by Roger Ash
In anticipation of the release of The Princess and the Frog on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow, Disney hosted a virtual roundtable with the film’s directors, Ron Clements and John Musker. When Johanna asked if I’d be willing to attend, I jumped at the chance. First, I love Disney animation, and the return to classically drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog made this one of the films I was really looking forward to this past year. When I saw it on the big screen, I was in heaven. I had a smile on my face the whole time. (Well, except for the sad parts.) Second, Clements and Musker have co-directed many of my favorite modern Disney animated films such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules. This event was custom made for someone like me.
If you haven’t seen the film, here’s a brief description. This may contain some spoilers, but if you’ve seen the trailer, this will give away no more than that. The movie is a twist on the Frog Prince story set in New Orleans. Visiting Prince Naveen is turned into a frog by a Bokur (a Voodoo Priest who practices black magic) named Dr. Facilier. When a young woman named Tiana kisses the frog Naveen, hoping to turn him human, she turns into a frog herself. With the help of their friends — Louis the alligator and Ray, a Cajun firefly — Naveen and Tiana attempt to find Mama Odie, a Voodoo Priestess, whom they believe can reverse the spell. There’s more to the story, but I don’t want to spoil anything.
The roundtable began by viewing two special features: deleted scenes and live-action reference. The four deleted scenes were
- an alternate introduction of Louis the alligator
- “Advice from Mama”, a short scene between Tiana and her mother
- “Stop and Smell the Roses”, in which frog Naveen attempts to make frog Tiana slow down and enjoy life
- and “Naveen Confides in Ray”, in which Naveen talks about his feelings for Tiana.
These scenes were never animated and are shown in storyboard form. They were all repurposed and used in different forms in the film, but it’s interesting to see how the story developed.
It may surprise you to know that live-action reference is often shot to assist animators. While they don’t actually trace the action, it can be useful to see actual movement, how fabric flows, how light sources can affect the scene, and other such elements that bring a sense of reality to the animation. The two filmed sequences shown were for Mama Odie’s song “Dig a Little Deeper” and for a scene between Tiana’s friend Charlotte and Naveen’s servant Lawrence. Clements and Musker talked through these sequences, which are intercut with animation, explaining how these were used to help with the finished animation. It’s another enjoyable peek behind the scenes.
John Musker and Ron Clements
Following the video, Clements and Musker both answered questions about the film. Proving that no story is created in a vacuum and animation is a time-consuming process, Clements said that “a few years ago, Pixar had explored a version of “The Frog Prince” set in gangland Chicago. John Lasseter wanted to switch the locale to New Orleans, a city he loves, but the project was eventually shelved. Meanwhile Disney had explored various versions of “The Frog Prince” going all the way back to the time of Beauty and the Beast. In 2006, Disney bought the rights to a book called The Frog Princess, which was the fairy tale with a twist. When the princess kissed the frog, she turned into a frog as well. When John Lasseter was put in charge of Disney animation in February 2006, he asked John and me to take a look at all the previous versions and come up with our own. We combined the New Orleans setting with the twist, added some new characters and pitched a take that became the basis for the movie.”
The twists to the story were important, as was keeping the classic Disney feel to the film, as Clements later explained. “From the beginning, we thought of Tiana as someone who would never have been a big fan of Disney fairy tales. Our attempt was to take a lot of the archetypal elements of these films — the prince’s loyal manservant, the fairy godmother, the wishing star, death and resurrection, etc. — and add some kind of twist to them. But we were always thinking of this as a kind of retro film, trying to recapture a bit of what Disney magic means to us.”
They go on to say that the look of the film is influenced by Bambi and Lady and the Tramp, as well as the city of New Orleans itself. A notable exception to this is Tiana’s song “Almost There”, which has a look all its own. According to Musker, “The styling was based on the great Harlem renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. Sue Nichols Maciorowski, a wonderful viz dev artist brought his work to our attention.” Another Disney employee who had an effect on the film was post-production intern Jaimie Milner, who was used for some reference for the look of Tiana.
The pair praised the work of the voice actors, with both mentioning how much fun it was to work with Jim Cummings, who voiced Ray the firefly. They also said that Randy Newman was their first choice to write the songs and music for the film and how important his contributions were to the final movie. “We wrote the script without songs but knowing where they might fall,” said Musker. “Randy then wrote songs that in some cases absorbed some of our dialogue. Randy’s writing of Facilier’s song, in which he gave him several sardonic asides, influenced us to try and put that quality and tone into his other, non-musical scenes as well. [Newman] wrote the songs over the course of a year and a half as we animated the movie, although we would always animate the song after he had written and recorded it. (In animation, voices are recorded before animation, not dubbed in later.)”
For those of you who like to find visual in-jokes in animated movies, there are numerous ones in The Princess and the Frog, including caricatures of various Disney employees and nods to previous films. According to Clements, “Almost all this stuff was deliberate and done for our own amusement. Actually, most of the Mardi Gras floats are based on movies John and I worked on. Along with the ‘Mermaid’ float, there are brief shots of an ‘Arabian Nights’ float, a Greek mythology float, and a pirate float. There are also caricatures of John and I on the mermaid float throwing beads to the crowd. There are many other caricatures of people who worked on the movie that pop up throughout. Many other Disney references as well. We don’t want any of this stuff to be distracting. Just a little something extra for whoever may catch it.”
Getting a peek behind the scenes of The Princess and the Frog made me excited to watch it again. It is a wonderful return to classic Disney animation with a modern twist. But don’t just take my word for it, give the movie a look for yourself and see what you think.