For the first time in a long time, Disney Studios has gone back to the basics they built their name on. No gimmicks, no flashy computer imaging, no skimping on story, just rich, beautiful hand drawn animation, the sort that brings with it a practical magic and an undeniable warmth. The Princess and the Frog accomplishes what a good Disney film does best: it enchants, sending its every viewer back to a simpler time, where all it took was storytelling lightly coated in pixie dust to delight even the most impossible, hard-edged princes and princesses.
Disney's return to 2D hand drawn animation is a relief, a massive breath of fresh air, really, that has been awaited with as much anticipation as anxiety. I'm pleased to report that early rumors of inadequate representation for the company's first African-American princess, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), are not only greatly exaggerated, but totally unfounded (for reasons i will expound on at the end). Tiana is a girl with a dream, she works tirelessly as a waitress with double and triple shifts to try to save enough money to open up a restaurant of her own. She has a gift, a vision, and a strong head on her shoulders. On the evening the foreign playboy Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is set to visit the wealthiest family in New Orleans, Tiana is hired to cater her Southern Belle friend Charlotte's (Jennifer Cody) way into royalty. Naveen, though, gets himself mixed up with voodoo man Dr. Facilier (Keith David, doing a solid job) and transformed into a frog. One thing leads to another, and next thing you know, Tiana's an amphibian too and the two are journeying back to humanity on the bayou with a charming jazz obsessed gator (Michael Leon-Wooley) and a remarkably lovable Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings).
The animation, as previously suggested, is simply beautiful. The New Orleans scenes capture the feel of the city with striking accuracy, taking care to maintain everything from the above ground cemeteries to the Victorian splendor of the Garden District (with more than a few mentions of beignets that made me long for a visit to Cafe Du Monde). Dr. Facilier's voodoo sequences, in dazzling bright acidic shades, capture the sort of sorcery we haven't seen before in Disney films. Every detail has been lovingly attended to, and if you've got any sort of attachment to the classic Disney toons of yore, its hard not to sort of feel at home (or, at least, get sucked up in a sudden fit of fierce brand loyalty). The film's only drawback (and it's a small one) is the score by Randy Newman. While it feels authentic and captures the right tones, the songs aren't that catchy or particularly memorable. Then again, Sleeping Beauty survived with only one real musical interlude, and the musical numbers certainly don't detract from the experience of the film here. That said, shall we move onto what's at stake in the story? Because if you listen to some critics, it seems like a lot.
Forget everything you know from the fairy tale, this isn't a story where much can be accomplished simply with a kiss, nor is it a story you've heard before. Princess and the Frog is a densely layered tapestry of atmosphere and diverse characters, asserting an underlying acceptance across race, class, and species dynamics without beating the audience over the head with an old familiar refrain. It may not be easy being green, but perseverance will pull you through. Lou the gator just wants to play the trumpet with the big (human) boys. Ray the firefly is sort of in love with an unobtainable object. Spoiled Charlotte, even, is not at all the ugly stepsister archetype she would have been in a bygone era. The villain isn't chasing destruction or vengeance, but cash and power (for money, as we know, is what rules the world). It's modern, but magical, a pitch perfect adaptation for the times that doesn't lose any of its heart to cold modernity. But the real theme of the film is hard work. This is where i'd argue that i just don't see where detractors claiming Tiana as not so much a feminist enough role model are coming from. It's also, possibly, where you might find some spoilers.
Unlike so many other princesses in the Disney galaxy, Tiana is one who you believe has a shot at a real happily ever after. She didn't just see a Prince's reflection in a wishing well or awaken to a kiss, the slipper didn't just fit. Nah, it's not merely love that conquers and solves all, it's the fulfillment of achieving all of one's other dreams after working at them for so long. This, i think, is the real strength of the film, and why Princess Tiana is something of a triumph. Don't get me wrong, i'd say Mulan is still the strongest of the bunch, but Tiana's on to something that's a little bit different. The film, for me, conjured up a couple visions of early 30's and 40's Hollywood comedies, the age of Claudette Colbert and Katharine Hepburn. Tiana is tough and a little bit chilly. She's used to work, work, work, upholding the ideals instilled in her at an early age. Of course, she's not Hepburn, if only because she lacks the mouthy wit and attitude, in fact, in the beginning she's even a little dull (but endearingly so), but the story is a much gentler, fairy tale variation of the sort of romantic comedy roles those icons took, a sort of It Happened One Night with voodoo mischief. Tiana is not saved by Prince Naveen, as some would have you believe. He is not her only option, and i would argue that without the magical circumstances of their transformation, she would have found a way to carry on regardless. Instead, she is shown something she has not experienced through the lazy, unfamiliar looseness of Naveen and her new animal acquaintances. Naveen, too, is not any sort of ideal Prince. He's been cut off by his parents for his philandering and lack of discipline, he's never worked a day in his life, he isn't good at anything but messing around strumming a ukulele, and arrives in New Orleans searching for wealth to marry into, not love. He goes to Dr. Facilier (his name, for those without high school French, a variation of 'easy') for the simple way out and learns that things don't work that way. He then, is shown something that he has not experienced in Tiana. He teaches her how to live, and she teaches him how to work, have dreams, and what it means to have something else to fill the empty parts of his life. The story then, the love affair, is not one of sweeping passions and damsels in distress, it's one of people in distress, who come together to save each other. If that isn't something of an evolution from the princesses of the past, i'd like to see what is.
For fans of animation, Princess and the Frog is a must and a welcome addition to the Disney canon. Delightful, fun, enchanting, and sparkling with winning characters and bits of humor, this is a story with good will to spare and a princess who most certainly represents some of the most positive attributes of the title for little girls (and boys?) everywhere.
4.5 out of 5.
Read all of Wilde.Dash's reviews at Love&Squalor