The Princess and the Frog [Blu-ray]

“It’s a return to hand-drawn animation!” “She’s Disney’s first black princess!” Disney pushes those two facts above all others when discussing their animated musical The Princess and the Frog. They are nice facts, but they don’t matter a fart unless they are at the service of a good story. Fortunately for Disney (and us), The Princess and the Frog has a good story. New Orleans and its surroundings are certainly making a comeback. First the Saints win a big football game and Drew Brees got to ride around on a Mardi Gras float, and now Disney sets its newest animated film, The Princess and the Frog, in the Big Easy. It’s actually the Big Easy of the 1920s, where Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) works two demanding jobs in order to save enough to open her own restaurant, a dream for both her and her now-deceased father (Terrence Howard). Visiting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is changed into a frog by the evil voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and, mistaking Tiana for a princess, kisses her to reverse the spell.

For reasons that are probably codified in the Big Book of Fairy Tale Magic, Tania’s lack of princessness results in her turning into a frog after the kiss. Makes sense. So, Tiana and Naveen have to hop along the Bayou and find Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), a voodoo lady who they hope can, Oz-like, reverse their spell. They are joined by Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a trumpet playing alligator, and Ray (Jim Cummings), a Cajun firefly of dubious intellect. Dr. Facilier, meanwhile, uses Naveen’s double-crossing manservant, Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), and some of Naveen’s blood (ewwww) to fool Tiana’s best friend, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), into marriage in order to get their hands on the fortune of Charlotte’s father (John Goodman). Phew!

It sounds like a lot of plot, but the core of the story, co-written by co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements (Little Mermaid and Aladdin), is well known. A pair starts a difficult journey as polar opposites (the hard working Tiana and the playboy Naveen) and slowly falls in love, with chases, misunderstandings, and comic set pieces along the way. It works thanks to especially good performances by Campos as Naveen and Cummings as Ray. Campos gives both the prince and the frog the same suave, lazy charm, and Ray is heartfelt in his loyalty to his friends and his love for the silent Evangeline, a star he mistakes for a firefly.

The story weaves in perfectly with the ballyhooed hand-drawn animation, which is lush and beautiful. New Orleans never looked so good. In fact, the movie’s New Orleans is like the poor provincial town that Belle inhabited in Beauty and the Beast. They were both easily recognizable but left out most of the seedier elements. When they get out to the Bayou, it looks like a cross between The Rescuers and Bambi, and the use of Ray’s firefly family has great effect.

Disney also brought back a full-blown musical with the hand-drawn animation, and this is the best collection of songs in any Disney movie in recent memory. Randy Newman, not necessarily associated with New Orleans’ music, hits every right note, and the gospel raver “Dig a Little Deeper” is a toe-tapper. Rose, David, and Cummings sing their own songs, and it does the heart good to realize that Alan Menken or Elton John don’t have to be involved to make memorable Disney music. The musical sequences are highlights, as the direction of Musker and Clements gives unique looks to each number.

The story's lack of big surprises and a less than memorable villain in Dr. Facilier keep this from reaching the status of classic along with Disney’s first wave (Snow White, Bambi, Cinderella) or their second (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King). It is, however, much better than the more recent hand-drawn efforts and is certainly worth a place in any Disney library. The Princess and the Frog is not only one of the better Disney animated releases of the last 10 years, it is an excellent Blu-ray release. The lovely animation is well served by the flawless HD presentation. Every color and lush leaf is crisp and clear. The sound, too, is impressive, and with the excellent songs and score, you really get the full impact of all of Disney’s technical knowledge.

Disney home entertainment releases often fight between catering too much to the kids with inane games and Disney tween remakes of classic songs, and going wholly for the grown-up or animation-phile with behind-the-scenes details. Most of the direct-to-DVD releases go more towards the younger set, but this Blu-ray does a nice job of providing attractions for both groups.

The Blu-ray can be watched as released, or with a picture-in-picture, work-in-process track. You can see storyboards and sketches of the scene as you are watching it. This is more enjoyable than watching an unfinished version of the film alone. Co-writers and co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, along with producer Peter Dl Vecho, provide a very informative commentary. The information isn’t overly technical, but they are detailed about what is happening in each scene. They also give the usual background about development, casting, etc., as they go. It’s what a commentary should be: enjoyable, brisk, lacking silliness, and in-depth.

The commentary goes hand-in-hand with a 22-minute featurette called “Magic in the Bayou: The Making of A Princess.” The extra leans heavily on the “return of hand drawn animation” theme, with many animators singing its praises and ignoring the question of why, if hand-drawn animation is so great, did Disney make crap like Home on the Range. Hand-drawn is starting to look like the panacea that CGI supposedly was after Pixar hit the scene. Again, it’s all about the story, not the delivery method. Still, the featurette also covers all the usual suspects of plot, casting, music, and style with interviews with the voice actors, animators, producers, and directors.

The “Magic of the Bayou” was clearly produced to be a 30-minute (with commercials) television ad for the movie. Disney also produced six other extras, each two to three minutes long, to show on the Disney Channel or other outlets and give a taste of one aspect of the movie. These shorter featurettes don’t use the same material as the longer piece, but they cover the same ground. “The Return to Hand Drawn Animation,” “The Disney Legacy,” “Disney’s Newest Princess,” “Conjuring the Villain,” and “A Return to the Animated Musical” aren’t really worth watching once you’ve watched “Magic,” although they are all well made in their own right.

“Bringing Life to Animation” is a very enjoyable segment. Musker and Clements narrate video of body-reference footage that the animators used for musical numbers and other complicated sequences. It’s fascinating, and they go quite in-depth, especially with the dancing done for the “Dig a Little Deeper” number, my favorite performance in the movie. This is something even a kid might get a kick out of, seeing people dancing or gesturing in a way that they remember from the film.

The rest of the extras include four partially animated deleted scenes, vast art galleries of concepts, backgrounds, characters, storyboards, etc., a moronic game suitable for three year olds, and a music video for Ne-Yo’s credit song “Never Knew I Needed.” The real treat here is that great Disney animation in a fantastic presentation, the decent set of extras that will satisfy an adult, and the film that is worth watching more than once.