We all know Disney has a long line of hand-drawn animation behind them. Dating as far back as 1937 with their first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they have always been quite the powerhouse of quality, and never more so than during their heyday in the '90s when we were lucky enough to get the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan.
You could also lump in the likes of some of their more underrated films (The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Company) and one of their truest classics, The Little Mermaid, into this canon of spectacular quality. One right after the other, they were knocking them out of the ballpark.
With a few missteps along the way (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, and Brother Bear) there were still a few to keep the faith alive (The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, and Home on the Range).
Then along came a little production company by the name of Pixar and they went ahead and changed everything. Pixar ushered in a new era of full-length, computer-animated feature films, and I don’t have to tell you about that string of hits. With other major studios seeking out this new medium and hitching a ride on the bandwagon, many have thought for years that the days of traditional 2-D films were completely behind us. Thanks to the likes of some extraordinarily talented veteran creators, we have returned to an era that has lain dormant far too long.
With their latest venture, The Princess and the Frog, directors Ron Clements and John Musker also mark their return to form. These two were responsible for some of Disney’s biggest hits: The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules. With the exception of the bland Treasure Planet, it’s no wonder these two were handed the keys to the animation kingdom to bring fair advantage to the playing field.
Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls) lives a modest life in New Orleans. We first see her as a young child living with her mother Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) and her father James (voiced by Terrence Howard). What’s this? Tiana has a father? Well, don’t worry, the staples of Disney are still with us as we flash forward to when she’s older and her father has, of course, passed on.
All James wanted for his daughter was a great life filled with what she needs and the dream of opening their own restaurant filled with jambalaya and beignets. All she needs is to make sure she serves everything with a steaming cup of chicory coffee and I’d be sold myself. Being on the poor side of life is fine with Tiana but she still dreams big and has just saved enough to pay for the bayou-side building she wants to turn into her restaurant.
When Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) arrives on the scene it causes quite a stir in the French Quarter. Particularly with Tiana’s best friend, the uber-rich Charlotte (voiced by Jennifer Cody) who is bound and determined to marry Prince Naveen and become a true life princess just like the ones from the fairy tales Eudora used to read to her and Tiana when they were children.
Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David) has different plans altogether and tricks Prince Naveen into giving up a blood sample held within a voodoo amulet. The tables turn as Prince Naveen gets turned into a frog while his original form is taken over by his clumsy and greedy assistant, Lawrence (voiced by Peter Bartlett). Facilier tells Naveen that to become human again he must kiss a princess. He mistakes Tiana for a princess and winds up turning her into a frog as well.
The two make due with their sticky situation and set out to find the likes of Mama Odie (voiced by Jenifer Lewis) who tells them that the only way they can both be saved is for Naveen to find a true princess to kiss him before the clock strikes midnight. Their journey wouldn’t be complete, however, without its fair share of helpful characters.
Along the way they first meet up with Louis (voiced by Michael Leon-Wooley), a trumpet-tooting alligator who simply wants to find equality and play in a jazz band or become human himself to be taken more seriously. After all, who wants a wild creature trumpeting away and scaring off everyone in sight?
Also along for the ride is the heart of the film, Ray (voiced by Winnie and Tigger himself, Jim Cummings), a firefly whose butt lights up. Here we may have what some could consider to be one of the more stereotyped characters in the whole movie, but his character is played with such whimsy and joy for life that it’s very easy to look past it and it will honestly go over all children’s heads. All Ray wants is to find the love of his life, the evening star he’s mistakenly named and thinks is another firefly.
Anyone who thinks things will all go according to plan are luckily proven wrong. The directors and writers have plenty of twists on this age-old tale and some serious surprises await (along with a certain level of darkness which I have always felt was required to make a true children’s film play fair with the entire audience).
While many things may seem overly familiar, it’s only because after 70 years in the business it should be expected that you can’t keep things completely fresh. Louis comes across as a cross between Tiger from the American Tail films and King Louie in The Jungle Book. All he wants to do is blow his horn and give you a great big hug. Even Naveen’s assistant Lawrence brings to mind Nathaniel from Enchanted.
Even some of the song sequences could be deemed slightly redundant but thankfully the songs themselves, from Disney mainstay Randy Newman, are immediately memorable and stake their own claim among the classics of yesteryear. The most noticeable are how similar “Almost There” is to “Be Our Guest” or how “Friends on the Other Side” seems like a sequel to “Friend Like Me” and “When We’re Human” calls to mind “The Bare Necessities” as everyone floats along a river bed.
While everything comes together in the end and happily ever after comes full circle, it all moves merrily along and there won’t be a disappointed member in any family. This may not be the best animated film of the year but I would definitely say it ranks right up there in the top three. Only the double whammy of Fantastic Mr. Fox (hands down the best animated film of the year) and Up (which was the surefire pick until Wes Anderson and company showed up to steal the thunder) are better.
When two of the three happen to be from the same production company, yet created in completely different mediums, it shows just how far Disney has come and that there’s plenty of room for all kinds of animation, be it by hand, stop-motion, or computer-animated. Welcome back Mouse House, it’s been too long.
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures