Free previews work. Although KC had gone to see this in the theater, I just wasn’t interested enough in what sounded like yet another Disney princess story. But sometime late last year, my satellite company ran a Starz free preview, and I TiVoed this film out of curiosity. Once I got to the section about fourteen minutes in, where Tiana is explaining her dream in an outstandingly impressive Harlem Renaissance art style to the song “Almost There”, I was sold. The Blu-ray version promptly went to the top of my Christmas list. (The sequence is based on the work of painter Aaron Douglas and supervised by Eric Goldberg, who directed “Rhapsody in Blue” in Fantasia 2000, a similarly wonderful retro piece.)
The plot is a twist on the classic fable. Tiana meets a talking frog, an enchanted prince, but when she kisses him, instead of breaking the spell, she turns into another amphibian. The two frogs escape to the swamp but then have to get back to New Orleans in order to become human again and reclaim the prince’s title from his devious manservant.
I appreciated that Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is the first black Disney princess, and I especially liked her go-get-it-ness. She is not a typical “I’m going to get married to a prince” cartoon girl. Her dream is to open a restaurant, and she is working hard — to the point of exhaustion — to make it happen on her own terms, saving money and cooking her specialty dishes, including beignets. (The creators call her out as the first “princess with a career path”, since she’s got drive and her own job.)
The prince, in a way that reminds me of some of my favorite 30s romantic comedies, turns out to have the title but not much money. He’s a playboy who has lessons of his own to learn about the value of authenticity and honest effort, and he and Tiana wind up getting to know each other as friends before falling in love, an approach I greatly appreciate. “Friends on the Other Side”, the number where the evil voodoo Dr. Facilier/The Shadow Man (Keith David) seduces and transforms Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos, whom I still remember from Jesse), also gave me a classic feel, this time reminding me of how imaginative and spooky the Disney Haunted Mansion ride is.
Also of note is the distinctive 1920s New Orleans setting, which allows for another kind of princess, Tiana’s spoiled friend and rich girl Charlotte (Jennifer Cody). (Thanks to her, this movie passes the Bechdel Test, since the two women talk about her restaurant, even though Charlotte is generally man-crazy. Her father “Big Daddy” is nicely voiced by John Goodman.) This was all so intriguing and well-done that I almost wished the movie didn’t have any magic in it, because the people and their interactions were my favorite part. In fact, my attention lagged a bit during the “talking animals set off on their quest” middle. I know it’s there for the kiddies, but I better appreciated the class distinctions and social humor of the people sections.
The movie falls into three thirds — the first introduces and follows the humans until Tiana transforms, a half-hour in. Then comes the animal comedy, as Frog Tiana freaks out and the amphibians wind up in the bayou. They meet up with Louis, a jazz trumpet-playing alligator (reminiscent of The Jungle Book), and Ray, a firefly in love with a star, who help them find Mama Odie, the wise woman of the swamp, while singing (Cajun and zydeco), touring the natural setting, and engaging in slapstick. The final third begins at the hour mark, with Mama Odie’s first appearance. She gives the frogs their mission, uncovers some secrets, and has a dynamite, gospel-influenced, show-stopping musical number, “Dig a Little Deeper”. The frogs and their friends return to the human world shortly thereafter.
The picture looks amazing on Blu-ray. I didn’t really notice it until KC called my attention to it — which is a compliment, since I was drawn into its realism — but it’s so immersive and colorful. There’s no grain, since this was designed for high-def. I especially like the elegant design of Tiana as a female frog, sleek lines but not exaggeratedly feminine, and the animated acting for the two leads during the riverboat sequence is very well-done, both visually and vocally. The whole movie is just gorgeous, especially since it’s the first hand-drawn Disney movie since 2004. I am so glad I own this.
John Musker and Ron Clements, co-writers and co-directors, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, do the commentary. You can find out more about them in this animation roundtable post. This was an entertaining commentary that kept my attention, which doesn’t always happen. They pointed out interesting facts, approaches, and trivia, and they didn’t get distracted watching the movie.
There are four deleted scenes, shown through storyboards with alternate voices, introduced by Clements and Musker. The directors also introduce two sequences of live-action reference footage, one for the “Dig a Little Deeper” number (which has two dancers playing the spoonbill birds), the other for a “Proposal” sequence. Both are run against the cartoon equivalent. These were eye-opening, in terms of how people translate to animation when you compare the two. There’s also a music video by Ne-Yo for his credit song “Never Knew I Needed”.
The 22-minute “Magic in the Bayou: The Making of a Princess” is the overall behind-the-scenes piece. It emphasizes the historical importance of the return to traditional hand drawing for a feature film, which makes it all very bittersweet, since the studio has since given up on that approach. The first of the six marketing featurettes (each 2-3 minutes), “The Return to Hand-Drawn Animation”, showing the animators discussing the advantages and historical significance of that approach, just rubs salt in the wound. The remaining shorts are as follows:
- “The Disney Legacy” promotes the studio’s animation history.
- “Disney’s Newest Princess” is an introduction to Tiana’s character.
- “The Princess and the Animator” shows construction sketches and discusses Rose’s acting.
- “Conjuring the Villain” does something similar for Dr. Facilier. I was happy to see Keith David’s vocal work, because his expressions are excellent.
- “A Return to the Animated Musical” is self-explanatory.
The Film’s Success
This movie was clearly intended to instantly take its place as a Disney classic, and that may have turned off the audience, being taken for granted. The institutional racism of entertainment — where movies starring black characters aren’t considered mainstream — didn’t help. The nostalgic “return to Disney’s glory days” audience probably didn’t like the relatively modern American setting instead of a more traditional “long ago and far away” fairy tale.
Also, Tiana isn’t a princess. Those who best appreciate her character’s determination and hard work are likely turned off by the word and concept of “princess”, in its non-feminist implications, while those who are seeking that kind of fairy tale, all sparkles and fantasy, won’t appreciate what’s shown here. I like it precisely because it successfully balances expectations and practicality into something I can support — but I’m not a kid or a parent ready to buy tons of merchandise and see the film multiple times in the theater. Heck, I’m over a year late watching it. (The difference between Tiana and the other princesses is emphasized in the disc’s game of “Princess Portraits”, where fireflies outline various white girl pictures and you have to select which previous Disney female it is while Mama Odie praises you. If you win, she retells you the other movie stories.)
Still, it’s a shame that Disney seems to consider this movie a failure, because I want more of it. I want the ride, with a spooky section of neon black-light visuals inspired by Facilier’s voodoo symbols, and the stage musical version with the jazz and all the rest. I want more hand-drawn movies and modern girl leads who have dreams beyond romance, and who wind up with a partner, not a prince.