After a string of animated 'failures', The Princess and the Frog was somewhat of an interesting pivot point for Disney and arguably kick-started the renaissance of Disney Animation that has gone on to create the likes of Tangled, Frozen and Moana. Yet it's also one of those films which has always failed to capture my attention, so it was great to finally sit down and watch it. As a result of that lack of attention though, the end result was almost completely unexpected.
I knew the film was a more modern take on the "Disney Princess" formula, being set in a modern (ish) city with non-white (le gasp!) characters in main roles, but I had still expected it to be largely about a 'princess' meeting a 'prince'. I had thought the twist was that the prince in question was going to be the damsel in distress, which is partially correct. I wasn't expecting the 'princess' to also be in the same distress, resulting in the almost total removal of the plot from the vibrant, modern world it was suggestively set within. Nor was I expecting to have this many talking animals.
In some ways, then, it harks back even further then I had anticipated to the likes of The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood, both firm personal favourites. Unlike those films, however, the animals in The Princess and the Frog are less nuanced personifications of certain emotions or motifs and more personifications of racial stereotypes. We have the Cajun firefly, the idiot alligator with no sense of purpose beyond fun which felt a little uncomfortably similar to a minstrel of ages (thankfully) past and the French frog (I realise the Prince wasn't literally French but the accent and stereotypes all fit France better than anywhere else). Our main character, Tiana, is a little better and does feel quite sensitively written, both towards her race and her gender, though her arc isn't going to be winning any awards for originality.
That said, the heart of the story is distinctly Disney and wholesome as all get-out. Again, it's nothing too new: one character lives for the future, the other lives for the present, neither are wholly fulfilled - action! But it does remain a plot that works and gives the story just enough direction and heart to take you along for the ride. Which is a good thing, because the ride is completely beautiful.
There were two big elements I was looking forward to from the design of The Princess and the Frog: the animation of the Voodoo world and the soundscape possible with early 1900's New Orleans. Luckily, the film delivers both wonderfully. The music is frenetic and rich, with plenty of Jazz but also dabs of soul, Cajun folk and even some country which really produces a flavour of the South States. Again, it could be argued that it really is a flavour of the stereotype of the South States, but it's still a fun ride. Layered on top of that music are some beautiful and arresting visuals. The sequences with the fireflies at night and any time the Shadow Man is in frame are magical, but far and away the living shadows themselves steal the show. The fluidity with which they move through a scene is genuinely horrifying to watch and lend the film some much needed drama and tension, but they are also used for good comedic effect on several occasions.
Unfortunately, with such a solid backdrop of musical accompaniment, the songs themselves are almost entirely forgettable. The animation surrounding them, such as the scenes noted above and also the sequence with Mama Odie, is often fantastic and draws you in to the action, but I'd struggle to recall a single chorus line or title. There's certainly no equivalent to the Circle of Life or A Whole New World that will have you humming refrains for days, but the music is certainly not bad either.
Which I think is largely how to sum up The Princess and the Frog: nothing on offer is bad, and taken together the sum of the parts is genuinely enjoyable, but it also won't set your imagination on fire. It's definitely worth a watch but it won't be a Disney film I'd particularly bother coming back to.