It was John Lasseter who refilled the inkwells and restocked the paint pots of Disney’s traditional hand drawn animation studios after their doors closed following the completion of 2004’s Home on the Range, and it was a bold move from a man who introduced the screening personally via a pre-recorded message. You’ll know the man and his works, and you should also know that he has an overwhelming passion for what he does: celebrating wonderful stories, beautifully told.
The Princess and the Frog is a film that combines the very best of Disney’s talented storytellers, and you can practically feel the love that was poured into each frame of this film. I’m not sure whether it was the physical act of animating by hand, and certainly I’m not going to place this above the CG classics of Pixar, but there is a timeless quality to this film in the fairy tale narrative and the magical invention that the writers and animators place throughout that makes this film truly special.
I’ve become tired of lazy animated features that rely on celebrity voice-overs and anachronistic pop culture twists to engage the audience. No-one can spin a yarn like Disney, and this film is redolent of old-style Disney, who are capable of creating a funny, boisterous and thrilling romance that calls back to early classics such as Lady and the Tramp as well as the more recent Aladdin.
The story is borrowed and adapted from E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess and the scene is set in the glowing gloaming of New Orleans, and the town is alive with music and song. The central relationships are quickly built as we are introduced to Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) and Charlotte as children and their friendship straddles the poverty line with Charlotte’s wealthy ‘Big’ Daddy (John Goodman, perfect as usual) and Tiana’s humble family with big dreams. Charlotte wants to marry a Prince, Tiana wants to open a restaurant. It’s simple and as the years fly by in the opening credits we see that even as young adults Tiana and Charlotte haven’t changed all that much.
Enter Prince Naveen, a fiery, loquacious lothario who steps off the boat eager for an adventure and falls foul of a voodoo curse courtesy of Dr. Facilier and is transformed into a frog. Circumstance conspires and Tiana kisses the frog and, contrary to popular legend is herself transformed into a frog. So begins their quest to return to human form and, along the way, perhaps fall in love. This is a Disney film after all, and I won’t go into the details of what happens, suffice to say that even though you know where the film is going the fluidity and zest of the script results in a perfectly paced fantasy adventure; following the Disney formula has never been so much fun.
I loved the songs, the spirit of New Orleans captured perfectly and every sparkling tune manages to rise above the morally didactic standard. In particular the bayou sequences are charming and the characters they introduce (a jazz loving gator named Louis and a lovesick firefly named Ray) are instantly lovable companions to the amphibious couple of Tiana and her Prince. Overcoming obstacles and escaping dangers the merry gang bond and discover their heart’s desires with great dialogue and proper old school slapstick. This is like a greatest hits of Disney and it manages to be refreshing and familiar without being derivative – no mean feat, and a testament to Lasseter’s faith in his hand picked writers and directors John Musker and Ron Clements.
The perils are real and the shadowy voodoo monsters are genuinely scary, perhaps a little too much for younger children, but in my experience this is a good thing and kids love to be as scared as thrilled during the course of the film. Every actor does a great job, by sheer coincidence I watched Dreamgirls the night before I saw this film and Anika Noni Rose shines just as brightly here, able to convey a pitch perfect performance as Disney’s latest addition to their Princess stable. Bruno Campos as the Prince and Keith David as the sinister Shadow Man are excellent and embody the black and white of their respective characters with just the right hint of shades of grey.
The animation I’ve touched upon but I wanted to reiterate the magnificent work done by Disney’s animators. Watching Snow White gives a good indication of the care and expertise of Disney’s earliest feature animators and the standard of work has survived the decades in-between. The animation has a grace rarely seen on the big screen and in the era, when we are deluged by animated features, it is a rare thing to be sat amazed at the quality of work on screen.
Disney have created a film that is as impressive in its execution and inventiveness as it is in its charm. There are moments in this film, such as the chorus of fireflies and the final chase through the graveyard that will sweep you up, and while the film’s plot won’t surprise anyone it is the wonderful combination of craftsmanship and showmanship on the part of Disney that has created a stunning work, to be enjoyed time and again.
Disney’s The Princess and the Frog is out in the US on the 11th of December, UK readers will have to wait until the 5th of February to catch this gem.