orleans that provides the real character for this film. The locations just lend themselves perfectly to the stylish drawings of an animated feature. The architecture is perfect for the fairy tale aspect of a film still set in modern times. Beyond the images of the city, the real treat here has to be the wonderful music and songs by Randy Newman. A native of New Orleans himself, his music has always carried with it a certain New Orleans flavor to it. Newman is the perfect inheritor of the Sherman Brothers. He has not only a style, but a real feel for the characters and situations. It’s no wonder he has worked on so many of the Pixar films over the years. You’ll find the songs are catchy and fit in well with that old Disney sing-along tradition. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself toe tappin’ along the way.
The characters are delightful. Dr. Facilier is one of the better bad guys to come along in an animated feature for some time. He has that twirling moustache style and is deliciously over the top. The deep voice of Keith David adds even more flair to the cunning character. Honestly, I thought he was underused. The rest of the voice cast does a fine enough job and standouts include Jenifer Lewis as the old and wise Mama Odie, John Goodman as Charlotte’s “Big Daddy”, and Pooh himself Jim Cummings as the beatnik lightning bug Ray. I have to believe that if George Carlin were still alive, he would have made a perfect Ray. Anika Noni Rose isn’t outstanding as Tiana until she gets the chance to sing. It’s here that you’ll find she truly fits the part.
Finally, we have to talk about the animation. For me, the studio peaked with The Lion King. I still consider it one of the most beautifully animated films I’ve ever seen. I don’t think this one comes close. It never achieves the fluidity and grace that The Lion King and many earlier films here have displayed. That’s not to say that this animation isn’t quite good. It’s such a pleasure to see the medium return that I found it easy to forgive its failure to measure up to the tradition. What it lacks in grace and style it more than makes up for in atmosphere. From the city to the swamp, this film does a pretty good job of placing you in a particular space that does breathe and come to live in each frame. I guess what I’m saying is that Disney at its most mediocre blows away anyone else at their best.
The Princess And The Frog is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. This is one solid high definition release. Colors will blow you away, particularly during one of Dr. Facilier’s numbers where the screen explodes in exotic images that swirl you about for a time. Detail and sharpness simply could not be better. Black levels are excellent. You can look pretty hard, but you just won’t find anything to complain about here.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 shows most impressively in the song selections. Here you get a wide range of dynamic sounds that come across as if from a concert hall. There aren’t a lot of aggressive surround elements going on, but the film comes out clear and crisp. The sub works often to build depth and bottom particularly to Keith David’s booming voice. Solid on all levels.
There are 3 discs here. There is a DVD copy of the film as well as the standard digital copy. There is also a Blu-ray disc which contains the film and the following features all in HD:
Deleted Scenes: (11:43) Of course, these are unfinished animated storyboards. There are 4 of them with introductions from the film’s two directors.
Music Video: (4:04) Never Knew I Was Needed by Ne-Yo.
Bring Life To Animation: (8:08) Two scenes are shown with their live action reference points, filmed to help the animators.
Magic In The Bayou: (22:11) This is the typical making-of feature. There’s a lot of talk about the Disney tradition and trying to live up to the legacy. Other areas of the feature include the music, casting, character development, and story evolution. You’ll see some voice and music recording footage.
The Return To Hand Drawn Animation: (2:43) A brief talk about the decision to return to this art form with many of the Disney animation team.
The Disney Legacy: (2:33) A look at the original 9 old men and animators talk about working for such a legacy.
Disney’s Newest Princess: (2:51) Strictly promo style preview of the film.
The Princess And The Animator: (2:26) Meet Mark Henn who was the supervising animator for the Tiana character.
Conjuring The Villain: (1:50) A character profile for Dr. Facilier.
A Return To The Animated Musical: (3:13) Randy Newman headlines this look at the film’s songs.
Art Gallery and Interactive Game
The Princess And The Frog does a pretty good job of bridging traditional Disney with a newer fresher studio look. There are several firsts to be found in this production. Tiana would become the first black Disney princess. The story is no longer once upon a time in a land far far away. This story takes place in the right now in the atmospheric confines of New Orleans. Finally, the story would take that tired old princess kissing the frog routine and turn it on its head quite a bit. These were all very good choices. While the film did not really break out at the box office, I hope Disney will continue to explore more hand drawn projects in the future. It might be hard work, but ” The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work.”