It seems history has repeated itself in regards to Walt Disney Animation Studios. In 1989, the animation giant released The Little Mermaid – the studio’s first big hit after years of less memorable features – which then opened the door for the “Disney Renaissance” of the 1990s, which saw Disney reach new critical and commercial heights with one hit movie after another. Twenty years after The Little Mermaid, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog also served as a return to form for the studio, and Disney has been on a hot streak ever since. The Princess and the Frog serves as an important piece of Disney’s history then, and it still remains a very enjoyable film, though its successors have continuously bettered it.
The Princess and the Frog returned to the fairy tale musical format of Disney films, but also tried to add some more contemporary tweaks to the tried-and-true formula. Instead of a fairy tale kingdom setting, the film takes place in New Orleans during the 1920s. The heroine is Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young waitress who dreams of starting her own a restaurant, a dream she shared with her deceased father.
Perhaps the film’s biggest departure from Disney norms is brought up almost immediately, as a young Tiana is told by her father that “wishing on a star” is nice and all, but it takes actual hard work for dreams to come true. The film’s opening moments write off the more naive elements of Disney’s past with a dose of reality, a concept that has continued through Disney movies today.
Unfortunately, that defiant attitude doesn’t apply to the whole film, with much of the latter half of the film feeling a bit formulaic. It’s a bit forgivable, seeing as Princess and the Frog was trying to reignite the Disney animation brand, it’s understandable that they would stick close to the formula that made the 90s Disney films such successes. But perhaps the film stuck a little too closely to the formula at times. In terms of story structure, there’s not a whole lot wrong with The Princess and the Frog. It just treads more and more familiar ground as it goes on.
After repeated failed attempts to start her restaurant, Tiana crosses paths with the visiting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), who has been transformed into a frog by the evil Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo witch doctor whose shadow works as his own sidekick (making for some memorable moments of animation). Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess, and thinks a kiss from her will change him back to his human self. But the kiss only ends up turning Tiana into a frog as well, and soon enough the two humans-turned-frogs are on adventure to find a way to undo the transformation.
The Princess and the Frog does do a great job at giving its characters differing motivations than most Disney characters that came before it: The hard-working Tiana is looking to live the dream her father wasn’t able to see. Naveen – being a bit of a spoiled playboy – is looking for a rich girl to woo and marry after being cut off from his family’s fortune. Dr. Facilier is tired of using his magic for cheap parlor tricks for a few measly bucks, and has made a pact with dark spirits in a plot to get the fortune he feels he deserves.
There are also some fun sidekick characters, as is the case with most Disney films: Lois is a trumpet-playing alligator who wishes to become a human so he can join a jazz band. Ray is a simplistic firefly who is in love with a star he’s named Evangeline (believing the star to be another firefly). Mama Odie is an ancient voodoo priestess who has a preoccupation with making gumbo. The best of the lot, however, isn’t a traditional sidekick character, but Tiana’s best friend (and the rich girl Naveen has his sights on), Charlotte, whose obsessive dreams of marrying a prince seem to be a means for Disney to parody itself.
The Princess and the Frog has a great cast of characters, but again, the plot suffers a little by becoming more familiar as it goes on. Even Tiana’s focus on hard work is dismissed later on for more conventional Disney storytelling. There’s nothing outright bad about the plot, but when compared to the films that came out of the Disney studios since, the changes Princess and the Frog brings to the formula seem minimal.
Nevertheless, The Princess and the Frog is still a very fun entry in the Disney canon. And it’s made all the better through some exquisite, hand-drawn animation. Though subsequent Disney films have bettered it in terms of story and characters, The Princess and the Frog stands out for being a traditionally animated feature in a time when most studios have largely abandoned the medium.
The characters all move fluidly, and the backgrounds show a great deal of detail. The whole film just has a great, colorful look to it that rivals the animation quality of any Disney feature. The film is something of a testament to the beauty of hand-drawn animation, as well as a good example of why we could always use more of it in today’s animated cinema.
One minor downside to the film is that the song work (composed by Randy Newman) isn’t among the more memorable Disney soundtracks. It’s not bad by any means, with numbers like “Evangeline” (in which Ray expresses his unrequited love for the aforementioned star) and “Friends on the Other Side” (Dr. Facilier’s obligatory villain song) actually being pretty good. But none of them really stay with you in the way the best Disney songs do. In best case scenarios, Disney soundtracks are immediately infectious. But here, the songs are simply “good.”
When all is said and done, The Princess and the Frog is still a solid entry in the Disney canon, and at the time of its release, it was absolutely refreshing to see Disney get back on track after most of the 2000s had been rather unkind to the quality of the studio’s output. But the films that have come from Disney since its release have perfected what The Princess and the Frog set out to do, which is to rekindle the magic of the Disney brand. The Princess and the Frog still has plenty of merit for its fun pacing and characters, as well as its defiantly traditional animation. But in retrospect, The Princess and the Frog never quite seems to change up the Disney formula as much as it wants to, even with its solid effort.
Still, it’s hard to argue with what came about because of it. Because of The Princess and the Frog, the door was opened for the likes of Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana. And for that alone we should all be forever grateful to it.