Following the flashy, CG-Rendered Disney Castle intro for The Princess and the Frog, audiences are treated to one final opening production credit—Mickey Mouse at the helm in “Steamboat Willie”, bordered by a sepia tone box with the words “Walt Disney” emblazoned across the bottom. Fans of classic two-dimensional animation have waited with baited breath for Disney’s newest offering, hoping for a successful return to form for the aging giant. It’s been a long time since Disney’s 2-D studios delivered a film of Mulan’s quality, and even longer since we’ve received a Lion King or Beauty and the Beast; the general consensus has been that the studio “lost it”, passing the throne to Pixar as the new premiere animation studio. So does The Princess and The Frog deliver, or is it the final nail in Disney’s mouse-shaped coffin?
The most important aspect of any Disney flick is its characters; Belle was a favorite for her intelligence and independence, Aladdin for his adventurousness and creativity—and that’s overlooking the more obvious fantastic characters like Genie or Maleficent. The cast of The Princess and The Frog is as unique as those of classic Disney lore. Tiana is driven by her father’s dream and personal aspirations—is a figure of sacrifice, diligence, and independence who refuses to easily fold over Prince Naveen’s charm, but remains lovable throughout. Dr. Facilier, our voodoo villain, feels strangely innocuous and absent throughout the film’s first half, but makes a chilling return that puts the fangs and creeps back into children’s animation. Princes have never been Disney’s strong suite, so it’s no surprise that Prince Naveen is hit-and-miss; though he’s certainly a likable creation, his dialogue feels clunky and unpolished in the first act, and his character is ironically better developed following his transformation. One notable departure from the typical Disney formula is the inclusion of a likable supporting cast; unlike Hunchback’s irritating Gargoyles or Pocahontas’s Raccoon stalkers, Louis the Alligator and Ray the Lightning Bug play integral roles in the overall storyline, live their own mini-storyarcs, and are overall enjoyable to watch. Strangely, Charlotte, Tiana’s blonde debutante friend, steals the show with her ceaseless stupidity and childish greed; watching Tiana react to her is whimsically hilarious.
What would a Disney Princess film be without songs? Though none of the tunes rank with heavy-hitters like “A Whole New World”, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, or “The Circle of Life”, The Princess and the Frog holds its own with “Almost There”, “Don’t Matter (which may be titled ‘Dig a Little Deeper’ according to the soundtrack listing)”, and “Ma Belle Evangeline”. “Almost There” is especially memorable for it’s Al Hirschfeld influenced animated sequence, as is Dr. Facilier’s villainous “Friends on the Other Side”, which features subtle tricks of black-light voodoo art. While “Don’t Matter (Dig a Little Deeper?)” is unquestionably the strongest standalone song, “Evangeline”, played during the couple’s first dance, is the film’s best and most traditional integration of song and action.
Frog’s plot inverts nearly all tropes audiences have come to expect from Disney. Talking animals are initially treated as freakish aberrations, the Prince is incapable, inept, penniless and abandoned, love isn’t treated as some instantaneous inevitability, and the story’s primary through-line is the necessity of hard work in attaining goals. Tiana is less concerned with finding a husband than realizing her father’s dream of opening a restaurant—is driven by class constraints rather than magical ones. While allusions to past Disney classics like Fantasia, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and the oft-forgotten Song of the South (look for the “Hunters” sequence!) are numerous, The Princess and the Frog, along with 2007’s Enchanted, marks a new chapter in Disney storytelling—one where realism and independence trump reliance on magicality and noble princes.
Despite its many positive qualities—a strong cast, villain, songs and storyarc—The Princess and the Frog lacks one hook that keeps it from assuming early nineties Disney calibur: the prince’s transformation isn’t directly tied with the film’s primary theme. Unlike Beast, who must learn love in order to shed his monstrous appearance, or Aladdin, who overcomes by accepting his peasant nature and playing up another’s grandiose desires, Prince Naveen and Tiana are imperiled through no flaw of their own, nor liberated by overcoming personal limitations. Their narrative ends well only because it must—a failing the film openly admits in the form of a second denouement. The obvious question is whether I would notice this were I ten, and the answer is no, I would not. While its themes and character flaws never fully reconcile one another, The Princess and The Frog feels like classic Disney animation—oozes it from every pore. Unlike Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, or Home on the Range, Disney’s newest 2-D offering fills its audience with nostalgia for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and even further back—is made of that classic, indefinable Disney magic that ingrained itself so deeply in our childhood hearts.
Is the old school Disney back? Maybe. It’s the closest it’s been in nearly fifteen years, and that’ll do.