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"The Princess and the Frog": Acceptable But Familiar

by on December 14, 2009

The Princess and the Frog is safe territory for Disney’s return to 2D animation. It feature princesses, handsome princes, evil baddies who bring temptations of riches (and ulterior motives!), “clock strikes midnight” deadlines, and lavish musical numbers that are all throwbacks to not only their earliest work, but to their late ’80s/early ’90s blockbusters. In that sense, Princess serves as a homage to classic Disney, but let’s hope that future animated stories from them are a bit less derivative.

One thing that isn’t derivative about Princess, however, is the setting. Early 1900s New Orleans hasn’t been explored in a Disney animated feature yet, and it’s never looked (or sounded) better in the story of a hard-working waitress, Tiana, who dreams of opening her own glamorous restaurant. She’s a cheerful workaholic who even turns down a night of fun with friends because it would mean a little less money for that eventual goal. Now that’s dedication. Or being unhealthily anti-social. Your choice.

You might be wondering why the title has the word “princess” in it if the main character isn’t one, or even aspires to be one. More on that below. For now, enter the villain, Dr. Facilier, a street magician/voodoo magic artist who entices a young, newly-on-his-own prince, Prince Naveen, and his portly butler Lawrence (sort of the Sultan of this movie), with promises of wealth if they submit to his spell. Little do they know it’s all a nefarious trick, for reasons I won’t give away.

This spell turns Naveen into a frog, and what transforms a frog back into a prince? If you’ve read your children’s books, you’d know it’s a kiss from a princess. Well, the twist is that despite Tiana’s princess-like dress (which she put on after a mishap at her friend Charlotte’s ball), she’s not royalty, so Naveen’s plan to get a smooch from Tiana backfires, and she transforms into a frog herself. This is a nice variation on the formula. Through a series of complications, the two amphibians end up in the deep bayou and must figure out how to get home to New Orleans and transform back to normal.

I wasn’t going in expecting the most original premise in the world (after all, how original can it be with a title that literally evokes images of the classic “frog to prince” trope?), but Princess is still attention-holding. Certainly, much of this is due to the overall presentation of the film. How refreshing it is to see hand-drawn animation on the big screen again! I had almost forgotten what that experience was like. The film carries all the usual full animation and eye-pleasing squash-and-stretch you’d come to expect from Disney, and the character movements are done with the usual attention to detail and care. I especially liked Charlotte, Tiana’s energetic (make that “hyper”) friend, who goes through so many emotions in such a short time that it’s fun just watching her, even if one gets annoyed by her overly talkative personality. I also rather enjoyed Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator who accompanies Naveen and Tiana, mainly because of how kinetic this massive character was, with his girth swaying and smushing about as he moved quickly. He reminded me of Ellie from Ice Age: The Meltdown in that way, at least in the phase where she thought she was a nimble possum.

If there’s one aspect to the overall look of the film I have a problem with, it’s a few of the character designs. Specifically, Naveen and Tiana as frogs. They look too similar, with only a few subtle aspects (such as the eyes and mouth) to differentiate the two. I looked forward to them turning back into humans, because they were more distinct in those forms. Louis also isn’t particularly unique; he’s an alligator. The way he moves is great, but we’ve seen alligators of his kind in animated movies before. By contrast, the lanky Facilier was quite memorable looking (particularly with a shadow that often acts independently of him), and my eyes lit up whenever he was on the screen.

The music isn’t quite up to the best Disney songs, unfortunately. It’s not bad by any means, and the score by Randy Newman certainly does the job and accentuates the scenes nicely, but none of the songs got stuck in my head when I left the theater, as happened to me with Aladdin. I better remember the visuals that went along with the songs, such as a sequence where Tiana sings about how great her upcoming restaurant will be, and the visual change to a flatter, Art Deco-esque style that appropriately evokes the higher class feel. There’s also a striking number involving Dr. Facilier when he describes potential futures for Naveen and Lawrence that utilizes color and smoke in a striking way.

The film also falters a tad in the relationship between Naveen and Tiana. Naveen is supposed to marry Charlotte, but does anybody who’s seen this kind of story truly think she’ll end up with him? Especially after he and Tiana survive disaster after disaster together? At the same time, Naveen and Tiana’s relationship is underdeveloped save for a few short scenes of bonding (such as Tiana teaching the pampered Naveen how to cook), so the pay-off doesn’t seem as satisfying as it should. It feels like the simplified kind of romance, and a little too quick.

Finally, without giving too much away, I thought the final battle with Facilier left something to be desired. Compare it to another film by the same directorial duo, Aladdin: Now there was a climax where you truly wondered how they’d get out of the predicament, and was a bit more creative in how the characters defeated the villain.

Despite my criticisms, The Princess and the Frog is still worth seeing. I do like how the main character isn’t actually a princess at all, and how that creates a twist in the story. The 2D animation still delivers even after a five-year theatrical absence. And it captures the feel of the Deep South quite well through the various colorful characters and settings. Finally, I liked the whole “want vs. need” theme that is touched upon towards the end, as it showed much of a moral character Tiana has. Hopefully, if the movie does well, Disney will make more 2D films and create something a bit more daring next time.

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