Upon special request, Chief Justice Michael Stailey will do that voodoo that he do so well.
"The only thing important is what's under the skin."—Mama Odie
Three and a half years in the making, The Princess and the Frog marks the Walt Disney Company's return to traditional hand-drawn animation, under the passionate and determined guidance of Pixar's John Lasseter. Tapping the talents of former golden boys John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and composer Randy Newman, the studio's first princess tale since Mulan (1998) turns the genre on its ear with big party in the Big Easy.
Facts of the Case
There are two ways to achieve your dreams—hard work or shady shortcuts—each with their respective costs. In post WWI New Orleans, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls) works, scrimps, and saves to bring her and her late daddy's dream to life; a successful restaurant to call their very own. At the same time, Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Bruno Campos, Nip/Tuck) is courting wealthy heiresses in order to maintain the footloose and carefree lifestyle to which he's become accustom. Enter Dr. Facilier (Keith David, Coraline), a purveyor of Voodoo magic and Naveen's ticket to easy street…or so he thinks. A quick double cross and he finds himself turned into a frog and his identity stolen by his manservant. The only way to break the spell is by a kiss from a princess, but a chance meeting with Tiana (in full princess garb) at a Mardi Gras party unexpectedly leaves them both frogs running for their lives from Facilier and his shadow creatures. Can they break the spell before time runs out and they're forced to live in the bayou forever?
By dismantling their feature animation team, waiting five years, and re-assembling a team of industry legends paired with talented up-and-comers; Disney has quickly reclaimed their place as king of the hill. While far from the heart-wrenching angst of The Little Mermaid or the Shakespearean tragedy and redemption of The Lion King; The Princess and the Frog opens up a new corner of the Disney universe, populated by colorful characters and sweet simplicity. Randy Newman provides another beautiful score, but the musical numbers aren't instantly memorable, leaving this one just short of a pantheon-defining place in the library.
The lynchpin in the film's success is Tiana. Not only is she Disney's first African-American princess, she comes to us from a background and loving family not often seen in these films. Neither privileged nor destitute, Tiana is a working class heroine with a dream of independent entrepreneurship. There are no wicked family members driving her actions, nor does she require the assistance of some magical deity to rescue her. We're simply along for the ride, as she figures out life and where she fits in—and what a wild ride it is. Credit Anika Noni Rose for giving this princess more levels than her predecessors.
On the other hand, Prince Naveen is a complete doofus. Born of privilege, having never worked a day in his life, his entire existence has been catered to. Now, having been cutoff by his parents, Naveen needs to marry into money or risk…dare I say…having to work! It's not hard to believe when he's easily swayed by a get rich quick offer from Dr. Facilier, nor are we the least bit surprised when that deal goes south. So, in effect, we have a confident headstrong female rescuing a hapless male; quite the powerful message for children to be exposed to. Bruno Campos plays up Naveen's deficiencies, but never at the cost of his humanity. Underneath that reckless abandon is a good heart and a gentle soul.
The Princess and the Frog may be a predominantly human story, but there's still plenty of magic to be found here. Drawing on the rich history of the Louisiana Bayou and the Creole people, we get a Disney-fied battle between the forces of darkness and light. However, unlike Maleficent, Jafar, and Scar; Dr. Facilier is indebted to his dark power source, striking an uneasy alliance between what he wants and what they need. It's a unique spin on the classic Disney villain and makes his choices all the more interesting. With a hint of tribute to the great Geoffrey Holder in Live and Let Die, in the hands of the devilish Keith David, "The Shadow Man" oozes some bad juju. Interestingly enough, Musker and Clements seem to have turned down the fright factor, with colorful shadows and whimsical totems.
As for the forces of light, Mama Odie and her animal kingdom entourage only serve to point our heroes in the right direction, never spoon-feeding them answers but rather opening their eyes to knowledge they already possess. The bombastic Jennifer Lewis (Flo from Pixar's Cars) uses every ounce of her delicious voice talents for this larger than life Voodoo Priestess. She's ballsy, blunt, and a blazing fire of inspiration. If you've never experienced a gospel revival, here's your chance. In fact, gospel is just one facet of the musical variety Newman utilizes throughout. From blues and jazz to zydeco and creole, he lights up every aspect of life in the bayou and we're all the better for it.
And let's not overlook the heart of any Disney animated feature—the supporting characters. Here we get two gems: a Satchmo-inspired, trumpet playing gator in Louis, brought to life by veteran stage actor Michael-Leon Wooley (Ghost Town); and a swamp-wise cajun firefly in Ray, courtesy of legendary voice actor Jim Cummings, in what may be the finest performance of his career. These larger than life characters dominate a colorful landscape that also includes performances by Oprah Winfrey and Terrance Howard (Tiana's parents), Jennifer Cody and John Goodman (Tiana's friend Charlotte and her daddy), chef Emeril Lagasse (Marlon the gator), and the frog-hunting Fenner Brothers, among others.
Presented in 1.78:1, MPEG-4 AVC, 1080p widescreen, The Princess and the Frog is a living storybook; the closest a hand-drawn animated feature has ever come to creating a world with depth and magic that jumps off the screen. This a visual feast, vacillating between night and day, city and swamp; the details are flawless, the color palate vibrant, and the effects work impressive. If you like what you see, you'll love what you hear, because the sound design on this picture is phenomenal. Not only do we have a lush musical landscape from a man who spent his childhood summers in New Orleans; the audio wizards have stocked the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track with crystal clear dialogue, a voice cast who does all their own singing, and a symphony of environmental ambience. Disney once again sets the bar for Blu-ray excellence.
When it comes to bonus materials, the one gripe I have (if you can call it that) is that the days of behind-the-scenes immersion are no more. Where Disney used to offer up feature-length documentaries, we're now settling for EPK-style content.
• Commentary by producer Peter Del Vecho, alongside writers/directors Ron Clements and John Musker—Overflowing with design, development, easter eggs, and staff/cast trivia; the three keep up a brisk pace discussion that adds a whole new level of appreciation for the movie and its production team. In fact, Ron and John appear in the film as real estate moguls The Fenner Bros.
• Deleted Scenes (12 min)—Four storyboarded sequences abandoned during the story development process, with scratch dialogue and occasional test animation. Nothing too earth-shattering. Most cut for time and unnecessary character embellishment.
• Magic in the Bayou (22 min)—The requisite making of featurette, interviewing key members of the production team—Ron, John, Peter, John Lasseter, animators Bruce Smith, Randy Haycock, Marlon West, Tony DeRosa, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, writer Rob Edwards, story supervisor Don Hall, art directors Mike Gabriel, Ian Gooding, actors Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Lewis, Terrence Howard, composer Randy Newman, choreographer Betsy Baytos—as they reflect back on three and a half years of love and labor.
• Bringing Life to Animation (8 min)—Ron and John intro and comment on two segments of live-action reference footage shot for complex characterization, costuming, and dance sequences.
• The Return to Hand Drawn Animation (3 min)—The joy and pride found in rebirthing Walt's promise of delivering magic to world.
• A Return to the Animated Musical (3 min)—Bringing a sense of Broadway back to Disney films, in a true gumbo of New Orleans musical styles.
• The Disney Legacy (3 min)—Carrying the torch for Disney's Nine Old Men into the 21st Century.
• Disney's Newest Princess (3 min)—Tianna brings color, sass, and a strength of character and conviction to this exclusive club.
• The Princess and the Animator (3 min)—Mark Henn lends his unique touch to Tianna, in much the same way he did with Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Mulan.
• Conjuring the Villain (2 min)—Dr. Facilier joins the ranks of Disney's legendary bad dudes and dudettes.
• Visual Development Gallery—166 pre-production pieces capturing the essence of New Orleans and the characters who inhabited it during the Jazz Era.
• Character Design Gallery—110 development sketches/paintings of Tiana (23), Naveen (21), Mama Odie (9), Facilier (9), Louis (9), Ray (9), Lawrence (8), Charlotte (13), and Big Daddy (9)
• Layouts & Backgrounds Gallery—3 detailed pencil sketches and 14 fully painted backdrops used in the French Quarter segments of the film.
• Storyboard Gallery—A quick overview of the film's story in 54 storyboards.
• What Do You See? Interactive Game—Mama Odie and Ray's family create firefly representations of yo' favorite Disney princesses and you guess who dey is! Just be on yo' toes, cuz some of dem ain't no princesses at all y'all. And when yo' done, Mama give her version of dese classic princess stories. You ain't never heard dem told like dis, child!
• Music Video: "Never Knew I Needed" by Ne-Yo (4 min)—Shot in and around New Orleans' French Quarter.
• DVD Copy—The film plus the commentary, deleted scenes, the interactive game, and music video.
• Digital Copy—The film for download to your iTunes or Windows enabled portable device.
• BD-Live—Trailers and promos for current and upcoming Disney film, television, and home entertainment products.
It may stop short of being an all-time Disney classic, but The Princess and the Frog is the welcome return of an art form Walt poured every ounce of himself into. If John Lasseter and his feature animation team continue to build upon the work we see here, the Disney legacy will live on for years to come. I gua-ron-tee it!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2010 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.