“The evening star is shining bright
So make a wish and hold on tight
There’s magic in the air tonight
And anything can happen…”
In the early 2000’s, Disney was struggling to keep traditional hand drawn animation afloat in an era of computer-generated animation. Dreamworks started to show off with unadulterated send ups like Shrek and Pixar was giving brilliant stories in Finding Nemo. Disney, however, was delivering projects that had limited appeal (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch) with Atlantis getting mixed reviews, The Emperor’s New Groove taking forever in production and Treasure Planet being a major flop on par with The Black Cauldron.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was Home on the Range, a film about three cows trying to save their farm which was flat out a waste of talent, time and tree pulp. Disney said “well, we fucked that up” and focused on CGI animation to compete with their competitors. Unfortunately, their first film out of the gate was Chicken Little, which was a flat out waste of talent, time and megabytes. After much noise and certain films succeeding such as Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, Disney shocked all animation fans with a return to form of hand drawn animation to the rejoicing of fans everywhere.
Disney decided to tackle the classic story of The Frog Prince in their film “The Princess and the Frog” with new twists and something the company never really did before. The film took a new twist on the story set in the 1920’s New Orleans with a predominately Black cast. Now this caused a shit storm in certain areas as the princess’ former name was going to be Maddy, which the Black community where having none of as it was practically offensive as it was to close to Mammy. Disney went back and changed it to the much nicer name Tiana and changed the name of the film from The Frog Princess to The Princess and the Frog to avoid audiences thinking she was a frog and potential spoilers.
The film was ready for wide released with a all-star Black cast of Anika Noni Rose as the titular princess, Terrance Howard as her father, James, and Oprah Winfrey as Tiana’s mother, Eudora. Others include Keith David as Dr. Facilier, a voodoo witch doctor referred as the Shadow Man, Jennifer Lewis as Mama Odie, a blind voodoo priestess that just happens to be 197 years old, and Michael-Leon Wooley as Louis, an alligator with a dream of playing trumpet with the big boys. There is also a bevy of other voice actors such as Jim Cummings as Ray the firefly, Jennifer Cody as Tiana’s white friend Charlotte, John Goodman as “Big Daddy” LeBeouf, Charlotte’s dad, and Bruno Campos as the naive Prince Naveen of Maldonia. With the cast in place, Disney headed into this film with a dream. So, what’s the story?
Tiana (Rose) is constantly working at to obtain the dream of owning her own restaurant that she wished for. She gets no sleep in between jobs and is drowning in the day to day. Tiana is hired by her friend Charlotte (Cody) to serve her “man-catching beignets” at a welcoming costume party for Prince Naveen (Campos). Naveen is recently cut off from his family and is New Orleans to live a little and find a job under the watch of his servant LAwrence (Peter Bartlett). Naveen unfortnately comes to deal with Dr. Facilier who takes advantage of Lawrence’s desire to have the power of the prince and Naveen to suffer as a frog for the rest of his days. Naveen escapes and goes on search for help and comes across Tiana in a princess costume wondering if her dream is worth it. After seeing the book of The Frog Prince, Naveen suggests to Tiana being a “princess” that they can kiss and break the spell. This strategy doesn’t work and Tiana gets turned into the most adorable damn frog on screen.
These two head out on a journey involving the aforementioned Louis (Wooley), Ray (Jim Cummings), Mama Odie (Lewis) while trying to fight off the Shadow Man’s shadows and evil ways.
“The Princess and the Frog” may not be seen as the best of Disney films, but it certainly holds it owns together. It is great to see Disney tackle the old tale with a new twist as it takes notes from E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess and the classic tale into a weird meshing. The story works wonders for its setting as New Orleans, though a big city, is very contained and small. It’s a smaller scale for sure as the film only goes from the swamps to the city itself, but everyone is connected in some sort of way. The message the story conveys is also startling as it is a mature message.
It takes one of the foundations of the Disney corporation of “When You Wish Upon A Star” and says “Nope, that’s just to set a goal. You have to work at it.” That is a wonderful message as it is true. It takes hard work and focus on getting the dream, but the message also tells you not to make that the sole focus. Look at the world around you, smell the roses and don’t forget others as you accomplish the goal that are set out. That takes major cojones to tell an audience of kids. It takes its character’s ambitions seriously and doesn’t dull them in anyway. Yet, there are moments that seemed to be in there for the sake for being in there such as Louis being a typical comic relief, the stuff with Lawrence that is simply “I’m evil because, fuck it, why not?” and an odd out of nowhere fight with frog catchers, which while fun, is sort of useless.
The animation is nothing but stellar. It is so nice to see Disney hand drawn animation in a modern era because it not only came back, but it came back with a vengeance. It’s rich, vibrant and not afraid to play with the pallette of greens, purple, browns and black. For example, the “Friend from the Other Side/Transformation Central” sequence is a sight to behold. Hell, watch it for yourself.
That sequence alone is worth watching this film. I saw this film the first weekend it came out and when that scene came on, me and my sister shouted “That’s how you do animation.” It was gorgeous as hell. Even better, the whole film is filled with magical moments like that.
The songs by Randy Newman work wonders. I was iffy at first because of those corny tunes from Toy Story, but Newman nailed the bayou and jazz sounds of that era to a tee. Highlights besides the sequence above are “Almost There” with a upbeat Broadway-esque jazz tune with minmalist 2D animation, “Ma Belle Evangeline” as Tiana and Naveen dance (see the title card for this post) “Dig a Little Deeper” with Lewis going full gospel and “Down in New Orleans” with Dr. John giving his unique sound to the world of Nawlins. It’s a fun soundtrack and I listened to it days after re-watching the movie.
The vocal performances are great with David, Cody, Rose and Cummings being the real standouts. David as Dr. Facilier is astounding as he covers the charm and charisma of a con man, but all the evil of a bastard. The scene in which he is face to face with Tiana and manipulates her with visions of her dreams is brilliant. He delivers every line with such bravado and assurance that it is hard for even the audience to tell him no. Cody’s performance as Charlotte is too damn hilarious. She covers the Southern Belle stereotype to a tee and every line she delivers is effin’ gold. Rose gives Tiana a strong voice that proves she can make herself accomplish her dreams and goals. This actually makes the battle of wits between her and Facilier incredible. Cummings as Ray the firefly is filled with heart and soul as he maybe a comic relief, but he has dreams of his own one day to be with the love of his life, the northern star named Evangeline. This helps make (spoilers) his death all the more upsetting because we want him to succeed.
The film went on to become a modest hit, but not big enough for Disney to continue with hand drawn. In a winter packed with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakel (who took their kid to see that crap?) with Avatar (I forgot that existed), it suffered a small loss. The next hand drawn film would be Winnie the Pooh, released the same day as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, to which I assume the schedule guy at Disney was promptly fired for.
The film, though, does have its fair share of fans, myself included, that enjoyed what it brought to the table. Tiana has gone to be part of the Disney Princess franchise and Dr. Facilier is now getting recognized as one of Disney’s best villains since Jafar from Aladdin. The Princess and the Frog is a fun and fantastic film with wonderful animation, top notch performances and a message that doesn’t talk down to its audience.
Next week, Film A Week continues Black History on Film month with a bad mother-“shut your mouth!” What? We are just talking about Shaft, man. Shaft gets the Film A Week treatment next Wednesday, February 17. See you then.