Disney’s 2D animated musicals never wore out their welcome. Some studio buffoon just figured that maybe kids didn’t want singing in their animated films any more. And then that studio buffoon decided that because 3D animated films were succeeding and a recent string of 2D films had flopped that no one wanted hand-drawn animated movies any more. This is why the last Disney 2D animated musical was Mulan in 1998. 11 years later and Disney, with the support of Pixar chief John Lasseter, has brought back hand-drawn musical movies with The Princess and the Frog. But this isn’t a return of Disney animation; it’s a rebirth.
Set in 1920s New Orleans and playing on the fairy tale of the princess kissing a frog to turn him into a prince, the film centers on Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) who doesn’t have time for princes or frogs or kisses as she works non-stop so she can afford to open her own restaurant. Unfortunately, she ends up kissing Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) because he’s a talking frog prince and, mistaking her for a princess, asks her to make him human again. This would be fine (and a very short movie) except the popular fairy tale fails to mention that if you’re not a princess and you kiss a cursed frog-prince, you’ll turn into a frog too. It’s that damned magical legalese. The two are forced to travel across the bayou together to find voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) in the hopes that she can turn them human again. The proceedings are decorated with fun music and amusing supporting characters. This is the Disney animated movie you know and love, but even better.
Before you smite me for blasphemy, let me explain that I will always love the animated Disney films I grew up with: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. But within the first twenty minutes of The Princess and the Frog, I knew I was entering a whole new era due to the advances in animation, creative freedom for animators, and a positive message which is both universally empowering and socially responsible. It’s no slam against the older Disney movies, and I’m not saying they’ve aged poorly or that they’re secretly bigoted (although I’m pretty sure that Pumba was an anti-semite). It’s just that The Princess and the Frog has the benefit of progress combined with filling the 2D animated musical void of the past eleven years.
Of course, this also comes with heavy pressure of being a “test case” to see if audiences will accept this “old-school” animation after the dominance of 3D. It’s likely that young children who see this movie will have never seen a 2D animated movie on the big screen before, but The Princess and the Frog should have them hooked for life. It’s funny, the characters are memorable, most of the songs are catchy, and the animation is stunning. 2D had something to prove and Disney stepped up to meet that challenge in a big way. Once you see the film’s first musical number, “Almost There”, any irrational doubts you had about 2D animation and the will be washed away and filled with an appreciation of the creative freedom Disney animators now have. “Almost There” actually changes art styles during the musical number. Again, I love the Disney musicals I grew up with but none of them ever came close to doing that.
Not only will these kids have the privilege of seeing creative diversity in their hand-drawn animation, but they’ll also gain an appreciation of cultural diversity. From its announcement, one of the big draws of The Princess and the Frog is that it would feature Disney’s first black princess. Like the animation, it’s a lot of pressure to get it right but screenwriters Ron Clements, John Musker, and Rob Edwards absolutely nail it. It gives the black characters room to be characters as well-developed and unrestrained as any white animated character while still conscious of what’s empowering and respectful towards African-Americans. More incredible, the movie accomplishes this without ever coming off like it’s walking on egg shells and it turns what could be perceived as an obstacle into an opportunity.
Some may scoff at the socially-conscious subtext and see it as pandering to an overly P.C. culture, but allow me to ask this question: how many mainstream movies and TV shows are out there for kids that feature a strong black female lead character? Moral lessons can come from any race, but why should only white kids be able to have the same ethnic background as their heroes and heroines?
While I relish a conversation about the role of media in perceptions of race in modern American society, you know what I like even more? Catchy showtunes! A musical can’t survive without quality music and while it’s the one part of the film that’s not quite as good as the earlier Disney musicals, Randy Newman has a strong selection of songs with “When We’re Human” and the closing theme, “Never Knew I Needed” as the standouts. Hopefully with their next animated musical Disney will bring back Alan Menken who not only provided the music for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, but 2007’s Enchanted so that guy’s still got it.
The Princess and the Frog honors past Disney hand-drawn animated musicals by recalling their work (the film has past Disney princesses as Easter eggs), reaching their level of quality, and then surpassing it to usher in an exciting new era of hand-drawn animation.
Rating —– A minus