Although Bolt was fairly well received by critics and even better by fans, it was only mildly successful. After a string of box office bombs and mild success stories, Disney Animation Studios and John Lasseter, head of Disney’s entire animation department, decided to go back to their roots. As such, the next two animated features are both Disney Princess movies. The first of which, The Princess and the Frog, is also a return to traditional animation after three CGI movies in a row. It returns Disney to its animated Broadway style movie with its musical aspects, which served the company extremely well during the Disney Renaissance. They brought in co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who also brought us The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. It felt like a surefire way to get Disney’s Animation Studio back into business.
It partially succeeded. The Princess and the Frog received positive critical reception with 84% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 73% on Metacritic, the highest rating any animated Disney movie earned since the turn of the century at the time. It earned $267 million on a $105 million budget. Although it wasn’t a massive success, it definitely made the studio enough money to convince them to release a traditionally animated movie every other year or so. Considering only one other traditionally animated feature has come out since, we all know how long that plan lasted.
There’s a large debate about what caused this movie to not be as profitable as Disney Studios hoped. Some people attribute it to racism because Tatiana is the first black Disney Princess, but I’m not buying that. Maybe if this movie released as is in the 70’s or early 80’s I would, but this came out in 2009. If anything, the first black princess should have made it more successful the year after Obama got elected. A lot of people in Western Europe and Canada were also excited about Obama taking office, and I remember there being a lot of hype around Tatiana being the first black Disney Princess. Also, Mulan did fairly well (admittedly, she wasn’t advertised as a Disney Princess at the time). Some people argue that it’s more to do with how it’s traditionally animated and I can see their point of view. It had been a while since a traditionally animated movie did well in theaters.
There was also a controversy surrounding this movie because the villain, Doctor Faciller, uses voodoo. Various Christian groups complained and I’m sure that cut into the movie’s profit at least a little bit. To which I say, Doctor Faciller is the villain. He’s supposed to be evil and you’re not supposed to cheer for him. And there have been previous villains who used other forms of magic or evil forces, so what makes Faciller so different? The use of voodoo also received a bit of flak from other groups because the voodoo was portrayed as magical power when some people consider it more of a religion. Knowing very little about voodoo myself, I won’t argue that either way.
But I think Edwin Catmull (current president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios) said it best when he acknowledged a “serious mistake” by putting the word Princess in the title. He noted that putting princess in the title made moviegoers think it was only for girls, especially since the official Disney Princess line had recently began and was marketed pretty much exclusively for girls. It’s part of the reason they changed the title of Disney’s 50th animated feature from Rapunzel to Tangled. Lasseter was surprised that it didn’t perform as well as he hoped, especially after focus groups enjoyed the traditional animation behind the movie.
But enough about the movie’s performance and critical reception. Let’s talk about Princess and the Frog as a movie. It makes a number of changes to the original fairy tale “The Frog Prince” in the Grimm fairy tale collections. Instead of taking place in medieval Europe, it takes place in 1920’s New Orleans. Instead of the frog turning into a prince after the princess kisses him, Tatiana also turns into a frog because she’s not a princess at the time. They spend most of the movie trying to turn themselves back. I remember the trailers well, and I was intrigued by the movie, having well passed my trying to grow up phase. But I wasn’t really interested enough in watching it until now, and I’d forget about it unless I stumbled upon the movie in a store somewhere or a forum thread online that mentioned it.
Since it takes place in New Orleans, the musical aspect mostly takes on a jazz style, and it works great with the movie’s visuals. The two best numbers, Tatiana’s “Almost There” and Doctor Faciller’s “Friends on the Other Side” are both groovy. “Almost There” expertly shows Tatiana’s hopes to save up enough money to build her own restaurant. The ambitious style and they lyrics both sell how she’s so much of a workaholic that she doesn’t appreciate any of the little things in life. “Friends on the Other Side” is a great villain song with the right touch of intimidating lyrics and brilliant visuals to go along with it.
That said, I don’t really remember any of the other songs in the movie, even though I just watched it last night just before going to bed. There’s a gospel style number sung by a swamp witch of sorts that works better than any of the gospel style numbers in Hercules, but I don’t remember how it goes. There’s a somewhat country number by a redneck firefly and a jazz number duet between a crocodile and the frog prince that’s just ok. It feels kind of like they focused a bit too much on making “Almost There” and “Friends on the Other Side” good and forgot to improve on the rest.
The animation is really good. Although it’s not always detailed, there’s a lot to like about the visual style. The frogs move realistically when they hop, yet they tilt around in exaggerated ways to help emphasize their body language and facial expressions. The use of Doctor Voodoo’s shadow allies is just the right level of creepy without being too scary for kids. It uses CGI here and there to animate environments or Faciller’s voodoo masks, but the CGI is used more sparingly than the later Renaissance movies.
As mentioned earlier, Tatiana’s main goal in life is to save up enough money to buy a restaurant. She’s so motivated by working hard that she often forgets what’s really important in life – relationships to your friends. Her mother tries to convince her to slow down a bit, but she’s obsessed by it. Prince Naveen is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s a party animal who lived a pampered childhood and doesn’t know how to work at all. Because of this, his parents cut him off financially until he either does something productive or marries a woman. Faciller learns that the prince is arriving in New Orleans and hatches a plan to take over the city. His “friends on the other side” agree to help him, in exchange for being able to steal all the souls in New Orleans.
Faciller turns the prince into a frog, he ends up at a costume party where Tatiana is dressed in her friend’s princess costume (after her own clothes are stained by spilled food and drink) and they kiss, turning them both into frogs. As they travel around trying to turn back human, they both grow as a couple and as people. Tatiana learns to calm down a bit and appreciate the little things in life. Naveen learns how to take more responsibility. After their last ditch plan to turn back human fails, they end up getting married and kiss. Because their marriage makes Tatiana technically a princess, it turns them both human after all. Their side of the story is very well told.
With that said, the story in The Princess and the Frog is a bit of a mess. Not only is Doctor Faciller’s plan overly complicated, but there are too many sub-plots going on for a 97 minute movie. It’s not hard to follow mind you, but so many story ideas are left incomplete. Faciller’s plans involve disguising a rich but lonely man as the prince using Naveen’s voodoo captured blood, and then he’d strike the man with a pin as soon as he gets married to the self-proclaimed Princess of the Parade (the mayor’s daughter and Tatiana’s friend).
Why not just disguise yourself as the prince, keep the frog in a jar and steal his identity to make it simpler? Also, I’m really not sure how becoming the mayor of New Orleans will somehow give Faciller domain over everyone’s souls. He wouldn’t even own the city. Wouldn’t you somehow need to make deals with each resident directly? Also considering the way Doctor Faciller dies, what do the shadows need him for anyway?
There’s also a sub-plot about a redneck firefly who’s in love with a star. His appearances range from slightly annoying to forgettable, so you don’t really care when he dies and becomes a star in the sky beside the other. It’s a bit of a silly funeral scene tacked on at the end of the movie anyway. There’s a trumpet playing crocodile who wants to be a Jazz star, yet being a crocodile makes people afraid of him. He’s a fun character, but more could have been done with him in a cleaner story.
There’s also Tatiana’s friend (and mayor’s daughter) who is obsessed with trying to get the prince to fall in love with her, yet she’s not the least bit upset when Naveen and Tatiana fall in love. This character’s enthusiasm is fun, but it clutters up an already cluttered movie. There’s the swamp witch that has her own song, but she doesn’t really do much in the movie besides give some advice and officiate their wedding. Removing her entirely would have also simplified the plot.
And of course there’s the classic misunderstanding where Tatiana sees the rich loner disguised as Naveen hanging around with her friend at the parade and somehow thinks that the prince turned back human and left her as a frog, and she’s depressed for a bit. It feels completely tacked on in an already overstuffed finale. They should have just stuck with what happened later, where Doctor Faciller tempts Tatiana with the prospect of being given her restaurant in exchange for handing back his voodoo device after she somehow takes it. If more time would be spent on that and the later action climax, this movie could have had a much more satisfying conclusion.
That’s where this movie falls apart the most for me. Most of the characters are great, and the journey that Tatiana and Naveen take together is fantastically written. But the overstuffed plot, Doctor Faciller’s overly complicated plan and an excess of sub-plots that don’t contribute much to the story or themes really hold this movie back. Not so much that Princess and the Frog isn’t worth watching. I would recommend it to those who enjoy Disney’s other fairy tale movies. But if you are interested in checking out a Disney Princess movie for the first time, don’t start with this one. I would recommend that you either start with Beauty and the Beast or the next movie we’re talking about.
Next up is Disney’s 50th animated feature, Tangled. After that, it’s Winnie the Pooh and Wreck It Ralph. I haven’t seen Winnie the Pooh before and I’ve only seen Wreck It Ralph once. I’m looking forward to both of those, but I’m looking forward to talking about Tangled even more. I probably won’t post about it until Wednesday or Thursday, but when I do, it’ll be split into two posts, and I’ll explain why when I get there.