Day 92: The Princess and the Frog

"We're actually not from around here."
"Go to bed... ya'll from Shreveport?"

For better or for worse, Toy Story effectively changed the landscape of animation forever. Coming a year after the biggest financial hit in the history of Walt Disney Studios, The Lion King, it revolutionized an industry that just seemed to be hitting its stride. At that time, it wasn't necessarily cheaper to produce computer animation, but the upfront investment in technology aside, it was clear that studio executives were drawing a pretty straight line between the success of Toy Story and the decline in traditional hand-drawn animation.

It's ironic, then, that the man who directed Toy Story and was the head of Pixar animation, John Lasseter, was the one to revive the art of hand-drawn feature length animated films when he took over as head of Disney Animation Studios in 2006 (It's even more ironic that he was given this position after having been fired from the studio in the mid-80s). The first big, hand-drawn animate feature to be released as part of this new initiative was 2009's The Princess and the Frog, a twist on the classic tale "The Frog Prince." Bringing back Ron Clements and John Musker to direct was the first thing the producers did right. They are the team behind some of Disney's best film from their animation renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin & The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to name three.

The Princess and the Frog is also notable for featuring Disney's first black princess. Anyone who thinks that this is insignificant, or questions how irrelevant this decision was, is out of their mind. I was working for a major retailer when the film was released, and the Tiana dolls flew off the shelves. All children, particularly non-white children, long to see themselves represented on screen, and the pinnacle of this representation for little girls in this country is seeing themselves in a Disney Princess, so make no mistake, this was a watershed moment.

Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a young woman living in a non-descript time period in New Orleans' past. She works several jobs to save up enough money to open her own restaurant, and fate smiles on her when her childhood friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) offers her the rest of the money she needs if she'll make her beignets at a party that evening. This isn't just any party, it's a costume party to welcome Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) of Maldonia to New Orleans, and hopefully woo him to marry Charlotte, so she can become a princess, just like she's always dreamed.

En route to the party however, Naveen and his servant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) come across The Shadow Man, Dr. Facilier (Keith David) who offers Naveen the chance to be free of his princely duties which have become burdensome for the carefree Naveen. Naveen gets more than he bargained for however, when The Shadow Man turns him into a frog, and uses a magical totem filled with Naveen's blood to turn Lawrence into a double for Naveen. 

When Naveen arrives at the party, Charlotte is immediately smitten with him, not aware of the fact that he's actually Lawrence in disguise. The real Naveen finds Tiana, who is dressed as a princess (costume party, remember), and convinces her that she should kiss him and break the spell. However, because Tiana is not a real princess, she finds herself transformed into a frog as well. The two frogs now find themselves on the run, in an attempt to find someone who can break the spell and change them back before Charlotte marries Lawrence, who will turn control of the city over to Facilier once he's married to Charlotte, whose father (John Goodman) more or less runs the city. 

It sounds hokey, I know, but it works. It all works so unbelievably well, I was shocked at how good the film was. I would wager to say that it's the best Disney animated film since The Lion King owing a lot of that to the biggest and best asset the film has: a score and songs by Randy Newman. I've always run hot and cold with Newman as a songwriter. He has undeniable talent, but his songs can run the gamut from brilliant to unlistenable. Thankfully, he pulls out a ton of the former and none of the latter here, and all six songs he wrote for the film are fantastic. Getting Dr. John to sing "Down in New Orleans," the song over the opening titles was a stroke of genius. He's so much a part of the city of New Orleans, and his voice welcomes you right into the world of the film, and it really does set the tone for everything that follows.

In typical Disney fashion, things play out in a ridiculously convenient timeline, with the characters hating each other and then falling in love all in the span of about 24 hours, but that's part of the Disney magic formula that's as old as the movies itself. If you can suspend disbelief enough to just accept that things need to be resolved before the stroke of midnight, you'll enjoy the film much more. Tiana is also a revelation of a character, as she's not just some helpless damsel. She's an independent woman, who has fought against the odds and worked hard for her dreams. She didn't just sit around and wait for good things to happen to her, and that's an important message for the young girls who will certainly look up to her.

I think there's so much importance placed on originality these days, that old fashioned films end up looking archaic and kids steer clear of them. The Princess and the Frog though is hardly old fashioned. It embraces the old model, but infuses it with a 21st century excitement that makes it fit in well with either camp. I loved this film, and so did both of my daughters, and I cannot recommend it enough for lovers of animated films.

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