This is the third in an ongoing series that will form a comprehensive review of the ‘official’ Walt Disney Animation Studios canon – from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through 2016’s Moana.
For reference, here is a complete list of the films in the Disney canon.
- Film: The Princess and the Frog
- Year: 2009
- Director(s): John Musker and Ron Clements
- Length: 97 Minutes
- Source Material: ‘The Frog Prince’ from The Brothers Grimm & ‘The Frog Princess’ by E.D. Baker
- Official Budget: $105 Million
- Official Box Office: $267 Million
In 2005, Disney found itself in the middle of their worst slump in the Studio’s history; rife with box office bombs and critical failures such as Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range. After the acquisition of Pixar in 2006, Disney studio heads made the decision to write off traditional hand-drawn animation in favor of CGI. That decision proved no better, with the development of the disappointing Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt.
Desperate to recreate the magic of the 1990s, Disney brought back longtime collaborators Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules), and so began the production of The Princess and the Frog. While critical reception was strong, box office revenue was less than stellar, owed in part to a marketing campaign that missed the mark with Disney’s male demographic. Nevertheless, The Princess and the Frog was the first in a string of Disney critical hits (that eventually brought with it strong box office performance) known as the ‘Disney Revival’.
The Princess and the Frog follows a similar story structure to other Musker/Clements vehicles. Tiana, a young and spunky waitress in 1920s New Orleans has been saving up to buy her very own jazz club. Throw in an arrogant prince who needs to learn something about himself; and an evil voodoo witch doctor bent on stopping Tiana from reaching her goal, and you get an entirely predictable Disney story. Nothing particularly awful about the plot of The Princess and the Frog, but nothing close to noteworthy.
Tiana mirrors other recent Disney princesses (Ariel, Jasmine), just with a slight tone of cynicism. Prince Naveen is Aladdin on steroids…MORE cockiness, MORE bravado, MORE irresponsibility, and importantly, less empathetic. Rounding out the cast is a crew of what feels like Disney sidekick cast-offs – the neurotic, jazz-loving alligator Louis, the over-the-top stereotypically cajun firefly Ray, and the unreasonably bratty Souther rich-girl Charlotte. Overall, characters aren’t bad – just nothing new to enjoy.
While nearly every character from The Princess and the Frog is a carbon copy of previously used Disney templates, the antagonist, a voodoo shaman Doctor Facilier, is a bright spot and uniquely original. Doctor Facilier is strikingly evil, even for Disney standards; which as seen a woman try to capture, kill, and skin 101 different Dalmatian puppies. Actor Keith David brings charisma to the character colloquially known as ‘The Shadow Man’.
Re-adopting traditionally hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog was the right decision to capture the hazy, humid feel of 1920s New Orleans; utilizing a striking yellow-tint to the scenery. In Disney’s preceding films, notably Chicken Little, Disney animators had yet to master CGI and looked a step behind their Pixar counterparts; but when it comes to hand-drawn animation, no studio does it better than Disney.
Character design and stylization echoes the best of classic Disney while setting itself apart with an individually bayou flavor. Animators hit a home-run with Doctor Facilier; an arresting villan design with eye-catching movement.
Longtime partner to Pixar, Randy Newman composed, arranged, and conducted the music for The Princess and the Frog; with an aim at delivering easily accessible jazz songs to match the setting but these were not the classics of the Disney Renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King). The soundtrack was lifeless and really missed out on the jazz and soul influences the film pulls from. The lone bright spot was the solo Tiana number ‘Almost There’; recognized with an Oscar nomination.
The Princess and the Frog feels too familiar in it’s own right; but by relying on quintessentially Disney conventions (to a fault), Disney showed they were ready to get back to the things that made them most successful.