When Walt Disney unveiled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back in the 1930’s, many critics saw the move as a foolish one. Who wanted to pay to see a feature-length cartoon? Apparently, many folks as Snow White became one of the most successful movies of all time. Ever since, Walt Disney Productions has specialized in feature-length animated films with fifty-three produced and released to theaters, not to mention numerous direct-to-video films and television specials. Ever since 2004’s disappointing Home on the Range, all of the Disney films have undergone a major change. The traditional hand-drawn animation of classics such as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi have been abandoned in favor of computer-generated characters. When CG movies started showing up in the 90’s the medium was met with skepticism, but following the success of Pixar’s Toy Story, it became apparent that CG was the future of animation. Still, few could have predicted CG would reduce hand-drawn animation to near extinction. And with Pixar and Disney partnering up, it seemed like Pixar would be the vehicle for CG animated films while Walt Disney Animation Studios would continue to churn out the more traditional stuff. That was not to be.
When Disney first announced The Frog Princess in 2007 it came as a surprise. Disney had previously declared 2-D animation dead in ’04 and for a new hand-drawn film to show up just three years later was definitely unexpected. The film, which starred an African-American girl from New Orleans named Maddy, was also met with a whole bunch of criticism from various groups. If Disney had thought a non-white female lead would garner it lots of positive press it was unfortunately mistaken. Having a black lead seemed to place a microscope on the film and the early press package was nit-picked to near death. The setting, the main character’s name, occupation, the ethnicity of the film’s prince – all received some criticism. Even the film’s title was somehow offensive to French people. To Disney’s credit, a lot of the criticisms were taken to heart and applied to the film. The new title became The Princess and the Frog. The main character was given the name Tiana and made a waitress and Oprah Winfrey was hired as a consultant. What was not changed was the setting which the directors felt was important to the story. Other criticisms, such as a black man for the villain, were also kept. This didn’t free Disney from further criticism though, but at least it showed the company was sincere.
With the hand-drawn animation decision out of the way, directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Great Mouse Detective) also wanted to bring back more traits of the old Disney films. The Princess and the Frog was based off of a fairy tale, The Frog Prince, and a retelling The Frog Princess, using elements of both. It was also decided the film would be a broadway-style musical like the films of the 90’s. For the film’s look, producer John Lasseter wanted the animation to draw comparisons to Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, which he considered to be the pinnacle of Disney animation. Many veteran animators who had been laid off following the decision to abandon hand-drawn animation were re-hired, and Disney’s outdated CAPS software was replaced by Toon Boom Harmony. The film was cast, and production was underway.
As expected, a modern hand-drawn animated film from Disney looks spectacular. The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s sharpest looking production to date. The animation is warm, fluid, and full of personality. The backgrounds are astonishing and are so much more alive when compared with the animated features that came before it. The film was produced using actual sheets of paper as opposed to having the animators draw on tablets and many of the film’s backgrounds are painted as well. CG effects are applied for smoke, shadows, and other lighting. If the film has one visual drawback, it’s that some of the objects look flat against the expressive backgrounds. This limitation is contained to background characters, but is noticeable at times. Otherwise, the film looks fantastic and is a true love letter to the animated films of old.
The plot unfortunately is not the equal of the animation. While the performances of the actors involved is quite good, the actual pacing of the film is pretty ho-hum. Aside from the twist of having the film’s “princess” turned into a frog, it’s fairly predictable. The film’s villain, Dr. Facilier, is basically a bad guy for the sake of being a bad guy. There’s not much depth to him. Tiana is a strong female lead who’s a hard-working girl scraping by with the dream of one day opening her own restaurant. She’s juxtaposed by her best friend, Charlotte, the daughter of the wealthiest man in town who has had everything handed to her. Charlotte’s prime goal in life is to marry a prince so she can be a princess. Clearly, Tiana is expected to fulfill the role of a modern woman (despite the film’s 1920’s setting) while Charlotte is meant to represent the outdated princess of old who is defined by her prince. The film is definitely successful at making Tiana a positive role model for young girls (or really, for any child), but it isn’t done in an organic way. Tiana, either through spoken dialogue or song, is determined to let us know over and over how she has had to work hard for everything she has. And while some of that is intended to be a trait of the character, one does get the feeling the film could have used some more subtlety. Future Disney films would better create a compelling female lead, which isn’t to say that Tiana is a disappointment, she just lacks refinement.
Taken on the whole, the film is an enjoyable adventure thru the Louisiana bayou that feels pretty light-hearted. There’s comedy, and of course, music that is entertaining if nothing else. The fact that the film doesn’t have some big, important, message to convey is forgivable, though the lightness of the tale keeps it from being among the best of the best. The film does shine amongst its predecessors when the film’s music is considered. Written primarily by Randy Newman, it does a good job of taking the audience to New Orleans and the opening number, performed by Newman with vocals by Dr. John, is one of my favorites from any Disney film. I normally loathe the musical parts, and for some of the ones in this film that sentiment remains, but I was surprisingly captivated by a few. They’re not overdone, and unlike the more recent Frozen, I never felt like the music was used as a substitute for dialogue. The film also doesn’t shy away from adding a dangerous element to its villain. Too many parent-centered reviewers will remark that Dr. Facilier is too scary for young kids, but he’s supposed to be scary! What’s the point of a villain that doesn’t come across as a threat to the protagonists? There’s even a death in this film, and I was happy to see there wasn’t some lame cop-out to follow, even though I was expecting one.
The Princess and the Frog was met with positive reviews upon its release and was a financial success. It wasn’t the smashing success of some of the older Disney films, and because of that, the hand-drawn animation wing has been shelved indefinitely. The Blu Ray special features contain numerous interviews with the creators of the film who speak glowingly about hand-drawn animation with an eye towards the future. During the run-up to the film’s release, Disney was boasting that a hand-drawn feature could be expected every two years. The film was released in 2009, and today in 2014, there still hasn’t been another hand-drawn feature from Disney. The Snow Queen, retitled as Frozen, was supposed to be the next hand-drawn feature but was converted to CG and went on to become a massive success for Disney. Who knows if the choice of animation would have had any impact on the finished product. I personally do not feel the general movie-going public is averse to hand-drawn animation or even has a preference. The luster of CG has long since worn off as it has now become the standard. The Princess and the Frog likely did not perform up to expectations at the box office for reasons completely unrelated to its animation style. If anything, the animation style likely drew additional patrons since hand-drawn is no longer the norm. I personally believe the film wasn’t a huge hit because the plot seemed too familiar. Most people have already seen numerous animated fairy tales and a film with the word “princess” in the title probably isn’t going to draw the attention of young boys. Disney’s attempt at creating a modern princess for young girls to look up to effectively alienated them from a large portion of their audience: young boys. The studio is definitely wise to this as more recent films have opted for a more ambiguous title like the previously mentioned Frozen or Tangled.
It is my sincere hope that The Princess and the Frog is not the last feature-length production from Disney to feature hand-drawn animation. The film is proof that the medium still has a lot to offer and I just find it so much more engaging than CG features. While I love and appreciate much of what Pixar has put out I’ll likely always prefer the hand-drawn look. The sad thing is, as fewer and fewer films and cartoons are done in that style, the people who specialize in it are likely retiring or no longer with us. The younger generation is being raised on CG and lacks the skills to create hand-drawn animation. Hopefully, Disney realizes this and elects to take on the responsibility of keeping the art form alive. Perhaps releasing a hand-drawn feature every other year was too ambitious, but every five years seems like a reasonable goal. With no hand-drawn features announced as of this writing, the future of the medium is very much in question and that’s a shame. The only company that seems to care is Japan’s Studio Ghibli which thankfully continues to output hand-drawn features even with its beloved leader’s, Hayao Miyazaki, retirement. To all lovers of hand-drawn animation, I say treasure The Princess and the Frog, because you may not see another Disney film like it.