The Princess and the Frog is the first real classic Disney of the 21st century.
To say this is not to elevate The Princess and the Frog above the near brilliance of Lilo & Stitch or The Emperor’s New Groove (technically a 20th-century film), neither of which suffers by comparison with the new film. Rather, the kind of brilliance in those films could almost as easily have come from rival DreamWorks or from somewhere else.
None of the studio’s cartoons of the last 15 years or so has had both feet firmly in the tradition represented by golden-age masterpieces like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White as well as “silver age” classics like Beauty and the Beast. The Princess and the Frog may not be in the same league as those gems, but it’s the first Disney film since The Lion King that feels like a real heir to this tradition.
Five years ago, after the creative and commercial failure of Home on the Range, Disney turned away from traditional hand-drawn animation. With Pixar honcho John Lasseter now helming Disney’s animation studios, though, that was bound to change. Lasseter’s name may be synonymous with computer animation, but his enthusiasm for hand-drawn animation (classic Disney, Miyazaki) is no less avid, and under his leadership, the Mouse has turned back to his roots.
At the same time, The Princess and the Frog isn’t just a throwback to the Disney renaissance. This is Disney for a new generation. In a way it’s a pan-Disney pastiche, echoing everything from Song of the South and The Rescuers to Mulan and Lilo & Stitch while gracefully minimizing the weaknesses of all those films — and moving forward into the new millennium at the same time.
Set in 1920s’ New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog combines the ethnic diversity of late-1990s Disney, though without the tendentiousness, with the cultural specificity of Lilo & Stitch. There are song-and-dance numbers, but instead of Broadway show tunes, Pixar composer Randy Newman has whipped up a medley of New Orleans jazz, blues, zydeco and gospel.
There’s wishing on stars, magic and dreams coming true — but also emphasis on hard work and accomplishment, with a clear message that wishing on stars isn’t enough. There’s a handsome prince and a magical kiss, but here, too, it’s clear that merely hoping that someday your prince will come is inadequate as a life strategy.
There’s a villain with magical powers — but instead of Disneyfied magic, like Aladdin’s friendly genie, the film’s New Orleans voodoo is an occult world of terrifying powers and principalities in which the villain himself is at much at risk as anyone. It’s almost Disney’s most overtly Christian depiction of magic and evil since Sleeping Beauty — though the waters are muddied by a benevolent, swamp-dwelling hoodoo mama in a sort of fairy-godmother role.
Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), the daughter of hard-working but impoverished parents who dreams of owning her own restaurant, is Disney animation’s first black heroine and first American fairy-tale princess. (Why is she a princess? Well, wait and see.) Her father, James (Terrence Howard), is one of the warmest and most attractive Disney fathers, and though he has only one scene, his spirit pervades the film. Her mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), is an even rarer maternal presence (few Disney protagonists have present, involved mothers).
Some may object to the contrast between the idealized depiction of Tiana’s poor black family and impoverished neighborhood, where neighbors gather on Tiana’s back porch to share her father’s gumbo, and the satiric portrayal of the wealthy white characters: the spoiled, superficial Southern belle Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), who wishes on stars and waits for her prince to come, and her buffoonish, overindulgent father, Eli “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman).
Others of a different political slant may find fault with the portrayal of the close and comfortable relationships between Charlotte and Big Daddy on the one hand and Tiana and Eudora on the other. The film opens with Eudora, a seamstress, making princess outfits for little Charlotte while regaling both girls with the fairy tale of the frog prince.
Charlotte and Tiana are lifelong friends, and when Tiana — now a hard-working waitress with dreams of her restaurant — has an accident while catering a ball at the La Bouff plantation, Charlotte whisks her inside and lends her a gown. That gown becomes a key plot point when Tiana meets a talking frog who claims he is a prince, leading to a magical kiss that does not go as expected.
It all starts with the arrival of Prince Naveen (Bruce Campos), a royal playboy in town for Mardi Gras, in whose honor the ball at the La Bouff plantation has been thrown. Early in his visit, Naveen encounters Doctor Facilier (Keith David), also called the Shadow Man, a smooth-talking, sinister fortune-teller and witch doctor.
Facilier’s voodoo hits closer to home than the sorcery of Aladdin’s Jafar. He reads Tarot cards, brandishes talismans and charms, and ominously refers to his “friends on the other side” — evil spirits represented first by voodoo masks and later seen as alarming shadows, clearly nobody’s “friends.”
Chilling as Facilier’s demonic allies are, they unquestionably put Facilier’s occultism in its true moral light. More ambiguous is the depiction of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a 97-year-old blind lady whose swamp home is an old shrimp boat marooned in a tree. Though feared as a witch, Mama Odie easily scatters the forces of darkness and practices a form of divination while advising Tiana and Naveen to “dig a little deeper” and discover their real needs beneath their wants.
This advice is framed as a musical production number with overt gospel overtones, with Mama Odie standing behind a chest and in a crow’s nest looking like an evangelist in a Baptist church. Still, Mama Odie’s pet snake Juju is a reminder that she’s no Baptist.
Mama Odie is the biggest caveat in a generally entertaining Southern-fried fairy tale that is also one of the studio’s most interesting fairy-tale romances, one in which both hero and heroine have something to learn from each other. (Fancy Pocahontas having something to learn from John Smith.) Even silly Charlotte gets a redemptive moment, and if there is a would-be spell-breaking kiss that comes, à la The Little Mermaid, a heartbeat too late, it is for excellent dramatic reasons, and the ultimate resolution here is far more satisfying. And when was the last Disney movie that actually ended with a real church wedding?
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Some scary and menacing occult-themed images; morally mixed depiction of voodoo; mild sensuality and suggestive references (e.g., flirtatious come-ons, references to a character’s womanizing ways). Too much for sensitive youngsters.