The Princess and the Frog is something that we haven’t seen in a long time: a traditional hand-drawn animated film from Disney. The last one was 5 years ago. (It was called Home on the Range and it’s understandable if you don’t remember it.)
After Home on the Range flopped, Disney announced that they would not make any more hand-drawn films, and would instead use computer rendering for all future animated theatrical movies. Apparently they changed their mind, and I think that is worth celebrating.
The Princess and the Frog is not quite as good as the best of the classic Disney animated films, but that’s holding it to a very high standard. It has a solidly entertaining story, and much of it looks very good. If you care about animation, you should probably see this, if only to encourage Disney to keep trying.
Disney always changes its fairy tales. In this case the movie has only the vaguest resemblance to the original story by the Brothers Grimm. This is understandable. Not only is the original story too short to make more than a 5-minute short subject, but the sexual symbolism is way too heavy handed for an acceptable children’s story. (In the original she doesn’t just kiss the frog.)
The new version is set in 1920’s New Orleans. The heroine, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is not a princess, but a workaholic waitress who dreams of opening a high-class restaurant featuring her father’s legendary gumbo. Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Bruno Campos) is a shiftless, jazz-loving playboy who gets turned into a frog by Dr. Facilier, a suavely evil voodoo man (Keith David).
The frog prince talks Tiana into kissing him to break the spell, but (as anyone who has seen the trailer knows) this just causes her to turn into a frog too. The two end up on a quest through the perils of the bayou to find a voodoo lady who knows how to break the spell.
When I refer to the animation as “hand drawn” or “traditional” I am using a somewhat inaccurate conventional shorthand. The fact is that all animators today, even Hayao Miyazaki, rely heavily on computer technology to assist the drawing. That is just how things are done today and in many ways it is an advantage. What “hand drawn” means today is that the important elements are drawn by human artists, as opposed to having everything rendered by computer modeling programs.
(I might prefer to use the term “2-D” for this sort of animation, but unfortunately that term is now being used for any movie that is not shown on a headache-inducing stereoscopic projection system.)
The animation in this film is in some respects very good. The hand-drawn characters clearly show the advantages of traditional animation over the computer generated sort–they have much more personality, spirit and soul than anything that ever came out of a computer.
On the other hand, the hand-drawn characters often clash jarringly with the computer-generated backgrounds. Back in the 1990s Disney used to be very good at mixing imagery from different sources convincingly, but the greater realism possible with today’s computer rendering programs makes this a more difficult task. The better Japanese studios seem to have mastered it. Disney has some catching-up to do.
In some action sequences the hand-drawn characters are obviously replaced by computer-generated “stunt doubles”. In principle this is a legitimate thing to do, just as real actors are replaced by real stunt doubles in live action movies. It only counts as a failure if the audience can see the substitution.
Too many scenes and sequences seem derivative of older classic Disney movies. Once again, in principle it’s fine to pay homage to the old classics as long as you make sure that the new scene is at least as good as the classic scene it refers to. In this case I feel there are too many such references, and some of them invite invidious comparisons. Of course this will only bother those who have seen the originals.
There is one other issue that I hesitate to bring up, but I think it deserves mention. I sympathize with writers who, in this age of political correctness, feel pressured to write a story that doesn’t offend anyone. This kind of thing can be a creative straitjacket. On the other hand there is something to be said for not singling out any particular ethnic group for gratuitous abuse.
Disney films in recent years have been notable for their attempts at political correctness, or at least ethnic balance. This movie in particular is notable for its positive portrayals of African-American characters. Thus I was rather startled by the way Cajun characters are portrayed.
The human Cajun characters are contemptible and the firefly Cajun characters are lovable, but both groups are portrayed as dim-witted, inbred, unkempt buffoons. In truth, I found these characters pretty entertaining but I think if I were Cajun myself I would be rather annoyed.