The Princess and the Frog – An American fairytale

Rebecca Pearce 11 February 2010

Rebecca Pearce hails Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation

The Princess and the Frog – 1h37mins, U

4/5

“Fairytales can come true, but you gotta make ‘em happen – it all depends on you.” It’s not the kind of line you would expect to hear in a traditional Disney fairytale, but sure enough it’s what The Princess and the Frog’s heroine sings early on the film. Disney animation has returned and it has definitely moved on, even if at first sight you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Instead of relying on new talent, Disney’s latest offering – and significantly their first film to use hand-drawn animation since 2004’s disastrous Home on the Range – sees the return of veteran directors and screenwriters Ron Clements and John Musker, famous for helming classics such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. However, as they have done in the past, Musker and Clements have succeeded in acknowledging their changing audience and so produced a film which manages to be both old-fashioned and modern. Much has stayed the same yet much has changed, as evidenced throughout their reworking of the classic fairytale The Frog Prince. The story centres on a waitress, Tiana (Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose), who encounters a frog formerly known as Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), and in kissing him to try to free him from his curse becomes a frog herself. What follows is a journey across the bayou in search of a way to break the spell, with our hero and heroine accompanied by a trumpet-playing alligator and a Cajun firefly, all the while followed by the minions of Doctor Facilier (the excellent Keith David), the man who cursed Naveen in the first place.

Set in New Orleans during the Roaring Twenties, The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s first American fairytale and is undoubtedly firmly rooted in the spirit and culture of the city, which is evocatively brought to life with Disney’s traditionally dazzling animation. In recent years digital animation has seemingly become predominant in cinema, but as the success of films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away has proven, there is definitely still room in the market for hand-drawn animation. The mistake Disney once made was in trying to emulate newer, more cynical cartoons such as the Shrek films, which often feel like they’re constantly bouncing back and forth between kid-friendly slapstick comedy and adult-friendly in-jokes and film references. The Princess and the Frog thankfully plays to the studio’s strengths, which have always been in dialling down the cynicism and crafting warm-hearted storylines where the humour can be equally appreciated by all ages.

And yet, that’s not to say nothing has changed. Much has been made of the fact that Tiana is Disney’s first African-American princess, but just as significant is that she is a heroine who doesn’t just wait for things to happen to her – she is driven by her desire to achieve her own dreams, which definitely don’t revolve around marrying a Prince. Prince Naveen, on the other hand, is used to being given everything in life and far from being the perfect Prince Charming is an irresponsible playboy who has to learn the importance of hard work. The film doesn’t shy away from the romance between the central characters, but it’s equally funny and has a sufficiently scary villain. The underlying racial tensions in America during the 1920s are also hinted at in several scenes, such as when we watch Tiana and her mother travel from the city’s large mansions to the small houses where they live, or when Tiana’s landlords tell her that a “little woman of your…background” should not aim so high.

Randy Newman’s music adds another layer to the film but unfortunately doesn’t move the story along as well as it should, and isn’t as memorable as that of Disney’s frequent collaborator Alan Menken. There are, however, some stand-outs such as Tiana’s solo number “Almost There”, and the choice of Randy Newman makes sense in light of his New Orleans roots.

Anyone who grew up on Disney animation in the 90s will undoubtedly get a sense of nostalgia in watching The Princess and the Frog, but most importantly it’s a film which stands up on its own, sticking firmly to its Disney roots and at the same adapting itself to a modern audience. Like all the best family cartoons, whether traditionally or digitally animated, it’s not just one for the kids.

The Princess and the Frog is now showing at Vue Cinemas.

Rebecca Pearce