The Princess and the Frog
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Ron Clements and John Musker usher Disney’s animated features back to the cell era, and thank goodness. Not that “The Princess and the Frog” is a great film – its jokes re too broad, its story too meandering, its character kind of non-entities – but its surely a sight better than the quick-moving, ADD-addled CGI action comedies that have infected children’s animation for the last decade. There’s a reason why the slow magic of Miyazaki has been embraced by animation nerds and mainstream audiences alike. There’s a reason Pixar was needed to keep Disney a formidable force in the animation world.
I looked at that previous paragraph, and I think I nailed the biggest problem with “The Princess and the Frog:” Like most of Disney’s output, it feels manufactured. Like Disney has carefully planned just exactly where they want this film to stand in their firmament, rather than use the film to tell an interesting story about an empowered black woman.
But that’s no surprise. Hasn’t that always been Disney’s MO? Isn’t everything Disney supposed to bear that particularly candy-flavored Dream-Factory imprint? There are many who find this imprint charming. I’m more fond of Disney’s animated features in the small moments when they transcend.
“The Princess and the Frog” has a few such moments. There’s a musical number early on where the films title princess Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) sings about almost opening her dream business, a restaurant, when the animation springs into a simplified version of the characters, and it begins to move the way a Hirschfeld drawing might. Disney has also always been good at the creepy monstery stuff, so any scene involving the voodoo priest Dr. Facilier (Keith David) is a delight to watch.
Indeed, I secretly hope that Disney will bite the bullet and just make an outright horror film for kids someday, utilizing their best strengths.
The story is familiar, even through its twists. The light-skinned vapid prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is penniless, and hopes marry into old Southern money in 1920s New Orleans. Tiana is a poor black woman who dreams of owning a restaurant, and has been working hard for many years to achieve that dream. When Dr. Facilier turns Naveen into a frog (for reasons that are not made entirely clear until later), he goes after the first princess he can find in order to kiss him, as he’s heard that old story too. The twist: when Tiana (dressed as a princess or a costume ball) kisses frog Naveen, she turns into a frog instead of the other way ‘round.
There is an adventure in the swamp where they flee, and where they meet a trumpet-blowing crocogator (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a Cajun firefly (the indispensable Jim Cummings) and a blind mystic (Jennifer Lewis). The frogs predictably fall in love and Learn Lessons About Life.
I have a problem with the lessons in this movie. Tiana, at the outset, is a hard worker who wants to achieve a dream. She learns… what… that you can have a boyfriend AND still be a hard-worker? That one should work hard, but take some time to be a princess, and then go back to working hard? It seems too simple for me.
But nevermind. Disney has taken a bold step backward, and it’s refreshing. Yes, its only more branding, but, finally, it’s pretty branding.