Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
There was a time when Disney was the gold standard for animated movies. In a way, with Pixar as a part of their stable, they still are, but the titles that come out specifically under the Disney label are more hit or miss. There are great modern Disney films, of course, but there are some terrible ones, too. So with The Princess and the Frog, I really didn’t know what I was getting. I remember the release of this and the news that Disney was finally getting an African-American princess. There’s a lot of pressure in a situation like this; even an innocent misstep is going to be treated very harshly.
This is the story of the Frog Prince, of course, but since it’s a movie, that fairy tale is going to be taken in a different direction. After a short refresher on the basic story and an introduction to our main character as a child, we jump to the film’s present day of the mid-1920s in New Orleans. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a hard-working young woman juggling two full-time waitressing jobs to save up for her dream of opening a restaurant. This is a dream she shared with her father (Terrence Howard), a man we see in the opening scenes of the film but who has died in the meantime, most likely a casualty of World War I.
So, while Tiana works almost constantly, the big news in the Big Easy is the impending arrival of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), who is looking for a wife. Naveen, attended by his servant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), has been financially cut off by his parents. Until he settles down, he’s essentially broke, and has evidently decided that New Orleans is the best place to find a wife. Top contender as the film starts is Charlotte La Bouff (Jennifer Cody), Tiana’s wealthy friend and daughter of civic leader “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman). Lotte hopes to corral the young prince and become a princess herself and pays Tiana to cater a party in the Naveen’s honor, a payment that gives Tiana enough to buy a location for her dream restaurant.
The monkey in the wrench is Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a Voodoo houngan with considerable influence in the spirit world. Facilier offers to read the cards of Naveen and Lawrence and takes that opportunity to make a power play. He changes Naveen into a frog and, using a charm filled with Naveen’s blood, he changes Lawrence into the image of Naveen. His goal is to manipulate Lawrence into marriage with Charlotte, and then continue to use his influence to eliminate Charlotte’s father and take over the city.
Of course, Naveen finds Tiana and, because this is the way these stories work, Tiana kisses him. Instead of restoring him to humanity, she is turned into a frog. The pair retreat to the bayou where they meat Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a trumpet playing alligator and Ray (Jim Cummings), a firefly who has a crush on a star. The pair lead our frog couple to Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a swamp witch, who tries to put the frogs on the right course. And there’s naturally ups and downs, the frogs start to fall for each other, and there’s plenty of singing along the way.
The biggest upside is Dr. Facilier, who turns out to be one of Disney’s best villains. He’s reminiscent of Captain Hook physically, but he has the conniving sensibilities of some of the other classic Disney villains like Ursula. There is a sense of very deep evil with Facilier since his shadow frequently moves independently of him. Like the best of melodramatic villains, there’s nothing redeeming in him. He’s also got the best song in the movie.
Sad to say, while The Princess and the Frog isn’t a terrible film, it’s also not close to Disney’s best. Part of this is the artwork itself. It may be that I’m more used to modern artwork, but some of this looks, well, cheap. It’s the most obvious in the artwork of Naveen and Tiana as frogs. It looks old, and not like homage. The more I think about it, the more I think I object to the frogs frequently standing like humans. It just comes across as weird.
I also don’t buy the romance at all. I know that the Disney ideal involves either love at first sight or love after initial distaste, but there’s very little here that would seem to connect Naveen and Tiana at any level. Sure, they’re both frogs for the bulk of the film, but they are frogs with human brains, and yet they appear to be physically attracted to each other. Since they are completely different otherwise, I don’t buy the relationship.
I can forgive the art if the film merits it, and I can even forgive the unrealistic romance as a trope of the genre. The problems of The Princess and the Frog run deeper, though. The main message of the film coming from Tiana is that hard work pays off in the end. It’s a good message, but the film turns Tiana into a joyless grind, not merely unwilling to enjoy herself but evidently incapable of doing so. Sure, part of the movie is her learning to ease off a little, but she comes across as so unpleasant initially that it’s difficult for me to sympathize with her. Naveen is kind of an ass, but at least he’s fun.
A bigger problem is how the film operates around Tiana’s motivation. She wants to build her restaurant and has worked for it her whole life. But her best friend is the spoiled rotten daughter of the city’s leading citizen. Why the hell wouldn’t they lend her the money? I mean, I realize that without Tiana striving to open her restaurant she doesn’t really have a motivation for much of the film, but this is a plot hole that an average 10-year-old would see through. That indicates a story that needs to go back to rewrites. Big Daddy obviously likes Tiana’s cooking, and his influence would certainly help her restaurant. It’s a no-brainer, so the fact that it doesn’t happen doesn’t make sense for the characters. Couple this with the fact that Charlotte goes from selfish to the opposite in a moment’s notice, and we’ve got a story that doesn’t work on multiple levels.
As a last comment, I think it’s great that Disney finally decided to create an animated film with an African-American heroine. It’s a step that needed to be taken and should have happened decades ago. But why set it in a part of the country that is traditionally racist and in a time rife with overt racism and Jim Crow laws? That would be like Disney creating its first Jewish heroine and setting the tale in 1940 Warsaw. It’s just a bad choice.
So, ultimately, The Princess and the Frog isn’t a bad film. It’s just not a great one, and not a terribly good one.
Why to watch The Princess and the Frog: An updated take on a classic fairy tale.
Why not to watch: The plot flat doesn’t work.