– Summary –
Director : John Musker & Ron Clements
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jim Cummings, Keith David, Jennifer Cody, Jenifer Lewis, Peter Bartlett, John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Frank Welker, Dee Bradley Baker.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: A young woman from New Orleans, who dreams of opening her own restaurant, is turned into a frog when the evil machinations of a local Voodoo mystic pair her up with a pauper prince. Singing and life lessons abound.
What we think : Lovely, good-but-not-great return to hand-drawn features from the Disney studio, features some wonderful (but unmemorable) tunes sung by both frogs, ‘gators and firefly, as well as some menacing characters that threaten our heroes. While it will never reach the lofty heights of Disney’s modern classics, such as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, The Princess & The Frog will delight both children and adults everywhere.
It’s been a long time comin’, as Sam Cooke used to sing, but we’ve finally found a return to form for the long lost (!) art of 2D animation over at Disney. After the animation department of Disney was closed down following the completion of Home On The Range, which was to be the studio’s final hand drawn film, many people were despondent about Disney ever recapturing the magic it once had after renaissance classics like Aladdin and The Lion King. It took the Disney acquisition of Pixar studios before hand drawn animated films were back on the table again, as Pixar head-honcho John Lasseter told the entertainment giant that if he was to be in charge of all of Disney animation, both CG and 2D, then the traditional stuff would have to come back. Of course, you don’t often get people saying no to John Lasseter, after all, he’s the man who gave us Toy Story, and set Hollywood on a new and different direction altogether. And so, with a sigh of relief, we have in our midst the welcome return of a traditionally hand drawn animated feature from Disney, entitled The Princess & The Frog (after all, who doesn’t want to be a frog, right?). Lasseter’s bold prediction that the hand drawn stuff was still able to draw a crowd was to succeed or fail based on this one film: no doubt on opening day, Lasseter was probably somewhere without access to media reports or telephones. I know I would have been. Was the gamble to bring back Disney’s famed animation department going to pay off? Let’s find out.
The Princess & The Frog is based loosely on the Grimm’s fairytale, The Frog Prince. Unlike the original version, where a Princess finds herself struggling with the dilemma of whether to kiss a slimy, scaly frog to turn him into a Handsome Prince™, this film has both the prince and the “princess” turn into the amphibious creatures. The morality story is still essentially the same, but with a modern twist. The film is set in 1920’s New Orleans, where jazz and blues are booming out into the streets, and America is becoming a wealthy country (before it’s untimely collapse into the Great Depression), and we meet Tiana, a young black woman working two waitressing jobs to save up the cash to set up her own restaurant. Tiana, whose father passed away a few years ago, dreams of being a famous restaurateur, although her best friend, the wealthy white “princess” Lottie, is off-handed about her potential. Lottie dreams of a Handsome Prince™ sweeping her off her feet and assisting her with her dream of living happily ever after. When Prince Naveen of Maldonia arrives in town, after being shut off from the royal fortune (*cough*wanker*cough*), he is on a mission to marry a rich southern Belle to keep himself out of work. His butler, Lawrence, is sick of Naveen’s pretensions, and strikes a deal with a local Voodoo shaman, Facilier, to become Naveen himself and marry into wealth. Naveen, meanwhile, is turned into a frog. That evening, at Lottie’s Masquerade Ball, Naveen persuades Tiana to kiss him in an effort to break the curse; it doesn’t, instead turning Tiana herself into a frog as well. With the clock counting down until the curse becomes permanent (as it always does), Naveen and Tiana must make a trip deep into the bayou to find Mama Odie, an old blind witch-woman who can return them both into their human form. Along the way, they meet Louie, a trumpet-playing alligator, and Ray, a cajun firefly with delusions of love for the Evening Star, whom he calls Evangeline. Will Tiana and Naveen be able to overcome their natural differences to thwart the Facilier plan? Will Louie become part of a band playing the riverboats? Will Ray ever get to kiss his beloved Evangeline? The answer to one of these questions is yes.
Ahh, the ol’ Disney magic is back. Stunning animation, some foot-tapping, high-note-hitting musical numbers, and the obligatory life lessons all feature heavily in this return to 2D animation. The story is fairly complicated for a kids film, with characters changing shape and even class of animal in the blink of an eye – The Princess & The Frog isn’t the most uplifting film either, due mainly to its darker themes of villainy and loss, as well as subtle hints at racism and intolerance. That’s not to say younger tots won’t enjoy the film, rather, you should hope they enjoy the pritty pikchers and funny voices. Older kids, as well as adults, will find a plot quite predictable, especially if you’ve ever seen a Disney film before – the characters seem rather one-note for the most part, except Tiana, who is the newest “princess” on the Disney block. Tiana, voiced by Anika Noni Rose, is strong willed, certain of herself and most definitely one of better role models for young girls Disney’s produced recently. Rose’s voice is perfectly suited to such a character, alternating between square-jawed resoluteness and doe-eyed emotional wreck as the situation demands. But she’s no Ariel, or even Jasmine for that matter. She lacks the real “princess” quality those other Disney chicks had, and it’s a shame, because if there’s one Disney Princess you want your little girl to aspire to be, it’s probably this one.
Naveen, voiced by Bruno Campos (best known here in Australia as Diego from the TV sitcom Jessie), seems pretty much a stock-standard Handsome Prince™ cliche, his pretentious attitude and smug, self indulgent lifestyle one we’ve seen before in the Disney canon. He’s hardly a suitable catch for Tiana, mind you, considering his background and personality, but you just know that by the end, they’ll be smooching away like a loved-up couple on honeymoon. Central villain of the piece, Facilier, is voiced by the super-smooth tones of Keith David, the man who got us watching ass-to-ass action from Jennifer Connelly that time. Al would know what I mean. David’s vocals are sublime, and it’s a true pleasure to listen to his work on this film, as the slimy, underhanded (and yet, not entirely competent) voodoo shaman who catalyses the films action. Jennifer Cody won an Annie Award for her vocal work as Lottie, the blonde bimbo Southern Belle who’s passion for passion is unrequited by all. Her performance can best be summed up in one word; “sparkly”.
Comedic characters are a dime-a-dozen in the Disney stable, and Princess & The Frog was never going to avoid it. Louie, the fast-talking, jive-lovin’ ‘gator who loves to blow that horn, is voiced by Michael-Leon Wooley. There’s nothing terribly memorable about Louie except that he’s a trumpet playin’ ‘gator, so if you’re into ‘gators and shit, he’s the character you’ll remember most. The always reliable Jim Cummings does a great job as Ray the firefly, giving the slack-jawed insect more heart and soul than just about all the other characters combined. While he’s the generic hick Southerner stereotype, and let’s face it, Disney ain’t known for stepping far outside the box on stereotypes, Ray is definitely the most memorable character in the film. Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard do cameo roles as young Tiana’s parents, though thankfully we’re spared the Winfrey exuberance on this occasion, and Jenifer Lewis has a great bit role as the wiley ol’ Mama Otie. Sharp eared viewers will spot Lewis’ voice as that of Flo in Pixar’s Cars, and she is also known to film fans as Michelle from the Sister Act films.
The film itself is technically proficient in almost every respect. The artwork here, the lines and colours, are sweeping and evocative, yet comforting in their simplicity. This isn’t the painted widescreen canvas of The Lion King, nor the beautiful watercolour feel of The Little Mermaid, but a sharp, casually elegant look at New Orleans of the 20’s, from the lavish mansions of the rich, to the dowdy slums of the poor. The animation is superb, as it should be after decades of fiddling to get the medium right. Some CGI enhancement allows for the more definite lines to remain constant, such as cars, trams and mainly anything machine-like. But where the film really kicks into high gear (for me) is the use of light and shade when our hapless froggy due embark on their journey through the Louisiana swamp. Firefly lighting, stars and plenty of shadowy corners, The Princess & The Frog is as stunning to watch as any HD release in live action, perhaps even more so. Where I really found myself enjoying (and, at the same time, being a little disappointed) with the film was in it’s music. Randy Newman, the new go-to guy for Disney animation, in light of his massive success composing for both Disney and Pixar ever since Toy Story, has again produced an elegant and lively soundtrack, replete with the cool swingin’ tunes that evoke the time and era the film is set. My favourite track: Mama Otie’s rendition of “Dig a Little Deeper”. I say enjoying, because as with most modern Disney flicks, the music is highly polished, produced to within an inch of its life, and always has just the right message to deliver at just the right point in the movie. Where I said disappointed, is the fact that it’s once again Randy Newman. Not to impugn the work of Mr Newman at all, because I think he’s a genius and a legend and I’d kiss his feet if I could get him to compose a song for my movie, but because you can tell the score is by Mr Newman. Are there no other composers in Hollywood? Any new, fresh talent in the pool to sling into the trebuchet and fling over the guarded gate? Alan Menken is probably sick of seeing the “Disney Music Department” number come up on his iPhone every time they ring, and you kinda get the feeling that you wish Mr Newman might soon be following suit. His tunes, while certainly comfortable to listen to, and most definitely on par with the rest of the film (if not above it!), is starting to feel a little same-y. If you’re going to start from scratch with the animation department, why bring in a composer whose now done a half dozen Pixar films (among others) and is quite familiar with the studio? Why not get somebody new and exciting for this “new and exciting” era in Disney Animation? Anyway, that’s a quibble I’ll take up with the Disney boneheads at the next board meeting.
Directors Clements and Musker (who are responsible for making a million teenage boys wonder just what was under Ariels shell-bikini, or even why she needed one in the first place…) can’t be faulted for their decision making in this film. Everything about the film screams perfection on a creative level. While the film isn’t striving to be the next Lion King (lets’ face it, even the sequels to The Lion King weren’t as good as the original!) it’s no slouch in simple, elegant entertainment. It may not have the memorable musical numbers, it may not have the strongest cast of characters in its roster, but it’s a solid story and will appeal to just about everyone watching it. Beer chuggers need not apply, though. I enjoyed it, I appreciated it, but in the end I kinda went “yep” and left it at that. Overall, a good film ruined only by not being a great one.