I’d heard plenty of people say that The Princess and the Frog was surprisingly good, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Now I wish I’d seen it sooner, because it’s pretty great.
It was pretty aggressively marketed, and you can see that there was a lot riding on it as the first in a resurgence of hand-drawn animation at Disney, but I get the sense it didn’t make quite as big a splash as people were hoping. That’d be a shame, because this could be exactly the shot in the arm Disney animation needs.
I’d been afraid that in their attempts to make Disney more “contemporary,” that the movie would come out Dreamworksian. That’s definitely not the case; this is a Disney animated feature, almost self-consciously so. It’s got Disney animation in its DNA; it’s practically an homage to the classics, a sampler of all the animation and background styles the studio has used since Snow White.
Did you like the CG-heavy stuff like the ballroom sequence in Beauty and the Beast, or do you prefer the looser and sketchier style of 101 Dalmatians? Doesn’t matter, because they’re both in there. Or the more cartoony and elastic characters in Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove? They’re included in a sequence with a voodoo priestess. Maybe you’d rather have The Jungle Book, in which case a trumpet-playing alligator makes a fine Baloo substitute. Did you like the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp? So did they, so they made a version with frogs. The “Under the Sea” number from The Little Mermaid? Have two of them, Bayou-style. How about Fantasia? Which one: there’s a good bit of the early 20s style characters from the 2000 version, and shadow creatures that evoke the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from the original. And of course you can’t have such a swamp-heavy movie without being reminded of The Rescuers.
That might make it sound like a rip-off, or at best a muddled pastiche of a ton of disparate art styles. But that’s not the case: it all somehow works together, and it feels like a real homage instead of uninspired cribbing.
And while the art stays close to the past, the story does a great job of avoiding the Disney formula. The decision that got all the attention was making a Disney movie with African-American lead characters — that could be a pretty big deal, and luckily it was handled extremely well. The movie doesn’t ignore race, but doesn’t make a big issue of it, either; Tiana’s at a disadvantage because of her lack of money, not because of her race. Even better, her best friend since childhood is a spoiled rich white girl, and she’s never reduced to the villain or wicked stepsister role.
Best of all, the story takes a long-past-due break from the “Don’t be afraid to be different”/”Be true to your dreams” moral that’s become rote in pretty much every piece of family entertainment made in the past few decades. Tiana’s problem is that she’s gotten too attached to her dream, and everybody but her knows it. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a Disney movie with such a fully fleshed-out female character. Especially one who couldn’t care less about being a princess. It’s actually pretty risky to propose an animated movie about a woman whose biggest flaw is that she works too hard to make her dreams come true. Somehow they pulled it off.
Not to mention that the “meet cute” involves frogs being chased by alligators and beating the crap out of redneck hunters.
One of the things I can see keeping it from reaching classic status is that there are no real standout songs. It’s got a Randy Newman-composed, Dr. John-heavy soundtrack that’s fine, but without anything that’s particularly memorable. I have heard two of the songs, “Almost There” and “Dig a Little Deeper,” sung at Disneyland by their own Tiana in New Orleans Square, and I’m genuinely glad to see the movie taking hold like that. But without a real show-stopper, it just has to stand as a good, entertaining Disney movie.
It doesn’t hit any false notes (remarkable on its own), its attempts at contemporary humor actually work, the characters are appealing, the story keeps moving, and there’s enough imagination for something new happening almost constantly. I found myself genuinely surprised in places, which I didn’t think was possible from a Disney movie. It’s hard to imagine The Princess and the Frog becoming one of the most revered Disney classics. In spirit, it’s more loose and fun, much like the movies of the Robin Hood/Aristocats era, but it’s got enough meat to it to keep it from being a lightweight.