I was pretty hyped for “The Princess and the Frog.” After many years of CGI mediocrity being inflicted on us, old-school animation nerds like me were really looking forward to this. And, all things considered, “The Princess and the Frog” delivers. First off, it really feels like a lost classic from Disney’s nineties golden period. The movie is gorgeous. Its color palette is so rich. The greens and blues have so much depth. The film has the painterly quality you associate with the best classic animation. You could get lost looking into any scenes. I don’t care what anybody says, but CGI has yet to deliver on the texture and weight that these scenes have. It’s wonderful to see traditional animation of this quality on the big screen for the first time in so long. I suppose it was a given that this would be visually beautiful, but it only matters so much if the movie drops the ball on every thing else.
First off, the most noticeable thing about the movie besides the visuals is the music. It’s been so long since there’s been a big-screen cartoon musical, it was actually a little off-putting at first. So much mileage is gotten out of the New Orleans setting. Jazz, gospel, and even zydeco are all local genres that are dipped into and gives the film an identity distinct from other Disney scores. Many of the musical numbers function in the same way as in the classics. “Down in New Orleans,” performed by natural choice Dr. John, establishes our location. “Almost There,” highlighted by beautiful art-deco style animation, sets up our lead character’s dreams and ambitions. (And what’s more important to a Disney Princess then her dreams and ambitions?) Both “When We’re Human” and “Gonna Take You There” are standard travel numbers. What would otherwise just be a scene of our characters getting from point A to B, is transformed into a big, character-developing song and dance. “Ma Belle Evangeline” is the “Kiss the Girl” of the twenty-first century, a colorful love ballad that is actually sung by someone other then our main couple, while that couple become even closer during the song. Both “Friends On the Other Side” and “Dig a Little Deeper” serve to introduce their respective characters.
The story follows the fairy tale archetype pretty closely. Our selfish prince learns to stop being such an asshole while also learning to love someone other then himself. There’s his put-upon manservant, who makes a deal with a devilish magician to get what he feels is coming to him. There’s wacky animal sidekicks, a jazz loving gator and a lovelorn Cajun firefly, both of whom get their wishes granted, but not in the expected ways. But there’s one important exception to this rule. Princess Tiana, instead of being a subservient victim like Snow White or Princess Aurora, or a rebelling teenage like Jasmine or Ariel, is a forward-thinking, hard-working young woman who has sacrificed and saved to make her dreams possible. She’s self-absorbed in a different way from Prince Naveen. Tiana is so focused on her objectives that she can’t share her love with anybody else. The movie even seems to go out of its way to contrast this Disney Princess for the modern century with the more typical princess concept, with the character of the Sugar Baron’s bratty daughter.
The voice cast is able and brings these characters to life. Keith David, maximum badass that he is, makes Dr. Facilier one of the most interesting Disney villains in a while. In that he is as much of a schemer as any other, but is actually in over his head and afraid of the shadowy specters that do his work. The way said shadow monsters are brought to life is quite striking and reminiscent of the visual style of “Nightmare Before Christmas.” (Just one of several possible references to other Disney works.) And while Ray the Firefly might lean a bit too much on the Cajun shtick, the character’s unrequited love is actually a touching aspect. Ray’s characters takes an unexpected turn at the end and, in a very gutsy move, the movie doesn’t wimp out. Not only is his arc resolved in a natural way, but an unexpectedly touching one as well.
Honestly, only one scene in the entire movie rings false. While the frog-hunting Bayou hicks are obviously a throw-back to the slapstick antics of fifties animation, the whole sequence is abrasive, too long, and frankly too stupid for a movie this good. The Mama Odie character also struck me as a little too broad.
Either way, “The Princess and the Frog” puts Disney Animation right back on top of the world as far as I’m concerned. It both subverts the classics and pays homage to them. It’s a truly a return to the classic style. [Grade: A-]