The Princess and the Frog

Movie Information

The Story: A prince gets turned into a frog, and in turn, accidentally turns a serving girl into one when he mistakes her for a princess. The Lowdown: Beautiful to look at, but so determinedly old-fashioned that it feels slightly processed and formula-driven.
Score:

Genre: Animated Musical/Fantasy
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker (Treasure Planet)
Starring: (Voices) Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody
Rated: G

While I’m fascinated by the fact that Time magazine has given the top three slots of its 10 best list over to animated films—The Princess and the Frog, Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox—I’m truly perplexed by their pick of The Princess and the Frog as the best movie of the year. I suppose you either have to be in love with Disney or hardcore about hand-drawn animation for its own sake to understand—and since I’m neither, I’m out of the loop. This isn’t to say that I didn’t like The Princess and the Frog. I did. I was largely entertained by it (though the last section seemed to drag a bit), and I admired much of its look. Beyond that, well, I don’t see myself buying the DVD.

Despite all the fuss that’s been made over the fact that this is Disney’s first film with a black heroine—an aspect of the film that goes virtually unexplored—The Princess and the Frog is pretty completely Disney basic, with a simple story fleshed out with musical numbers, slapstick and humorous characters. Oh, sure, it adds the idea that you have to back up wishing on a star with hard work, but otherwise this is the old stuff all over again—right down to the usual kiddie-film life lessons about being yourself and learning what matters in life. There’s nothing wrong with that—such lessons are fresh to young viewers—but in the same year that offered the more complex emotional ranges of Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox, it seems like weak tea. For that matter, it’s fairly tepid material when contrasted with Disney’s own Lilo & Stitch from 2002. However, there’s no denying the “old stuff” mostly works.

The story—which takes place in New Orleans from 1916 to some time in the 1920s—is sound. Single-minded Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls) dreams of fulfilling her late father’s wish (it’s Disney, at least one dead parent is close to obligatory) of turning an old sugar mill into a posh restaurant (an early attempt at gentrification?). Bringing in Prince Naveen (voiced by TV actor Bruno Campos)—the vaguely black, jazz-loving heir to the throne of some mythical kingdom—is workable, even if the romance between him and Tiana’s spoiled Southern-belle friend Charlotte (voiced by Jennifer Cody) seems forced.

The film scores big, however, with its villain, the voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David, Gamer), who turns Prince Naveen into a frog in order to replace him with a stand-in to secure Charlotte’s father’s (voiced by John Goodman) fortune. The plan works until Naveen—mistaking Tiana for a princess—gets her to release him with a kiss, which (since she’s not a princess) only turns her into a frog, too. It’s not hard to imagine where all this leads, but the trip there is generally pleasant.

Most of it works on its own terms, and the screenplay is largely devoid of postmodern snarkiness. Goodman’s “Big Daddy” is obviously a cross between the character from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Victor Buono in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) (and, in fact, the film often looks like Charlotte). There’s an out-of-left-field reference to A Streetcar Named Desire, and one line of Leon Russell’s “Cajun Love Song” crops up, but that’s about it for referential humor. Unfortunately, much of what replaces it is tepid.

The Randy Newman songs are largely unmemorable, but serve their function well enough, while the stagings are undeniably energetic. The only problem is that all the big production numbers are largely staged in the same manner, and the approach becomes repetitive. However, they’re lively and occasionally clever—and they look so good that it probably doesn’t matter much. And that’s probably true of the whole film: The look carries it well enough. But don’t go expecting to be blown away. Rated G

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

17 thoughts on “The Princess and the Frog

  1. I will not be seeing this. Disney has failed to move me pretty comprehensively since my first exposure to its product (around the age of 3) – with the exception of DisneyPixar stuff. I much preferred the Warner fare – Bugs Bunny is a gateway drug to Groucho Marx. Disney animation is a gateway to Disney live action (see HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2)
    But I do applaud the return of what looks like pretty nice hand-drawn 2D animation. I will forever champion 2D animation over CGI and especially 3D CGI, and for all their innumerable faults, the ‘classic’ Disney cartoon features always looked great. Hopefully this will start a trend.

  2. Vince Lugo

    Coming out of the theater, I also thought this was a 4-stars-out-of-5 movie. It doesn’t reach the highs of Beauty and the Beast or Lilo and Stitch, but at the same time, it’s like a long drink of cold water after you’ve been lost in the desert. For awhile there, I was almost embarrased to admit to people that I was a Disney fan, but I don’t have to be embarrased anymore! The real Disney is back! Woohoo!

    Their next animated film is Rapunzel and from what I’ve heard, the visuals at least are going to be spectacular. It seems they’re trying to combine CGI with hand drawn tecniques to make the film look like a living oil painting. Can’t wait to see how that turns out.

  3. Ken Hanke

    But I do applaud the return of what looks like pretty nice hand-drawn 2D animation. I will forever champion 2D animation over CGI

    I understand the point of view, but really don’t support it. It’s too much like saying Avatar is great because of its groundbreaking special effects (and it may well be for all I know). I’m far more interested in the overall quality of the film itself, and for me, Princess and the Frog is inferior in content, execution and look to Up, however it was created.

  4. Ken Hanke

    It seems they’re trying to combine CGI with hand drawn tecniques to make the film look like a living oil painting.

    I’d be greatly surprised if there wasn’t some CGI sweetening applied to Princess and the Frog already.

  5. Keep in mind that Disney Animation is now being run by Pixar’s John Lasseter. He killed off those terrible sequels and was the one responsible for the return to hand drawn animation. I’m hopeful that he can get Disney’s quality up to where Pixar is now.

  6. Sean Williams

    this is Disney’s first film with a black heroine — an aspect of the film that goes virtually unexplored

    Do you think there’s any basis to the criticism from some quarters that the film delegitimatizes Tiana’s ethnicity by having her in frog form for the majority of the story?

    it adds the idea that you have to back up wishing on a star with hard work

    At least one critic thought that this idea was essentially explaining Black poverty as the result of laziness. Again, is there any basis for that interpretation, or are people reading too much into the film?

    I’d be greatly surprised if there wasn’t some CGI sweetening applied to Princess and the Frog already.

    There’s definitely some digital enhancement, especially in the backgrounds, which I believe were drawn on Wacom tablets. The animators have admitted as much. In point of fact, all modern “hand-drawn” animation is digitally enhanced.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Do you think there’s any basis to the criticism from some quarters that the film delegitimatizes Tiana’s ethnicity by having her in frog form for the majority of the story?

    That sounds kind of silly to me. Now all I can think of are those 1930s Harman-Ising cartoons that are populated with black frogs based on movie and music personalities.

    At least one critic thought that this idea was essentially explaining Black poverty as the result of laziness. Again, is there any basis for that interpretation, or are people reading too much into the film?

    Now that just sounds like someone looking for something to be offended about. I just took it as an attempt to move the concept of wishing into a more realistic context.

    In point of fact, all modern “hand-drawn” animation is digitally enhanced

    Realistically, nearly all modern films are digitally enhanced.

  8. I understand the point of view, but really don’t support it. It’s too much like saying Avatar is great because of its groundbreaking special effects (and it may well be for all I know). I’m far more interested in the overall quality of the film itself, and for me, Princess and the Frog is inferior in content, execution and look to Up, however it was created.
    I completely agree. I said I applauded the use of 2D animation, not the screenplay, staging or performances (I haven’t seen the movie and have no intention to – it looks like pretty middling fare).

  9. Sean Williams

    Also, à propos de rien, I dreamt last night that you and I were eating grilled cheese sandwiches and clam chowder and arguing about the relative merits of the Murnau and Herzog versions of Nosferatu.

    That sounds kind of silly to me…. Now that just sounds like someone looking for something to be offended about.

    Well, considering that both of those criticisms came from Armond White…

    But a few other critics entertained similar notions, so I was curious.

    Realistically, nearly all modern films are digitally enhanced.

    http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2001/4/18/

  10. Ken Hanke

    I dreamt last night that you and I were eating grilled cheese sandwiches and clam chowder and arguing about the relative merits of the Murnau and Herzog versions of Nosferatu

    Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…no, that’s something else. In truth, except for the clam chowder, it sounds like a perfectly pleasant dream. Who won? Murnau or Herzog?

  11. Vince Lugo

    If you think about it, hand drawn animation never went away. Marvel and DC have both been doing hand drawn features direct-to-dvd for years and Film Roman recently did one as a videogame prequel. True, the animation isn’t quite big-screen quality, but with a slightly higher budget, it could be. They simply choose not to go that route. However, now that Disney owns Marvel, I think it’s only a matter of time before Marvel does a big-screen animated film. They’ve already got their own animation studio (mostly doing TV shows), so you’d think it would be a no-brainer.

  12. Jessica B.

    Vince Lugo says about Marvel: “They’ve already got their own animation studio (mostly doing TV shows), so you’d think it would be a no-brainer.”

    Well, they’ve got their own production company, which has always farmed out the animation. They don’t have an in-house animation studio.

    And, animation has always made use of technology. The Fleischer Brothers and their rotoscoping and use of actual 3D backgrounds, Disney and their Multiplane Camera which brought realistic depth to animated backgrounds. With “101 Dalmations”, Disney took things a step further with Xeroxography, witch eliminated the need to trace original drawings, allowing them to be printed directly onto cels and retain the sketched look. Now, most coloring of cels is done on computers. Heck, Disney was experimenting with different forms of animation in the 50’s and 60’s, including stopmotion in “Babes in Toyland” and some amazing paper cut-out animation for the credits of “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones”. Check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mdAXgZAlHk

    So long as it has a good story, The kind of animation is just gravy on the meat.

  13. Ken Hanke

    some amazing paper cut-out animation for the credits of “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones”. Check this out

    45 years spent trying to block that title song from my mind shot to hell in a few seconds of YouTube…

  14. Sean Williams

    “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones”

    That cheerleader looks uncannily like the late Michael Jackson.

    Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…

    You’re overwrought, sir. I’ve opened a window for you. A little air will do you good.

    Who won? Murnau or Herzog?

    The family of Mexican dwarfs who owned the restaurant kidnapped me before the conclusion of the argument.

  15. Jessica B.

    Ken Hanke says: “45 years spent trying to block that title song from my mind shot to hell in a few seconds of YouTube…”

    Poor baby. I gave you the title, you didn’t have to look. The animation is still pretty cool. Now if they’d just release Mike Jittlov’s shorts on DVD.

  16. Ken Hanke

    The family of Mexican dwarfs who owned the restaurant kidnapped me before the conclusion of the argument.

    That’s always happening.

  17. Ken Hanke

    I gave you the title, you didn’t have to look

    True enough, but I did if I wanted to know what you were talking about, because I didn’t remember the animation. And, yes, it is pretty cool, though it’s not really a type of animation I’m very keen on.

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