Drawing on Tradition:
The Princess and the Frog
By Jeff Pepper
The Princess and the Frog represented a major paradigm shift for me in terms of how I approach and ultimately purchase access to the latest Disney entertainment.
Translation: I waited for the DVD. More specifically, I waited for the Blu-Ray disc. The cost for a family of four to go to the movies now well exceeds the price of even a deluxe edition Blu-Ray package. For the first time that I can recall, I balked at running to the multiplex on opening day to see the latest Disney animated feature, and instead patiently waited a very short three months to enjoy The Princess and the Frog in the privacy and comfort of my own relatively well-furnished home theater. As Bob Dylan would say, " . . . the times they are a changin'."
It's not that I wasn't anxious and excited to see the company's celebrated return to traditional hand-drawn animation since Home on the Range underwhelmed both critics and audiences in 2004. (Celebrated, if not just a tad disingenuous--after all it was Disney itself that killed 2D six years ago.) It's just that I had been feeling a wee bit cynical throughout much of 2009 about the Walt Disney Company's overwhelming uber-synergetic marketing machine and its relatively transparent desire to drain my checking account.
Let me just quickly and unequivocally state that The Princess and Frog was totally undeserving of my somewhat immature and misdirected contempt. It is a wonderful, energetic and very satisfying film that, while not groundbreaking or wholly original, still manages to set itself apart from the vast majority of over-produced animated fare that has crowded theaters for the past few years. Despite the film's reliance on tried and true Disney formula, there is still oh so much to compliment and endorse. The songs and score by Randy Newman infuse the story with a style wholly new to a Disney feature. Animation is top drawer, backgrounds are lush and beautiful, characters are distinct and well-realized and the story moves along at an energetic and entertaining pace. And similar to title character Tiana's passion for making the perfect gumbo, the film adds just the right dash of sentiment that will fill and break your heart at the same moment.
What truly impressed me most was the obvious desire on the part of the film's makers to not just return to the mechanics of hand-drawn animation, but to literally draw on techniques and visual styles that could never be realized or matched in computer-generated productions. The musical sequences "Almost There" and "Friends on the Other Side" especially feature creative designs reminiscent of classic vignettes from films such as The Three Caballeros, Melody Time and Dumbo. To think that some bone-headed executive decided five years ago that this type of visual expression was obsolete and irrelevant is both chilling and disturbing. Thankfully, saner minds have been restored to Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Though the disc's supplemental features are a generally slight collection of very brief sound bite vignettes by the film's directors, cast and animators, they serve to very much illustrate the passion that these individuals had for bringing about a return of traditional animation to the Disney company. The Princess and the Frog was truly a labor of love, especially for 1980s and 1990s animation veterans such as Mark Henn, Andreas Dejas, Eric Goldberg and directors John Musker and Ron Clements. Experiencing their joy and enthusiasm by way of what are usually standard talking-head segments was an unexpected delight.
Though not a success on the level of a Pixar film, The Princess and the Frog demonstrates that a traditional animated feature can still be welcomed and enjoyed by critics and audiences alike. Bravo to its creators, animators, cast and crew. You have accomplished something truly meaningful at the precise moment in time when it so desperately needed to be accomplished. Well done.