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Review: The Princess and the Frog

As you probably know, The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s first 2D effort in five years. It took John Lasseter, a Pixar guy who now runs all of Disney animation to get the studio to return to its 2D roots. Lasseter and company knew they had to hit a home run to make people care about hand-drawn animation again. Hey, it’s a Disney movie – there’s gotta be a happy ending, right? Damn straight – a happy ending to both the movie and the studio’s mission to show the world 2D’s still got the goods.

Back in the 1920’s an author named David Garnett wrote a novella called Lady into Fox; the story of a wife who, much to her husband’s consternation suddenly and for no particular reason turns into a four-legged vixen. In spite of his best efforts to keep her in the human world, she goes feral on him; needless to say, things do not end well…

After reading the book way back when (not the 1920’s but close) the first thing that occurred to me was that it would make a great Disney animated feature. Of course we’d have to change a few things. (Look at me, I’m a development executive!) For starters, coming up with a reason for our heroine’s metamorphosis, a curse triggered by her return to the abandoned family estate, say (they mucked up the environment decades ago and somebody’s got to pay!) … a really cool onscreen transformation, something to rival Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island sequence, an upbeat narrative culminating in a happy ending (setting things right and thus regaining her human form), a cast of humans and animals (both allies and enemies) – and since the book was written in 1922, an old-timey jazz score with touches of the blues, Dixieland and ragtime.

I never got to be a Disney development exec and pitch the idea, but it’s academic now that the studio’s made its own early 20th century, jazz-scored story of curses and transformations – but with frogs, not foxes.

As you probably know, The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s first 2D effort in five years. It took John Lasseter, a Pixar guy who now runs all of Disney animation to get the studio to return to its 2D roots. Lasseter and company knew they had to hit a home run to make people care about hand-drawn animation again. They came to the plate swinging for the fence: would they ground into a double play or hit a grand slam? Is P&F 2D’s rebirth or its last gasp?

Hey, it’s a Disney movie – there’s gotta be a happy ending, right?

Damn straight – a happy ending to both the movie and the studio’s mission to show the world 2D’s still got the goods. CGI? We don’ need no steenkin’ CGI!

After a deceptively slow start, P&F kicks into high gear with the first in a series of show-stopping production numbers set to Randy Newman’s songs. Someone (my former brother-in-law, actually) once said every musical has to have an ‘I want’ song early on. For Tiana, the film’s eventual princess it’s a fantasia of her dream restaurant coming to life. For a few minutes, the film switches from lush, shaded 2D imagery to ‘flat,’ solid-colored, stylized animation – 1920’s advertising poster art come to life.

People will be arguing for a while to come over which song gets the best visual treatment; for me it’s a tie between Dr. Facilier’s psychedelically-tinted ‘Friends on the Other Side,’ (the villain always gets a cool ‘I love being a villain’ song – watch what they do with his eyes at the song’s end) and voodoo priestess Mama Odie’s ode to getting in touch with oneself, backed up by a platoon of Technicolor singing and dancing flamingos that would make Busby Berkley jealous. (Oh, but then there’s an underwater frog ballet that would make Esther Williams jealous…)

There’s a whole buncha shots in P&F that seem to deliberately evoke moments from Disney classics of yore: Facilier’s mind-of-his-own shadow (a la Peter Pan), a ballroom prince and princess waltz (Sleeping Beauty? Cinderella? Beauty and the Beast? Take your choice), a lovably chubby gator giving the frog couple a ride on his belly as he floats through the bayou (was that Baloo and Mowgli floating the other way in the background?), a glowing-from-the-inside dandelion and a cloud of fireflies that would’ve felt at home in Fantasia’s ‘Nutcracker’ sequence.  There’s also a pair of nods to the 2D process itself, with the pictures on a shuffling tarot deck turning into a flip book and later, a pair of illustrations on succeeding pages of a fairy tale book compared back-and-forth like animation extremes.

P&F includes a couple of really nice change-of-pace moments from the usual Disney tropes: a very nervous Facilier realizing he’s in over his head, as opposed to the villain having the upper hand until his last second comeuppance, and [SPOILER ALERT] a main character dying in the course of the film – and really dying, not a fake-out ‘death’ like Baloo’s or Trusty in Lady and the Tramp.

A few other random observations made in the dark: directors Ron Clements and John Musker couldn’t resist a few Tennessee Williams references with a character named ‘Big Daddy’ who gives out with a “Stella!” wail (Stella is his dog)… an exquisitely-timed slapstick sequence with the frogs outwitting a trio of dimwitted trappers felt like an afterthought (“the second act’s kinda slow - we need a big setpiece to liven things up”), but a really, really funny afterthought... and the only reference to the heroine’s race (I did mention she’s black, didn’t I? They must’ve known Obama would be the president by the time the film came out) is an oblique “a woman of your background” spoken by one of the movie’s more oblivious characters.

There’s an old saying about Broadway musicals: you don’t leave the theater humming the scenery – but when it comes to CGI animation it sometimes feels like you’re supposed to leave the multiplex humming the technology. After you see The Princess and the Frog you’ll be remembering the jokes, the characters and especially those production numbers – and not how ‘realistic’ the water looked running off each exquisitely individually rendered alligator scale…

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