Sunday 5 January 2014

Munir's Disney Retrospective - Animated Classic #49: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Last Week’s: Munir’s Disney Retrospective - Animated Classic #48: Bolt (2008).

One of the most exciting things in 2009 was the release of The Princess and the Frog. After a decade of releasing (mostly) misfires and giving traditional animation the death sentence after the abysmal Home on the Range, Disney was finally ready to go back to the technique they practically invented and perfected for over 70 years. Thanks to John Lasseter and his vision, traditional animation was back firing on all cylinders at the studio and with a new fairy tale to boot. Better still, the helmers of this new movie were none others than studio veterans John Musker and Ron Clements and handling the music was Pixar veteran Randy Newman. With all this talent behind it, we could only expect the best film possible and, thankfully, the movie delivered on all fronts.

Based on the "Frog Princess" novel by E. D. Baker (which itself is based on the classic Brothers Grimm tale, "The Frog Prince"), the film tells the story of Tiana, a hard-working woman who works as a waitress in 1920's New Orleans in order to earn enough money to buy her own place and set up her own restaurant. She crosses paths with Prince Naveen of Maldonia, a carefree man with money troubles who needs to marry a wealthy woman in order to continue with his high lifestyle. But, when an evil voodoo practitioner named Dr. Facilier sets off a curse, Naveen is transformed into a frog. Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess and begs her to kiss him to break the spell. He promises that, once he's back in human form, he'll give her the money she needs for the restaurant. Tiana accepts, but when she kisses Naveen, she is also transformed into a frog and now both of them have to make a journey through the Bayou to search for Mama Odie (another voodoo practitioner) to break the spell.

One thing that has always stood out to me is how similar The Princess and the Frog is to The Little Mermaid. Not in the story, but in certain elements of the characters. Both Tiana and Ariel have some sort of curse: Tiana is transformed into a frog and Ariel loses her voice. Both need to kiss or be kissed in order to break the spell. Both are headstrong women who sometimes fail to see that the paths they chose will bring some problems along the way. In terms of villains, both Ursula and Facilier are very theatrical villains who talk with big movements and like to give big performances. Both of their songs, "Poor Unfortunate Souls" and "Friends on the Other Side," are big flashy numbers that showcase their knack for the dramatic. Because the two films come from the same directors, I don't think all of this elements were a mere coincidence. I think Clements and Musker were focused on making The Princess and the Frog the beginning of a new Renaissance and they look back to their film that launched the previous one. They succeeded again.

In terms of animation, The Princess and the Frog is simply superb. Back in 2009, it was refreshing to see a traditional animated Disney film again, and it has continued to be one of the most beautifully animated films that has come from the studio in recent years. The Princess and the Frog showcases much more inspiration and ambition than many of its traditionally animated predecessors like Home on the Range, Brother Bear and even Clements and Musker's own Treasure Planet. Each scene is brimming with life and colour and the overall look is simply breathtaking. In my previous retrospective, I mentioned that Bolt had one "showstopper" scene. In contrast, The Princess and the Frog has many. Starting with the amazing "Almost There" - which is one of the most ingenious pieces of animation I've ever encountered - and continuing with "Friends on the Other Side," "Gonna Take you There" and "Dig a Little Deeper" - all of them full of emotion, heart and beauty. The characters' designs are amazing too and it really demonstrates the hard work of the animators in bringing them to life. It seemed that the filmmakers wanted to demonstrate how good traditional animation is and put all their hearts and souls into the film, and the result is spellbinding.

The story, like most fairy tales, is somewhat predictable - but in a good way. We know that, in the end, everything will end well and that Tiana and Naveen will end up together, but the journey the film takes is very worthwhile. Aside from the fact that Tiana is the first African American Disney princess, it's also worth noting that she feels like a real character. Life isn't easy for her, but she works hard and is determined to make her dream come true. I think the character is a great role model, not only for girls but for everyone. We can all relate to her ambition, her dreams, her frustration, so we root for her because she represents us. She's not a damsel in distress, she's just a regular girl who is just trying to find her way in life. I think all of us can relate to that as we are try to do the same thing everyday. Naveen, on the other hand, represents our youth. The side of us that we had when we were young, with no responsibilities and just lots of fun. The side that many try to recapture as years go by, but cannot fully do it as life gets more complicated and as we get older. Naveen has to understand that and we can relate to him too, because we also had to understand at some point that that side of our life is over and life is more than just fun. Both of these characters are excellently constructed because they're based on regular guys just like us, making them much more relatable and supportable. The supporting characters are great too with Ray and Louis being the lovable sidekicks, Mama Odie the wise and peculiar mentor, and Facilier the menacing villain we love to hate.  One supporting character worth mentioning is Charlotte LaBouff. She's your typical rich girl who lives in a bubble (and we have that in real life too...) and only wants to marry a prince and live her fairy tale. Her objective couldn't be more different from Tiana's, but what I love most about Charlotte and her relationship with Tiana is that, as oblivious as she is to the rest of the world, she's always a good and loyal friend to Tiana. Even when she has the chance to marry Naveen she puts aside her personal motivations and just wants to help her friend. That's why she's such a good character in the film.  Another surprise was Ray's death. Disney haven't really touched on the subject of death since the death of Kerchak in Tarzan and I didn't expect Ray to die. Maybe his death was not as powerful as some other Disney demises, such as Mufasa or Bambi’s mom, but nonetheless it was a sad and powerful event that showed that the filmmakers weren't afraid to go to darker places again, instead of featuring light and "kiddie" stuff like in previous years.

Some criticized the inclusion of Randy Newman as the composer instead of Alan Menken, but I think Newman did an outstanding job with the music in the film. I love jazz (one reason I like The Aristocats) and the score and songs in The Princess and the Frog are beautiful. Many of the songs are up there with Disney's greatest; memorable tunes full of wonderful rhythm and a unique style that makes the whole film even better.

With all these wonderful elements in the film, it's somewhat sad that many deemed the movie as an under-performer at the box office. Yes, maybe the film didn't meet the high expectations that Disney had for it, but that does not mean it was a box office failure. Actually, I think it was pretty successful considering the fact that CG films dominated the market and it was Disney's first traditional animated film in more than five years. I do think, though, that there was one element that conspired against this film: the marketing. Disney's marketing has been hit or miss (more miss, if you ask me) in recent years and this movie was one of its many victims. The marketing always presented Tiana in the princess gown (which was a costume for a party) and, with the title being The Princess and the Frog, people - mostly boys - assumed this was going to be just a princess movie intended for girls. The marketing failed to present Tiana as she really is and failed to mention her many positive aspects that had nothing to do with princess stuff. Also, the other characters were not mentioned, so people were just left with the image of a beautiful girl in a princess gown. Yeah, not very enticing. However, even with the marketing against it, I failed to understand why Disney panicked when the film did not meet its expectations. After all, Disney has released more expensive live-action films that have failed miserably at the box office (Prince of Persia, John Carter and, most recently, The Lone Ranger) costing the studio large amounts of money, and yet, they're still releasing them and nobody has panicked. The Princess and the Frog earned more money than any of these films, and yet, Disney panicked, changed the titles for upcoming films and reduced (again) the traditional animation unit. How is it that, despite losing tonnes of money with many big blockbusters, Disney continues to produce them but when this film doesn't meet expectations, it's throw to the lions? I don't see any coherence there.

Oh well. Despite everything, The Princess and the Frog is an instant classic, a film that, like The Little Mermaid before it, launched a new Renaissance for the studio. With superb and relatable characters, great music and an outstanding story, The Princess and the Frog represents one of the studio's finest efforts in recent memory. Walt Disney Animation Studios started the 2000s in deep trouble but ended the decade with a bang, as The Princess and the Frog is easily their best film from the past decade. A beautiful work of art. Rating: 5/5.

Next Week - Animated Classic #50 Review: Tangled (2010).


  1. Great review as always, though I will point out one thing.

    Disney is pretty much going to stop green lighting films like 'John Carter of Mars' and 'The Lone Ranger', and will focus on fairy tale reboot films ('Maleficent'), sequels and small-scale stuff from now on. 'Tomorrowland', I think, will be one of their only risky big-budget live action films in the next couple of years.

  2. Thanks Kyle! I still think though that the whole "panic" that The Princess and the Frog caused was uncalled for. :)