Released in 2009 when I was past my own Disney movie-watching phase and had yet to have kids, “The Princess and the Frog” slipped by me. I watched it recently, having tired of my daughter’s incessant “Frozen” requests, and I am floored by how little attention this beautiful film gets by comparison. It’s so clearly “Frozen’s” superior, it deserves revisiting and reevaluation.
Well, it has one. The story of “The Princess and the Frog” is ambitious. A retelling of the classic fairy tale set in early-twentieth-century New Orleans and starring Disney’s first African-American princess is a lot of quirky, disparate, possibly problematic threads to bring together in a kid-friendly concoction. The movie does it admirably. “[G]ood gravy! A story! Characters! A plot!” Roger Ebert exclaimed in his review.
Without hitting viewers over the head, the story offers glimpses of New Orleans’s many cultures—black, white, Creole, Cajun, French, and voodoo influences. There are hints at the power structure of the South, which puts the movie’s heroine, Tiana, traveling the trolley line every day between her modest home and the cotton-money mansion of her mother’s employer and his Southern belle daughter, Charlotte. Tiana grows up to be a hard-working waitress with several jobs and an aspiring entrepreneur, saving money to open her own restaurant — a dream she shared with her late father.
Enter a playboy prince from an unspecified overseas land who visits New Orleans in search of a moneyed bride with which to exchange his family name for some family dough. The reckless royal gets tangled in some dark magic via the film’s villain, Dr. Faciler, and is turned into a frog. Our heroine, in desperate need of some luck, consents to kiss the frog prince, but is turned into a frog herself. The two go on a bayou odyssey peppered with memorable anthropomorphic characters, obstacles, and musical numbers as they attempt to become human again.
This story accomplishes more in its establishing 20 minutes than “Frozen” pulls off in 90. Every character’s motivations make sense (cough, Hans, cough), and we care about all of them, down to the wizened Cajun lightning bug. The film also has loving parents who aren’t hastily thrown into a watery grave after sentencing their children to some formative years of extreme isolation and fear, so Tiana has that going for her.
Unlike in “Frozen,” the magic that puts the plot in motion is not only explained, but has some cultural resonance and history. “The Princess and the Frog,” to protestations from some Christian groups and social-justice warrior types, employs voodoo powers as an evil force in the hands of Facilier and a force for good in Mama Odi, a skilled Voodoo queen. For those who know little of voodoo’s history, talisman and dolls are familiar enough to give the story’s magic origin.
At the end of “Frozen,” I wanted a one-on-one with Pabbie troll. “Born with the powers or cursed?” Explain yourself, man.
The writer and director of “Frozen,” Jennifer Lee, said the lack of explanation was a form of simplification: “[W]e had this whole explanation like when Saturn is in this alignment with such-and-such on the thousandth year a child will be born and blah, blah, blah. We found the more you explained the more questions you had about magic and the rules. It was like, argh. You know?”
As it is, I am left to wonder if Elsa got her powers from the snow, some Nordic god, or the troll doll on the dash of my ’96 Civic.
“The Princess and the Frog” is hand-drawn— a conscious throwback to the more 2D look of classic Disney movies of the mid-century “Lady and the Tramp” and “Sleeping Beauty” era. “Frozen” is certainly visually stunning, but “The Princess and the Frog” feels warmer and more organic. This is also appropriate to the settings of each movie. A portrayal of the icy alpine world of Elsa and Anna is more suited to computer graphics than the muggy, mystic evirons of South Louisiana.
There is one dream sequence in “Princess and the Frog” that tops even Elsa’s falling ice chandelier, which I grant is a pretty great Michael-Bay-meets-Disney moment. Tiana dreams of her own restaurant to the tune of the driving, aspirational “Almost There,” and the interior is wrought in art deco cut-outs. Waiters, tables, and musicians swirl in Esther Williams choreography, with the look and color scheme of an Aaron Douglas painting of the Harlem Renaissance.
That’s right, I said it. I know I’m in the minority, but while “Frozen’s” soundtrack has its moments, most of them are cute, not great. Idina Menzel’s voice is amazing, but “Let It Go” is just so-so.
“The Princess and the Frog” soundtrack is soulful, Southern, and sophisticated, composed by Randy Newman and full of nods to the region’s sound— “Dixieland jazz (played by a snaggletoothed bayou gator), zydeco (sung by a crazily accented firefly), Creole waltzes, swamp blues, and gospel, as well as two requisite Broadway-style show stoppers, ‘Almost There’ and ‘Dig a Little Deeper,'” John Podhoretz wrote in a 2009 review.
Watching “Frozen” was the moment I noticed how far Disney songs had fallen in lyrical sophistication since the ’90s era. Whither Aladdin’s “genuflect, show some respect, down on one knee?” Now we have “I don’t know if I’m elated or gassy” and “know” and “go” rhyme. Fine, but it’s a lyrical comedown from Eminem to Ja-Rule.
We never hit “Beauty and the Beast”-level rhyming of “I’m especially good at expectorating” and “I use antlers in all of my decorating” in “The Princess and the Frog,” but there are hints at it. Facilier’s big solo warns “don’t disrespect me, little man / Don’t derogate or deride,” because he has “friends on the other side.”
“Frozen” is rightly praised for its elevation of filial love over the romantic love that so often drives Disney films. This formulation gives viewers some variety and feminists plenty to cheer about in a princess story for a new generation.
“The Princess and the Frog” gives the same opportunities to its heroine, setting her up as a career-driven hard worker. Her envisioned restaurant is unabashedly named “Tiana’s Place.” Based loosely on Leah Chase, longtime co-owner and chef of New Orleans staple Dooky Chase, Tiana is independent and surprising, especially for her time.
She and her prince, Naveen, go through hardship, life lessons, and transformations together before they fall in love. Frankly, they spend more time together than Anna and Elsa do.
“The Princess and the Frog,” of course, ran into criticism. Tiana got her name after her original name, Maddy, was rejected as too close to “Mammy” or something. Others objected to Naveen’s skin color— voiced by a Brazilian actor, Disney says he’s non-white, but he was considered so light by some as to suggest black men aren’t worthy of the pantheon of Disney princes. Some fretted about portrayals of voodoo, jazz, and the bayou reinforcing stereotypes instead of rising above them.
Chase herself had some words for critics: “You’re going to have people who find fault with anything. Now people may think, ‘Oh, you showed us this way, like we’re country, like we’re Cajun.’ What’s wrong with that? That’s cute, I thought. If you can’t laugh at yourself in life, you’re missing the boat.”
In other words, let it go.