The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s attempt to recapture the magic of their cel animated musicals of the ‘90s, even hiring Ron Clements and Jon Musker as directors (due to their track record of Disney hits including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin). Apparently accomplishing this is easier said than done, due to the problems this movie went through during its production like title changes, controversies over character names, controversies dealing with the prince not being black and the use of a black voodoo witch doctor as the villain, and a controversy about using New Orleans as the setting after Hurricane Katrina. The real question is, despite the setbacks, does The Princess and the Frog manage to rise to the heights of its 2D predecessors, or does it fall short?
Based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, The Frog Prince, and E.D. Baker’s novel, The Frog Princess, the story is set in
|Dr. Facilier (Keith David)|
The plot feels familiar at times, and at one point they team up with an alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wolley) and set off to find a witch who will fix each of their respective problems. I half expected the song they sing about it to be something like “We’re off to see the Witch, the wonderful Witch of the bayou.” The story is obvious for the most part and fairly predictable, while much of the charm relies on the animation and musical numbers. The musical numbers are okay. Both the songs and score are done by Randy Newman and honestly, it really feels like it (there were times when I could have sworn that the background music was ripped right out of Toy Story). While even the best of the musical numbers don’t compare with Disney classics like “Be our Guest” or “Under the Sea”, the jazzy songs are suitable for the setting and time period, but are mostly forgettable with two major exceptions. The first one is a song called “Almost There”, which is about Tiana imagining her restaurant coming to life. The animation used for the scene changes style completely to match that of a fancy 1920s ballroom restaurant. The style and look of the entire number makes it a highlight and to be honest, made me wish that this had been a musical about a young black woman in the ‘20s trying to buy a restaurant. The second song is the villain’s song, “Friends on the Other Side”. Facilier is an interesting villain and Keith David’s voice only makes him more so, capturing the deep threatening tone with a significant amount of charisma. This song is catchy but also visually striking, possibly the most colorful musical number in the entire film; he summons shadow monsters and singing voodoo masks with lots of smoke and magic. These two songs have a lot of spectacle and take advantage of the animation, resonating with you longer than the majority of the songs, which usually just have the characters walking around in their own environment while singing.
Another thing worth mentioning is the supporting cast. It’s a staple for all Disney animated musicals to have a few sidekicks, even when they don’t need them (The Hunchback of Notre Dame's gargoyles for instance). There's Louis, a fat trumpet-playing alligator, Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a blind witch, and Ray (Jim Cummings), a Cajun Firefly. Louis is pretty useless. He's only there for comic relief and contributes next to nothing when it comes to plot related events, most of which he's left out of entirely. Mama Odie has only a small part and serves as little more than a minor source of exposition. Other than that, she tells the two protagonists nothing they don't already know or couldn't easily learn for themselves. Ray is a little bit different. His character was invented as a forced means of getting audience sympathy. You can tell that the filmmakers desperately wanted him to be likeable; aside from all his jokes, he even gets two songs to himself. It feels unnecessary and makes his involvement in the final part of the film feel artificial and manipulative. I know that's a lot of nitpicking but if there’s one thing that's worth praising in this movie, it’s the animation. The characters are all colorful, very expressive and have terrific character animations, be it the way the frogs move around or the interactions between Facilier and his own sentient shadow. The manner in which the evil shadows he summons move around the environment is very cool, as they blend into other shadows and slide over buildings and trees.
Given the Disney musicals of the ‘90s, The Princess and the Frog doesn’t meet the high standards set by movies like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. Instead, it probably ranks amongst those found in the later years like Tarzan and Hercules. If anything, it made me aware of how much I miss seeing hand-drawn cartoons in a time when computer animation has dominated the way we see animated movies.