It's a shame that traditional animation has taken a backseat to the computer generated styling of Pixar. The only time that we have a bone thrown into the well of 2-D is when Miyazaki decides to release one of his projects. It's strange that Disney didn't decide to at least keep up with the industry that they both started, killed, then breathed life back into - but perhaps that is all wishful thinking.
So finally, after years of abandoning the form, Disney returns with The Princess and the Frog. It's just a shame that the scope and quality of animation that was present in those early and 90's Disney classics isn't in play here. Good intentions make for strange bedfellows (in this case frogs) and less than stellar results.
The Princess and the Frog takes place in good ol' New Orleans at the dawn of the 20th century. A little girl named Tiana sits with her friend Charlotte listening to some fairy tales told by her mother. There's a lot of fun in the dichotomy between the two as they listen to the story. Charlotte is all giant dresses, big emotions and buys into every part of the frog fairytale. Tiana is a lot more realistic and reserved, questioning the logic of kissing a frog and getting your due reward.
Already we're treated to a healthy and entertaining dose of skepticism about how these fairy tales usually play out. A lot of little girls grew up with those stories and ended up like the spoiled Charlotte whereas the Tiana's of the world had to deal with reality. After this splendid little interlude the story presses on to many years later where Tiana is saving up for a restaurant and lives with her mother. On the other hand, Charlotte is still provided for by her father and living the princess life. Both of them are anticipating the arrival of Prince Naveen, who is visiting the town with his servant Lawrence.
The Prince and Lawrence run into a small voodoo shop run by Dr. Facilier and the unfortunate Prince gets turned into a frog while Lawrence gets to be the Prince. Then after Tiana and the Prince try to break the spell by kissing she is turned into a frog as well. At this point Princess has been fairly subversive in reversing and criticizing old Disney portrayals while acknowledging their importance in the history of animation. But once Tiana becomes a frog the film settles down into a familiar travelogue routine of destination, song, problem, solution, new destination, song, problem, etcetera etcetera. The story takes none of the fantastic risks present in the opening half hour and proceeds on a predictable, if enjoyable, journey.
While the story turns out to be nothing special, occasional moments of invention spring forth from the setting and the score. New Orleans isn't exactly known for it's timid nightlife and Princess takes advantage of this as much as possible while still remaining accessible to the children. Jazz musicians line the streets, voodoo priests offer you the world, and the swampland that's so menacing and enticing is just outside your window. This is all animated with the smoothest of colors and, while the details are many and fantastic, the overall style could have used a bit more grit.
The same thing could be said of the songs composed for the film. With one exception, there isn't a single song that is half as memorable of some of the lesser songs of Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. With a film set in the height of the New Orleans jazz age you'd think that someone would have written some toe-tapping tunes in synch with the era. However, Randy Newman is not exactly the songwriter you want to turn to for great jazz music, and the songs proceed as predictably as the story.
As "by the numbers" the majority of the production is the villain is really impressive. A lot of it has to do with Keith David's performance as Dr. Facilier. He doesn't waste a single second of voice time with idle pleasantries and every line drips with the fascinating malevolence that New Orleans represents. Even his song is memorable. Voodoo imagery and colorful skulls permeate the surroundings as he seduces the Prince and traps him into the overall plot. Every scene with Keith David is a joy, and really deserved to be in a better film.
Had The Princess and the Frog taken more chances with the material it might have been something special. The pieces are there, but without a stable hand that wants to push the medium further than the film goes, it stands as a small array of excellent ideas that go unrealized.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
Written by Ron Clements, John Musker and Rob Edwards.
Starring Anika Noni Rose (adult Tiana), Bruno Campos, and Keith David.