One of the great travesties of recent animation history was Walt Disney Animation Studios shutting down the art of traditional, hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation. In the wake of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin, Disney felt it could cash in that currency to experiment with a range of different types of films. Unfortunately, they didn't account for the fundamental paradox that will forever plague the studio's work: no matter how much people complain about Disney films being fairy tales about princesses, they will never pay for anything except fairy tales about princesses.
Granted, there were highs and lows. Lilo and Stitch was an underdog success while Treasure Planet was, in my opinion, a criminally disregarded classic. But after Chinese warriors, hunchbacks, Atlanteans, ape men, and woolly mammoths, it was Home on the Range that brought the grand tradition to a close. Until, that is, Pixar's purchase of Disney for -$7 billion. Pixar's John Lasseter took over Walt Disney Animation Studios and put hand-drawn animation back on the table. The first fruits of this was 2009's The Princess and the Frog.
A lot of pressure was put on The Princess and the Frog to be the film that saved traditional animation. Modest returns created a small panic stew, however, they were returns that reflected a modest film. Watching it, one gets the definite sense of a film dipping its toes into the bayou rather than taking a big canonball. Everything is very cautious, making for a pleasant little movie, however one wishes to take that praise.
Sometimes it works to subvert certain tropes of the genre. They worked overtime to make heroine Tiana a positive role model and the result is an interesting commentary on the whole matter of wishing upon a star. In order to defuse racial sensitivity, there is no conflict whatsoever between the African-American and Euro-American characters (except for one brief mention by a snooty real estate agent). Of course, this is the same thing that people consider a problem with Song of the South, but that is for another essay. In Princess and the Frog, we have the romantic rivals trying to help each other out in the end, for no reason but a romantic sensibility resting in the goodness of their hearts.
The biggest weakness of this film, set in the Jazz Age, is the music. It is adequate, but definitely not amongst the leagues of toe-tappers and wistful hummers. Maybe I say this as a spoiled brat who does listen to Louis Armstrong and the Firehouse Five Plus Two. I am of the opinion that if you're going to reference musicians of that calibur in songs and jokes, the music should be equal to the task. It is adequate, cautious, dipping its toes into Dixieland.
With criticisms out of the way, I am free to say that it is nevertheless enjoyable. The characters are quite good and they are placed against a fantastic 1920's New Orleans setting. The atmosphere alone makes the film worthwhile, with the ancilary benefit of being practically written for Disneyland's New Orleans Square. The company even attempted to use New Orleans Square to promote the film, featuring Tiana's Showboat Jubilee aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat. It was reportedly met with some ambivalence (after all, no one had yet seen the film or gotten to know the characters) yet added some much-needed life and flavour to the over-scallywagged area of Disneyland that had not been seen since Uncle Walt's television specials.
Our villain, Dr. Facilier, is equal to the great, spooky villains of the past. Something of a cross between Cab Calloway and Baron Samedi, he commands the shadows and is beholden to the Voodoo spirits from the Other Side. He's also responsible for one of the most traumatic and touching Disney deaths in any of the canon. It is a tearjerker with a fantastic payoff that makes all the shock and trauma worthwhile, adding to the complex layers of dialogue on the subject of wishing on a star.
A moderate success and a cautious film, it will undoubtedly be eclipsed by the likes of the CGI Rapunzel and other upcoming animations. The Princess and the Frog is a pleasant film that should be on the DVD shelf of anyone with a jones for Jazz in the French Quarter. Just look out for those shadows.