Be wary of anyone who tells you that such-and-such an art form (or anything else) is dead. People like to make pronouncements about the changing of the guard and the story is a better one when the old guard isn't just going off-duty but is actually dead. The new may push out the old, but that's not the same as pushing it over a cliff. People are very happy to tell you that traditional animation is dead and gone, that the style of computer animation brought to us by Pixar and others has all but eliminated the original sort. Though it is certainly more in vogue than traditional animation, CG has not replaced it entirely, and who better to show us that – and the power traditional animation still wields – than the company who brought us the first animated feature, Disney.
Hitting store shelves this week on DVD and Blu-ray is Disney's return to traditional animation, The Princess and the Frog. Their latest tale which, hopefully, will help usher in a third golden age for the studio.
The Princess and the Frog, as Disney was oh-so-happy to point out in the myriad of promos that arrived in the months leading up to the film's theatrical release, takes the traditional story of the prince being turned into a frog only to become a prince again via the kiss of a princess on its head. In this film, the lead character, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), is not a princess, but rather a strictly working class woman who holds down two waitress jobs in order to try and save enough money so that she can open a restaurant of her own. Tiana, an African-American woman, lives in Jazz Age New Orleans and has the deck heavily stacked against her, not that she's willing to let a little thing like adversity get in the way of her – and her now deceased father's – dream.
What does get into her way though is Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) of Maldonia, a carefree ladies' man with a love of jazz and a severe dislike of hard work. Naveen, newly arrived in New Orleans, ends up getting taken in by the evil Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David), who ends up turning him into a frog and his valet into Naveen. Mistaking Tiana, who was at a costume party, for a princess, Naveen gets a kiss from her hoping that it will turn him back into a prince only to have her end up a frog as well.
It is an incredibly likable tale, full of good voice performances, including ones by Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, and Jim Cummings; great songs by Randy Newman; and more than a few laughs. Directed and co-written by Ron Clements and John Musker (Hercules, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid), the film may never quite hit the highs of the second golden age of Disney animation of which both men were a part, but it is both an engrossing and an endearing tale, one which shows that the ability to tale a good story – even if it isn't the most original – will triumph over all the bells and whistles.
Though not as adult oriented as something like Up, The Princess and the Frog doesn't shy away from focusing on darker aspects of life and death. As a film about hard work, love, and finding a balance in life it doesn't dwell on the negative, but Dr. Facilier may certainly make for a sleepless night or two among the younger set. The voodoo master is one of the best – and darkest – animated villains we've seen in a while as he uses his evil spirits to work his magic and chase down Tiana and Naveen while they are in frog form.
The Blu-ray release of the film looks and sounds utterly fantastic. As a film with an incredibly rich look and sound, the Blu-ray release only enhances it. Colors are vibrant, blacks and shadows (of which there are a significant number) are dark without being overpowering, and one will truly be amazed at the look of some of the musical numbers. The sound, a DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track, is also fantastic, with Randy Newman's music completely surrounding the audience. The dialogue is clear and although the music is incredibly important, it never overpowers the voices. The various effects, of which there are many, are also stellar, utilizing surrounds and the bass and truly bringing the viewer into the story.
In terms of special features, the three-disc Blu-ray release not only comes with a digital copy and a DVD one as well, but also an audio commentary by the co-writers/directors and producer Peter Del Vecho, the ability to watch the film with a picture-in-picture track that shows the viewer various work-in-progress levels of animation, deleted scenes, a music video, an art gallery, and several different behind the scenes features. This last group ranges in everything from a look at Dr. Facilier to the studio returning to hand-drawn animation and musicals to ones on Tiana. Though these are all vaguely interesting, they do tend to have a little too much of an overly short, pre-packaged promo-type feel. Lastly, the disc comes with a brief game which has fireflies put together pictures of princesses for the viewer to identify. It is certainly a better game than what one will often find included on video releases.
The Princess and the Frog may not be as great as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King or Aladdin, but it is an incredibly enjoyable romp and a wonderful return to Disney's roots. It shows the whole world that there is a place for hand-drawn animation, that not only is the studio not done operating in that world, but that the opportunities they give us to glimpse into it are well worth taking. We can only hope that they continue to provide such exhilarating, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable fare in the future.