It’s been too long coming. As a paid-up fan of classic Disney animated films, settling back and watching The Princess And The Frog on the big screen was something I and many others never thought would happen. Coming less than a decade after Disney announced it was canning its hand-drawn animation features in favour of CG (and it still baffles me how that happened, given the legacy of the studio), it’s taken the arrival of John Lasseter, ironically, at Disney to turn that decision round. The Princess And The Frog is the first fruit of that, and it’s paved the way for many more to come.
Disney very wisely put the film into the safe hands of two of its finest directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, and The Princess And The Frog frequently shows flashes of some of their finest work. The animation is beautifully stylised, reflecting 1920s New Orleans, and there are some genuinely stunning sequences, not least a screen full of fireflies that looks downright majestic. I saw the film on a huge screen, and the impact of some of the scenes was hugely impressive. I certainly did react like that to a Shrek movie. And I quite like the first two Shrek movies.
Furthermore, Musker and Clements know how to make memorable characters, and they do so again here. Louis, the jazz-loving alligator, is a tremendous and very funny creation, responsible for many of the film’s laughs. He’s the highlight for me, but the human characters come off well too, including the film’s heroine, Princess Tiana, and the likes of Mama Odie too.
The best character work, though, is saved for villain Facilier, a character that demonstrates a level of imagination fused with a sinister edge that’s lacking from computer animated movies. Musker and Clements go to town on him, eeking out the vivid qualities that hand-drawn animation affords them, and take him to some surprisingly dark places. They play very much to the strength of traditional animation techniques, and chalk up another quality villain to add to the many they’ve already brought to the screen (Ursula, Jafar, Hades and even Professor Rattigan from the underrated Great Mouse Detective).
As much as I enjoyed the film, though, I can’t honestly call it vintage Musker and Clements, nor is it vintage Disney. At its best, it’s genuinely brilliant, and a real joy to see even when the novelty factor dies down. But it does have elements that hold it back a little. Key among them, sadly, is the music. In attempting to go back to the fairy tale roots of their second Disney movie, The Little Mermaid, Clements and Musker are sorely lacking the magical musical combination of Alan Menken, and particularly lyricist, the late Howard Ashman. Randy Newman is pretty much onto a loser from the start, and his songs are uninspired and simply not memorable at all. Considering that the late 80s/early 90s Disney boom was fuelled by fairy tales being put to superb music, the songs leave a real gap. The jazz-fused score, to be fair, is far more successful.
The story, too, even though the tale has been turned on its head a little, isn’t as strong as the source material that Clements and Musker have played with in the past. It’s an interesting take they’ve opted for, as Princess Tiania kisses the frog who’s supposed to turn into a prince, only for her to find herself turned into a frog instead. But the Disney archives hold some tough competition, and The Princess And The Frog settles somewhere around the middle of the studio’s classic back catalogue.
That’s not to say that the film coasts on the novelty of having hand-drawn back, and even towards the end of the film, Musker and Clements make one or two unusual choices that again left me thinking they were heading into territory I wasn’t expecting. The pay off to it, as well, turned out to be a handsome one (without wishing to spoilt the plot!).
The bottom line here is that The Princess And The Frog is an entertaining, charming fairy tale that, from top to bottom, was very clearly a labour of love. Even accepting the little niggles with the film, it’s mighty good to have Disney hand-drawn features back in the world.
And you know what? It’s even better to have Musker and Clements hard at work on them. To think Disney was months away from losing the pair to CG animated features. John Lasseter really did turn up in the nick of time…