The Princess and the Frog
Disney’s brief return to the hand drawn animation that made its name is an unextraordinary, box-ticking affair: bells-and-whistles reinvention of a traditional fairytale (The Frog Prince/The Frog Princess); sparring romance between two lead characters; charismatic villain; anthropomorphically endearing supporting characters; a liberal sprinkling of half-cooked songs. Its main claim to fame is that it features Disney Animation’s first African-American protagonist, albeit she is shrouded in amphibian apparel for much of the running time.
Returning directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who rode the crest of the early ‘90s rejuvenation of the animation division, responsible for the likes of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules). Their previous film with Disney had been the expensive bomb Treasure Planet, one of the failures that signalled Disney’s switch to CGI. They bring the expected lightness of touch to the tale, along with a brace of songs, some more successful than others (Pixar mainstay Randy Newman wrote the majority of them, but fortunately we don’t have to endure him singing, nor his somnabulent orchestration).
The opening section, introducing us to young Tiana and the rich family her mother works for, doesn’t bode well. It looks like we’re going to be on the receiving end of the insipid cutesy depiction of kids that can be found around the edges of Pixar features. Thankfully, the machiavellian magical machinations of Dr. Facilier (wonderfully-voiced by Keith David) soon put paid to this, as Tiana is reduced to the status of a frog, along with spoilt-difficult-to-get-along with Prince Naveen. Then they’re off to the bayou, while Naveen’s assistant poses as the Prince (thanks to a Facilier spell) and attempts to secure marriage to Tiana’s childhood friend (she has a rich daddy).
The African-American characters, and New Orleans setting, instantly drew increased scrutiny of the production. Disney, mindful of any accusations of stereotyping, drafted in Oprah Winfrey (who else?!) to advise and stem the tide. You could probably still lay accusations of stereotyping, but only as much as every other Disney feature has indulged in it (it certainly created none of the controversy that animated Pocahontas elicited over a decade earlier).
As ever with Disney features, it’s the quality of the supporting characters who spell success or failure and this time out they are very familiar but effective nevertheless. The Voodoo aspect is probably the most controversial one (not a practice that Christian watchdogs will get behind, and praised by the black villain at that) in the film, but it’s an effective and atmospheric inclusion. In particular, the “Shadow Man” animations, which minds of their own. Anyone familiar with Live and Let Die will recognise the stylings of Dr. Facilier; both appropriate the look of Baron Samedi, the Voodoo god of magic, death, and ancestor worship.
The comedy characters include Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator whose design could come straight out of Peter Pan, and Ray, a Cajun firefly besotted with the Evening Star.
It would be shame if this does end up as the last traditionally animated Disney film (although, realistically, I expect one will come along every five years or so, just to test the waters; it only requires one big head to initiate a whole new batch); it’s eminently likeable, but too formulaic to really stand out from the crowd.
Disney’s unwillingness to push boundaries in terms of story and form could be seen as part of the reason for the ultimate loss of enthusiasm for their product. The likes of The Emperor’s New Groove was a rare, and troubled, exception that only ensured that the studio would become further entrenched. The Princess and the Frog just about balanced its budget in takings (but that’s not including all the marketing and distribution costs), so no one at the Mouse House will be screaming out for more for a while. Meanwhile, Pixar is following exactly the same course of playing it safe…