Tuesday, March 31, 2015


RELEASE DATE: Friday 11th December 2009

It was unthinkable! It was outrageous! It was counter-intuitive! Disney was returning to hand-drawn animation! And its newest film would be a fairy-tale musical! Such a thing had not been done since the early days of the Disney Renaissance!

When John Lasseter was put in charge of overseeing all of Disney's animation, he did two very important things. One was to abolish all of the horrible direct-to-video sequels that Disney offshoot studios had been producing faster than Dash Parr. The second thing he was determined to do was resurrect hand-drawn animation at the major Disney studio. Have a look at how excited these artists were at the news that they were back in business!

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite the resurrection that people had been hoping for... Disney produced two hand-drawn movies and then went straight back to C.G.I... With absolutely no hand-drawn films on the horizon, it appears that we're back to where we were after Home On The Range. (Although thankfully, the quality of Disney films has vastly improved since those days)

Even though it's a well-known fairy-tale, Disney had never attempted to create a movie based on "The Frog Prince." This project was originally inspired by a 2002 book by  E.D. Baker called "The Frog Princess" in which the main character, a princess called Emma, kisses a frog-prince to break the spell but becomes a frog herself.

For a while, the movie went under the working title "The Frog Princess." The main character, who was called Maddy, worked as a chamber-maid for a rich heiress in 1920s New Orleans.

Unfortunately, when Disney announced the film to the public in 2007, the politically-correct police had a field day. Apparently the name "Maddy" was too close to "Mammy," which was deemed racist. The fact that she was working for a rich white girl was apparently racist. Also, having the film named "The Frog Princess" supposedly might be seen as racist against French people.

A lot of negative press was generated over these issues, and Disney responded swiftly by changing the name of the main character and the movie itself. I think anyone with half a brain would have to agree that the original title was much nicer. "The Princess And The Frog" is a real mouthful, whereas "The Frog Princess" is simple and elegant, like a variation on "The Lion King." But the masses had spoken...
Apparently there was a lot of tension about the film's name just before its release. Some Disney management had some serious issues with a movie having the word "Princess" in the title, thinking that this might make audiences think it's a movie for little girls only. Their post-release research proved that this might have actually been the case, and as a kneejerk reaction, the next Disney film, Rapunzel, was promptly renamed Tangled to take the focus away from the princess.

Overall, The Princess And The Frog did quite well financially, making over double its production costs back. But it made about a quarter of Pixar's "Up," which was released in the same year.

 The movie starts by introducing us to the heroine, a little girl called Tiana. Her mother is a dressmaker, and is regularly employed to create princess dresses for a rich little girl named Charlotte. Tiana isn't interested in being a princess. She just wants to open up a restaurant with her father one day.

Years pass. Long after Tiana's father has passed away, she still works herself to the bone to try and earn enough money to start her restaurant. Day and night she works a number of waitressing jobs, neglecting any kind of social life in the meantime.

Meanwhile, a prince arrives in New Orleans from the far-off kingdom of Maldonia. Prince Naveen has no interest in obligations or responsibilities. He is a carefree playboy, and for that, his parents cut him off from their fortunes. A local voodoo witch doctor known as Dr. Facilier watches both Prince Naveen and Charlotte's father with keen interest.

Charlotte is beyond excited at the idea of meeting Prince Naveen and sweeping him off his feet. Knowing what a wonderful cook Tiana is, Charlotte employs her to cater at her party for the prince. Tiana is thrilled. Now she has enough money to buy the building for her restaurant!

Tiana takes her mother Eudora to inspect the building, which is very run-down. Eudroa sees a dump, but Tiana sees all of the future potential.

Naveen and his manservant Lawrence are met by Dr. Facilier, who reads them their fortunes and does a deal with them and his friends "on the other side." The prince might have got himself in a bit too deep...

At Charlotte's party she is at first madly upset that the prince is late. When he does arrive, she immediately begins to dance while Tiana meets with her real estate agents.

After an accident that sees Tiana soil her outfit, Charlotte offers a new dress for her to wear. While looking out at the stars, Tiana sees a frog and is horrified when it talks to her, explaining that he is actually Prince Naveen of Maldonia, and the person dancing with the princess is an imposter! Believing in the magic of the "Frog Prince" fairy-tale, Naveen promises that if Tiana will kiss him and change him back into a human, he will pay for her to open her restaurant. Against her better judgement, Tiana puckers up and kisses the frog...

Unfortunately, Tiana is no princess, so the spell goes quite wrong. Instead of changing Naveen into a human, the kiss turns Tiana into a frog! The two frogs barely escape the party and fly away clutching on to some balloons.

It turns out that the prince at the party was Lawrence in disguise, but Dr. Facilier explains that in order for the spell to work, they need Naveen's blood. And now the frog is on the loose, they're going to have to find him pronto!

The balloons drop Naveen and Tiana in the deep dark bayou where all manner of creatures want to eat them. The next morning Tiana creates a raft for them, but they are approached by an enormous alligator named Louis. Luckily, Louis is a friendly alligator who loves playing the trumpet!

Louis tells them of Mama Odie, the old witch in the bayou who may have the power to turn the frogs back into humans. Along the way they meet a firefly called Ray, who with the help of his family and friends, light their way through the night.

Unfortunately a family of hunters is out looking for some frogs to catch. The team need to use their brains and intellect to outwit the hunters.

That night, Tiana assigns herself as head chef for dinner. She attempts to give Naveen some cooking tips, but he has never had to do anything for himself before.

Ray tells the others of his one true love, Evangline, whose light shines in the sky every night.

They finally find Mama Odie, who takes them to her home. Although she is blind, Mama Odie perceives much. She tells Naveen that if he can kiss Charlotte (who is going to be crowned "princess" of the mardi gras) before midnight, that will be enough to break the spell. They immediately set off, knowing that they have a very small window of time to get back to the city.

The travelling party stow aboard a paddle steamer. Louis is mistaken for a man in a costume, much to his delight. Naveen realises that he has fallen in love with Tiana and needs to confess his love to her. Unfortunately, he never quite finds the right moment.

Unfortunately, by the time Tiana realises that she has fallen in love with Naveen as well, she sees the human Naveen marrying Charlotte on a mardi gras float.

Once Ray gets wind of the plot against Naveen, he steals the talisman that disguises Lawrence and rushes it to Tiana. Dr. Facilier squashes Ray beneath his shoe.

When Tiana finally meets the "Shadow Man," he uses illusion to tempt her into giving the talisman back to him, offering her everything she's ever wanted. Tiana sees through this and destroys the talisman, breaking Facilier's pact with the spirits from "the other side." They drag him into his own marked grave.

When Charlotte learns of the entire plot, she agrees to kiss Naveen so that he and Tiana can live happily ever after. Sadly, she is just a moment too late, and it doesn't work. Sad as they are to be remaining frogs forever more, Tiana and Naveen are even sadder to say goodbye to Ray, who goes up into the heavens to join his beloved Evangeline.

Some time later, Mama Odie is hosting a wedding ceremony for two little frogs. The moment that they become husband and wife and kiss, they immediately turn into humans. Because Tiana was a princess from the moment they said "I do," the kiss became legitimate.

Tiana finally gets her restaurant, and her new husband helps out wherever he can. Even Louis gets a stage to perform on. All of the years of hard work have finally paid off.

IRVYNE: I cannot begin to tell you how refreshing it is to return to a hand-drawn fairy-tale from Disney. It is like a breath of fresh air from a company that had been trying to be something it's not for far too long. And yet... The Princess and the Frog does not quite reach the heights set by its peers from years past. It certainly is a lot of fun to watch. There are some great characters and it's wonderful to have a heroine who isn't waiting to be rescued; all she wants to do is work hard.

Something about the story just seems a bit messy and unfocused to me though. The entire second act is the journey to find Mama Odie. But Mama Odie doesn't actually help them very much. The only thing she tells them is that they need to travel all the way back to where they came from!
The final showdown between Tiana and Dr. Facilier seems very strange to me as well, since neither of these characters have had anything to do with each others' stories. How does Facilier even know who Tiana is...? Good storytelling would suggest that it would either need to be Naveen who has a big "slay-the-dragon" moment, or Facilier would need to have been a direct opponent of Tiana's throughout the story.
If the plot was simpler and played a little slower, perhaps it might have ended up as good as its forebears.

After The Little Matchgirl in 2006, all of Disney's CAPS systems were either dismantled or sold off, along with all of the animation desks and everything else that wasn't bolted down to the building floor! What this meant was that when the 2D department was resurrected, they had nothing to work with! By calling around and finding out who had managed to save some of the equipment, they began to rebuild the studio. None of the CAPS computers remained, so the directors had to literally go out and buy "off the shelf" animation software, but fortunately by 2009 it was sophisticated enough that the finished film looks indistinguishable to the CAPS films of old.

Having New Orleans as the setting was an inspired choice, and the creators clearly wanted to show the city at its most beautiful. I only wish it spent a bit longer in each location, so that the audience would have more of a chance to soak up the atmosphere, because it's wonderful. Apart from the second act which is almost completely out in the swamp, none of the other locations appear for more than a couple of minutes. But the backgrounds all look wonderful.
The characters are nicely designed too. Tiana makes a wonderful leading lady, both in human and frog form. The comic relief characters - Charlotte, Louis and Ray - steal the show. They are all animated beautifully, with Louis being the standout. Animated by Disney legend Eric Goldberg (who led the animation on the Genie in Aladdin and Phil in Hercules) Louis is fantastically over-the-top and cartoony. He's a ridiculous amount of fun whenever he's on screen.

Here's an interview with Andreas Deja as he talks about working on the film, particularly the character that he supervised, Mama Odie.

Visually, The Princess and the Frog fits right in alongside Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and the other Renaissance classics, which is as high a compliment as an audience member could give!

The Princess and the Frog is a full-blown musical! Apart from both The Emperor's New Groove and Home On The Range (which had one song each sung by the characters) Disney had not released an animated musical since Mulan in 1998, eleven years prior to The Princess and the Frog!

Randy Newman, who had up until this point made a habit of scoring Pixar films, was brought on to the project. Newman's extensive knowledge of the New Orleans music scene made him the perfect candidate to capture the particular flavour of the city in the songs.

The film opens with the bouncing "Down In New Orleans," sung by Louisiana native singer Dr. John.

"Almost There" is Tiana's "I Want" song, in which she dreams of the restaurant she is so close to owning.

"Friends On The Other Side" is the villain number. It is a song that changes mood and intensity as it goes, and is therefore extremely theatrical, probably the most stage-like song in the whole movie.

"When We're Human" is road-trip song number one. Tiana, Naveen and Louis all sing about what they're going to do once they're human, and each character has his or her own different views.

"Gonna Take You There" is road-trip song number two. This time it's Ray and the fireflies that are singing a very catchy Cajun tune as they're "goin' down the bayou."

"Ma Belle Evangeline" is probably my favourite song in the movie, although it wasn't either of the two that were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. It is a beautiful romantic waltz sung by Ray. The trumpet solo in the middle of the song is particularly lovely.

"Dig A Little Deeper" is Mama Odie's big number, and it's a happy clappy gospel song!

While I would suggest that these songs aren't quite as catchy or singable as the Menken classics, they're actually pretty darn good, and I find that I can easily sing any of them; they've all managed to embed themselves in my brain. I really like how Newman managed to include so many different styles of music from around New Orleans. It made me very happy in 2009 to know that Disney was returning to real, legitimate musicals, and The Princess and the Frog was the first step into this new era.

You can't exactly say a film has aged when it's only 5 years old, and The Princess and the Frog is just as entertaining today as it was when it was released. No, I don't think it's as good as Disney's greatest, but it was definitely a step in the right direction, and it marked the beginning of the animation department finally getting back on track and appreciating exactly what makes a Disney movie... well, Disney!

I think The Princess and the Frog offers a fun little story with a great role-model for little girls and some enjoyable tunes as well. Oh, and I got to meet Tiana and Naveen on my recent visit to Disney World... Just sayin'...

WENDY: It's so nice to return to 2D animation! It makes me happy.

IRVYNE: Me too.

MALEFICENT: This is a beautiful film.

HAKU: I don't find this movie as intesting as Bolt. The pacing seems a bit strange.

IRVYNE: It does, doesn't it? Personally I prefer this to Bolt, but something about the story seems kind of haphazard and unfocused. It's like there's too many plot elements and it all gets too busy. If you compare it to Ron & John's earlier films like The Little Mermaid or Treasure Planet where the story is really tight, this one falls a bit short. Recently I saw the brand new stage production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which is AMAZING by the way - see it if you can!) and what was really clever about this story, is that the creators stripped it right back to the four leads: Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Frollo and Phoebus. Sure, other characters come and go, but everything in the show centres around these four characters, and it makes the story so very, very tight and focused. In The Princess and the Frog, the main characters are Tiana, Naveen, Dr. Facilier, Louis, Ray, Mama Odie, Charlotte and Lawrence. Wow, that's a lot of leads! And that's not including all of the additional sub-characters like Eudora and Big Daddy La Bouff. No wonder it feels so busy!

RAPUNZEL: I feel like a lot of the plot lines have been taken from other Disney movies.

HAKU: Louis the alligator is easily the best character.

MERRYWEATHER: You're biased because you're a trumpet player yourself!

IRVYNE: Well I'm not a trumpet player and I agree. Louis is awesome. He seems to be the only character who's been let off the chain to be as cartoony as Eric Goldberg wants him to be. I love his enormous range of expressions.

MALEFICENT: What a fabulous idea to give the alligator a trumpet! It's hilarious when he goes on to the paddle boat and everyone thinks he's in costume!

MERRYWEATHER: I like the very clever twist at the end, when Tiana becomes a princess the moment that they're married, which means Naveen can break the spell by kissing her.

WENDY: It's nice to have a modern career woman as a Disney princess.

MERRYWEATHER: Yeah! And she works hard for the money. She don't need no prince to come and sweep her off her feet!

WENDY: But she's blinded by her ambition and forgets to pay attention to what's important, which is something that happens a lot in the real world.

IRVYNE: I like Tiana as a character. But I've never really cared much for Naveen. I'm still not sure exactly what Tiana sees in him... I do like that when they meet for the first time, it's an absolute nothing-moment where she just rolls her eyes at him. Not exactly a traditional Disney "love-at-first-sight" moment!

SHENZI: Ray is funny.

IRVYNE: I can remember when I first saw the movie at the cinemas and Ray appeared, I was pretty sure I was going to hate him. I thought he was going to be the B.E.N. character... But his ending is really sweet, so I kinda like him now. I also think he's got the best song in the movie, "Ma Belle Evangeline."

WENDY: Even so, I don't think this story really needed that character.

IRVYNE: He's kind of like the voice of emotional reason.
HAKU: He's the Jiminy Cricket character.

WENDY: I suppose he is the one who makes both Tiana and Naveen realise that they need love instead of the things they've been chasing.

MALEFICENT: It's so cute how he's in love with a star. I cry when he dies.

IRVYNE: How about Dr. Facilier? He's a cool villain, and he's got lots of really nicely touches to his character animation, but he doesn't really do a whole lot of any great consequence throughout the movie. He sets things in motion by turning Naveen into a frog, but after that he's really just overseeing the plot without interacting with it much. I like his animation though. He has some great expressions.

WENDY: He has a very seductive voice! And a cool independent shadow! I wonder if the shadow was animated separately or maybe the same animator did them both at the same time...

MALEFICENT: I don't like Dr. Facilier. I've never liked the idea of voodoo.

IRVYNE: If there's one character who feels way too familiar, it's Lawrence, Naveen's manservant. He bears a striking resemblence to Timothy Spall, who played an almost idential role as Nathaniel in Enchanted, only two years earlier! Very strange.
HAKU: I tell you what, Disney didn't go out of its way to discredit hillbilly stereotypes, did they? Look at the frog catchers on the swamp!

IRVYNE: Yeah, possibly a little bit cliche... Funny though.

WENDY: Charlotte is a great character. She's so silly and girly and frivolous, but regardless of that, she's still likeable.

MALEFICENT: She comes across as selfish, but in the end she's one of Disney's most loving and selfless characters. I also love Mama Odie. She's my kind of witch! Magic is just second-nature to her. Her "Dig A Little Deeper" song is amazing. I love all the colours. It reminds me a bit of Fantasia.

IRVYNE: There were so many critical eyes watching the progress of this movie, since they were very consciously making the first African-American princess. In the original drafts Tiana was a maid called "Manny" but this was apparently racially offensive.

HAKU: Isn't her mother a maid in the opening scene?

WENDY: No no, she's a dressmaker.

IRVYNE: So the concept of the black girl being a maid to the white girl obviously copped a lot of flack.

HAKU: But that fits the time period!

IRVYNE: That's exactly right, but the little children seeing the movie wouldn't know about racial issues of the 1920s. So Disney had to be really careful not to offend anybody. I think they made the right choice. Tiana doesn't need to be a maid to tell this story. But I reckon they must have felt like they were walking across eggshells at times.

WENDY: I'm glad they got African-Americans to do all the voices.

IRVYNE: Like Oprah!

HAKU: The characters' races don't have any real bearing on the story anyway.

IRVYNE: That's right. Which is EXACTLY how it should be in a movie like this! Tiana is poor and Charlotte is rich, but there's never any mention of it having to do with race, and the girls are still good friends regardless. Julie Taymor (who directed the stage production of The Lion King) once said in an interview that to a white person, her show has nothing to do with race, but to a black person, it has everything to do with race. Because if you're a little black kid, you see this black man on stage who is a king, and everybody respects and obeys him. That's a pretty powerful image. If you imagine that you're a little African-American girl who loves Disney princesses but has never seen one that looks like her, this movie is a big deal. So they wanted to make sure they got it right!
WENDY: Well at least they made Tiana have modern-woman ambitions! I like the "Almost There" sequence where the animation suddenly takes on the style of the poster. That's really clever.

HAKU: I like that diversion as well.

MALEFICENT: I love the colours, the style and the way they really get her hair and clothing right for the 1920s era.

RAPUNZEL: I kind of hate that scene. Sorry.

HAKU: On the whole, there isn't much about the film's art style that stands out to me. It's just like classic Disney.

IRVYNE: Definitely. They went out of their way to make it look that way. But they've done a wonderful job in making New Orleans look so beautiful.

WENDY: You can definitely tell that the songs are by Randy Newman!

MALEFICENT: At least he doesn't sing them himself this time!

IRVYNE: The good thing about him, is that he really knows the New Orleans musical styles, so he was a good fit for this movie. I'd love to see what Harry Connick Jr. might have come up with though!

WENDY: Hearing the music really makes me want to go there.

SHENZI: Well if you like music, that's a good place to visit!

HAKU: "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" was set in New Orleans, wasn't it?

IRVYNE: Yeah. Somewhere out on the bayou... And then the little girl grew up to become Annie. But anyway, what were we saying...?

MALEFICENT: I think the music is excellent. Whenever I remember this film, the songs all flood back into my brain.

IRVYNE: You know, I like The Princess and the Frog. I like it quite a bit, but I wouldn't put it up there with the classics.

SHENZI: It's good, but it's not THAT good.
MALEFICENT: When I first saw the advertisements, I was frustrated that they weren't just doing the classic Frog Prince story... But this film won my heart in the first scene. I love it.