It’s actually only been five years since Disney’s last traditionally animated feature but not since the mid-90s has one of them felt this right. The Princess and the Frog is an entry in the mold of Disney’s most enduring, classic, fairytale movies and while its been done before, it never seems to get old. Their obsession with princes and princesses continues and now it’s set to inspire a whole new generation of little girls to run around wearing tiaras. But unlike some of their past efforts, this particular iteration comes with a little more substance than the usual, empty dreaming of true love.
Tiana is a New Orleans waitress with dreams, not of finding a prince, but of owning her own business. Since she was a little girl Tiana has wanted to own a restaurant, and to make that dream come true, she works and works hard. She knows that success takes more than simply wishing on a star and so Tiana ignores frivolity to work double shifts and saves the money she’ll need to make fantasy reality. And though later in the film she’ll learn there’s more to life than hard work, the movie never lets her abandon those core values which have her rolling up her sleeves and getting the job done. She never turns the lovesick waif who abandons herself to follow around a man, you won’t find her sitting around in a castle waiting for him to come and save her. Tiana finds love on her own terms and makes her dreams come true not with wizards or magic, but with determination and effort.
But there’s plenty of magic around her, usually getting in the way. Tiana’s plans for success go awry when she bumps into a talking frog who happens to be a prince named Naveen. Naveen recently ran afoul of a dastardly voodoo practitioner called The Shadow Man, a character in the mold of Disney’s evil, magical, villains. Desperate to become human again, Naveen mistakes her for a princess, convinces her to kiss him, and everything backfires dooming Tiana to the same froggy fate as Naveen. Together they race through the swamp looking for a way to become human again. Along the way they meet a cast of Cajun accented animal critters including Louis, a jazz playing gator, and Ray, a folksy lightning bug with a family full of bright-butted relatives.
Ray in particular was a genius decision on the part of Princess and the Frog’s writers. He could have been a lizard, or a fish, or literally any of the thousands of creatures inhabiting the swamp. But making Ray a lightning bug opens up an amazing range of visual possibilities, as directors Ron Clements and John Musker use Ray and his lightning bug friends to, quite literally, light up the dark in their swampy world. Thousands of tiny firefly lights flit through every scene, lighting up flowers and trees and writing in the sky as the movie’s toe-tapping musical numbers drive the plot and lovingly hand-drawn characters whirl across the screen.
The songs and animation are beautiful, the characters are fully realized, and there’s a great lesson here should you be looking for a way to deprogram your Twilight-mesmerized daughter. If there’s any problem with Princess and the Frog it’s only that it doesn’t feel as epic as some of Disney’s true masterpieces. In a sense it plays out like a small-scale version of movies they’ve already done. As a villain, for instance, The Shadow Man, though colorful and engaging is really just a less powerful version of Little Mermaid’s Ursula or Aladdin’s Jafar. Remember that sweeping, frightening, awesome in scale scene from The Little Mermaid where Ursula grabs Ariel with her magic, twisting and shaping her body into human form while the seas and mountains of the ocean boil around her? Princess and the Frog has that scene too and, while it’s artfully done, it’s on a much smaller scale. Everything about the movie ends up working the same way. It’s a more modestly told affair, a simpler tale in a simpler setting with engaging characters that just don’t quite have the epic pizzazz of some of the others created by Disney.
But that’s not enough to ruin it, only enough to leave Princess and the Frog out of the upper pantheon of Disney’s greatest films. It falls somewhere in the middle, between the unforgettable classics like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King and the forgettable late-nineties entries like Tarzan or Hercules, the movies which signaled the beginning of the end in Disney’s dominance. Now though, the wait is over. Disney animation is back. The Princess and the Frog is a warm and infinitely enjoyable movie, one which takes advantage of the artistic beauty of hand-drawn animation to tell the kind of fairytale fantasy that only hand-drawn animation can get right.