Brad Pitt called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button “a love letter to New Orleans.” Well. If Button was a love letter, then Disney’s The Princess and the Frog was a Homeric poem in the grand lady’s honor, because it caught the culture and flavor of New Orleans and southern Louisiana far better than the 2008 opus did. I honestly don’t know how this movie will view to people across the United States, whether the region-specific presentation of the story and the setting will diminish its appeal or raise it for being a uniquely American fairy tale. But for me, as someone who lives down here in the swamp, it was a fantastic movie.
The story is a conflation of the fairy tale “The Princess and the Frog,” which is referenced in the movie itself, and E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess. Tiana is a 1920s working girl in New Orleans whom the be-frogged foreign prince mistakes for a princess when he sees her at a masquerade ball. She kisses him when he promises to give her the money to make her dream of owning a restaurant come true, but because she is not a princess, she gets turned into a frog as well. The two of them are swept out into the bayou when they escape the estate dog on helium balloons, and set out to find the voodoo queen at the heart of the swamp to see if she can reverse the spell on them. The minions of the Shadow Man who cast the spell on the prince aren’t far behind them, and they aren’t even aware of their danger….
In the first place, I love the return to the hand-drawn animation that has in the last decade been mostly supplanted by the sparkly new toolbox of digital renderings. I have yet to see the CG movie that equals the sheer visual joy of watching actual painted animations, and, yes, that includes the Toy Storys and Shreks of the world. The Princess and the Frog is a triumphant return to the old style. This movie is worth watching for its visuals alone, if you like animated films. Some of the most beautiful sections were out in the bayou, specifically the firefly parade through the cypress swamp, and the dancing on lily pads and under the blackwater (which was surprisingly clear, but it was an artistic license I easily forgave). Another favorite section was Tiana’s fantasy near the beginning of how her restaurant will look. The animation was very stylized—it was 1920s poster style; a style, in fact, that I have seen on the wall of at least one French Quarter brunch spot.
Beyond simply how good the movie looked, it captured the feel of the city and the cypress swamps. From the architecture of the mansions on the rich streets, to the green streetcars and French Quarter, to the shotgun houses and ubiquitous porches on the poor streets, it looked like New Orleans. It also felt like New Orleans, with the jazz music in the city (vs. the zydeco music out in the swamp), the importance of and emphasis on food, the Mardi Gras scenes….A couple hilarious moments for me, that seemed totally in character for this place and thus actual laugh-out-loud funny where to someone from Kansas maybe they were just a chuckle: the jazz-trumpet-playing alligator who told the two frogs a story of jumping on a steam-paddle-boat only to have half the men partying on it pull out guns and shoot at him. Er, yes, all the old gents here would have carried guns even in their finery. And at the masquerade ball where Tiana also becomes enspelled, the two frogs are trying to escape and end up jumping onto the band’s drum-set and thumping out a much faster beat than what the band had been playing. The rest of the band heard the new beat and busted into an upbeat jazz tune, and all the guests immediately laid off waltzing and started jitterbugging. Which is completely in keeping with the good-timing spirit here—everyone here is always down for some funky brass tunes. Who needs that high-brow stuff? We’re here for the party.
I really liked that Tiana was a working girl. I wasn’t sure how they were going to handle the princess aspect; I was expecting her to be a Mardi Gras princess (which she wasn’t, though one of her friends was). Instead they didn’t make a fantasy of the city but chose to be somewhat historical. I mean, it’s not like this film was a treatise on race relations or something, but Tiana was working two jobs to build a realistic dream for an African American woman at the time—opening an elegant restaurant with amazing food, because good food really will bring people from all walks of life together. There is an element of discrimination on the part of the real estate agents selling the old sugar mill, as well, favoring a buyer who had cash in hand and telling her that “from her background” she was better off as she was. It was as controversial as Disney is willing to get and without question glossed over, but I was glad they acknowledged the historical reality at all.
I loved the bad guy being a voodoo practitioner. The Shadow Man. His minions, his “friends from the other side” were creepy and more effective than many of the villain’s henchmen are in fairy tales. It was also regional-appropriate and, equally importantly, required only the slightest suspension of disbelief (given the continuing fascination with/superstitions about voodoo/hoodoo) to seem plausible. Part of me would have preferred a Tim Burton level of darkness, but for a movie that still caters to small children this was the realistic level of darkness. I don’t have kids so I can’t judge whether it would be scary to them, but certainly none of the kids in our theater (and there were plenty) shrieked even once.
The musical numbers were by turns lively and touching. There was a lot of New Orleans brass and jazz music, and a couple zydeco songs when they were out in the swamps with the Cajun animals. I LOVED the Mississippi River gator (voiced by Emeril!) who just wanted to play the trumpet with a band, and the Cajun firefly Ray. I actually thought Ray’s sub-plot was the stronger love story—he was in love with the Evening Star, which he called Evangeline and loved for her sparkle and her silence. In the end he gives his life to help save Tiana and the prince, and when his life winks out a new star appears in the sky next to the evening star. That was the lump-in-the-throat moment of beautiful love in this movie.
Because, to be quite honest, there wasn’t that much of a love story between Tiana and the prince. That’s probably my biggest criticism of the film’s story: there’s just no real transition between them not thinking much of each other and them loving each other. I mean, yes, she was the most real girl the prince had ever been exposed to, but that didn’t really show why she would fall for him, nor did he seem to be falling for her. In the space of about 5 minutes, he just suddenly was. Then again, it was the five minutes of eating her magic gumbo, so maybe it was just playing to the (already mentioned, by the way) old adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But, as with any Disney fairy tale, they do fall in love. I thought the ending of the spell was very clever; it made complete sense when they explained the mechanism, but it wasn’t what I was expecting (the typical Disney cliché of true love’s kiss conquering all).
In all, I thought this movie was a great addition to the Disney arsenal and a wonderfully American interpretation of a fairy tale. It’s high time we had an American princess, and Tiana made a great one. By turns amusing, exasperating, heart-warming, bittersweet, and ultimately triumphant, The Princess and the Frog shows that Disney can still make a movie as iconic and breathtaking as those from its early-to-mid-90s peak.