Disney’s last traditionally animated film, and it’s no surprise they returned to the songs and dance numbers characteristic of the Disney Renaissance. And it’s no surprise they decided to go back to the princesses and the fairytales, which has been proven to be Disney’s point of expertise. Being eleven years out of practice since Mulan in 1998, does Disney show the poise of a 49th animated feature veteran? Does Disney display the creativity needed to keep their princess fairytale formula fresh? Well, for starters, this movie did not do well enough in the box office to keep Disney’s 2D hand-animation department intact, so I guess the short answer is no. However, it received an 84% rating on RottenTomatoes.com, so it’s not like it tanked. And that’s basically how I feel about the movie: it’s neither impressive nor underwhelming.
The reason why this film doesn’t work in the same way Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid did is because it feels like a caricature again. This doesn’t automatically translate to failure, as Aladdin and Mulan both had moments of “isn’t that a little racist?” in there too, but it was more unbearable for me in this one. The African-American community is poor compared to the wealthy, white upper-class, and there is nothing I can say to tell you how over-exaggerated this class difference is portrayed. Tiana’s childhood friend Charlotte La Bouff is the most obnoxious and superficial Disney character ever created (sorry Gaston), and her father is the most leniently rich Disney parent I have ever seen. Tiana, on the other hand, is working and working these minimum-wage jobs, and I couldn’t help but ask myself: if she’s been working this hard her whole life, why is she stuck with these jobs? If she is this good at cooking, why couldn’t she get a job to do what she loves doing? Disney just bypasses these important details to make us sympathetic for Tiana, which I consider to be a plot hole at worst, and a major plot contrivance at best.
Nonetheless, The Princess and the Frog has Disney moments with a few new tricks up their sleeve. They pay homage to the princess classics by having a fairytale book read out loud at the beginning, and spins the story in a Disney sort of way to make it less predictable. In this case, when Tiana kisses prince-turned-frog Naveen, she turns into a frog as well! Totally unexpected, and their journey as frogs is much more enjoyable than any scene spent with humans. And that’s the thing: Disney really failed at producing likeable human characters. I’ve already mentioned Charlotte La Bouff and Eli “Big Daddy” La Bouff, but let us not forget the frog hunters, Lawrence, Mama Odie, and even Eudora, Tiana’s mother. When it comes to animal characters, however, Disney truly shines. Louis the alligator and his love for jazz music were perfect in this New Orleans setting, and he plays the trumpet with as much passion as Louis Armstrong. I’m going to have to admit, I didn’t like Ray at first, but by the end of the film, there is no way anybody is going to wish he wasn’t part of the screenplay. I mean, just: wow! Disney really blew me away with what they did with Ray, and it works so well that I have to dedicate an entire paragraph to it.
Ray is equivalent to The Princess and the Frog as the magic carpet was to Aladdin. He provides lights that add nice hues to the otherwise dark and swampy night in which Tiana and Naveen shares a romantic dance. Moreover, he is integrated into the movie’s focus of dreams. It feels familiar because they return to the concept of wishing upon a star originally started by the puppet who wanted to become a boy in 1940, but it doesn’t feel copied because Tiana’s father tells Tiana that dreams also takes hard work to make them come true. This exact star that Tiana wishes upon as a child and even as an adult is the love interest of Ray, who mistakes the star for another firefly named Evangeline. In the climax, Ray dies after being stepped on by the villain, and you honestly don’t really feel too sad. However, when Ray’s dead body is set afloat into the river’s mist, another star appears to the right of Evangeline, and there is no question that Ray’s dreams have come true. In fact, this scene is so powerful that it overshadows the moment when Tiana’s dreams come true and they return to human form. If you have not already seen the movie, I would recommend watching it for the sole purpose of catching this fantastic Disney moment.
This film feels smart with all its subtle Disney references. There is a way to break the spell that expires when a clock tower strikes midnight, and the star that appears to the right of Evangeline clearly refers back to Peter Pan as the entrance to Never Land. However, for all its nice ideas, most of these feels like gimmicks since it doesn’t have the creativity to back it up and stretch our imaginations. This is honestly a C+ movie that is remembered as enjoyable by the end due to the dream come true of Ray.