In the six-year period between 1989 and 1994 Walt Disney animation cranked out The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Nearly two billion dollars in box-office doubloons flowed into the coffers, and eight Academy Award wins plus untold riches on VHS and DVD made Walt Disney and the resurgence of traditional 2-D animation the storyline of the moment. Ursula, Elton John at the piano, an epic pan out to a grand ballroom, Belle and Beast dancing arm in arm: these are the images that stick with you, images that captured a generation of fans. But I'd say they were always fans of the stories, not the medium, and an evolution of both was barreling toward starship Disney.
Pixar released the first feature film to use computer-generated imagery, Toy Story, in 1995, and that was pretty much that. The hand-drawn animation king was dead, long live the king. Sure, there would be occasional non-Pixar winners that slipped through (I quite enjoyed the breezy silliness of Lilo & Stitch), but the game had been permanently and irrevocably changed. Pixar wasn't just an evolution of medium, it was an evolution of story structure. Princesses and their foils had been replaced by quirky, though internally realistic, environments and motivations. Imagination and methods leapt forward. And thus it's with no small amount of oddness that the director of 2-D killer Toy Story, John Lasseter, is one of the champions of the last gasps of 2-D animation, The Princess and the Frog.
But what of this Princess and the Frog? It's a very cute film, a very accessible work for children and families. Tiana is a girl growing up in New Orleans; her father's dream of opening a restaurant has been passed along to her. She's a hard worker, a Disney heroine for this time and place, a slinger of pancakes and a baker of beignets. Prince Naveen, who's slightly estranged from his family (much like Eddie Murphy's Prince Akeem in Coming to America), visits the city in hopes of finding a wife. Dr. Facilier is the sorcerer baddie, willing to make your dreams come true ... for a price. It's a pretty typical setup, villain-wise, but the plot itself is a notable departure from the majority of Disney's animations. You see, The Princess and the Frog is a very specific work. New Orleans, creole, Cajun, gumbo, voodoo, jazz. I'm not sure how well these concepts will translate to international audiences -- or heck, even domestic audiences west of the mighty Mississip'. I suppose that's not our concern here, though, as we're tasked with reporting the highs and lows of The Princess and the Frog.
The film starts slow, laying the groundwork for Tiana's personality. She's a hard chargin' dreamcatcher, not so much of a "when you wish upon a star" style of girl as a "work three jobs and your dreams will come true" one. It would seem that even Disney has entered the new economy. Prince Naveen and Lawrence the man-servant come to New Orleans by boat, making a grand entrance. Voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier schemes his way into everyone's plans, using the Prince's blood for nefarious shape-shifting purposes. There are numerous musical interludes, including some great moments from soulful Ray (the lightning bug) and Mama Odie, the good witch of the bayou. The movie does pick up steam once various spells have been cast; once we're out of the real world and firmly into a transformative and illusory one. Sorry, no spoilers here -- that's as much as I can give you, plot-wise.
My main criticism of The Princess and the Frog would probably be the multiple story arcs, all filled with jagged edges. This is a Disney film, we know nothing too terrible is going to transpire, yet the film can't help wobbling toward the dramatic edge four or five times. Thirty minutes in the whole endeavor seems to be in trouble, Tiana and the prince on the brink of disaster, only our intellect tells us it's going to work out. This makes for a very schizophrenic viewing experience. I don't remember these huge swings of emotion in previous Disney efforts; I recall a slower build to a satisfying culmination, but perhaps my mind is playing tricks on me. Regardless, I would have preferred a more balanced shared struggle here with less "We're completely doomed!!!" moments. When you ask for your audience to care, it should feel like a symphony, not a stickup.
This is probably not the film you wanted to push all your chips into the middle on, as it's firmly good but rarely great. But here we are, The Princess and the Frog referred to as "2-D Animation's Last Hope," Disney's head perched on fist, anxiously awaiting our collective monetary judgment. Which I suppose makes me Johnny Utah to Princess and the Frog's Bodhi as it wades out into the ocean during a hurricane.
"He's not coming back."