Much was made of The Princess and the Frog when it came out in 2009. Here it was, all lovingly-animated in traditional hand-drawn fashion with no 3D or other doodads to try to pull in a crowd. The lack of gimmicks was the selling feature to Disney’s newest working of the princess genre, but the complaints still poured in. The pic, before it even came out, was accused of all sorts of racism and other nonsense.
Such is the hardship, I guess, of working out the details of the first black princess with a dim-witted public. The Princess and the Frog offers us that, sure, but the fact that the “princess” spends so much of the movie transformed into another species is just flat-out weird. Okay, okay, so it matches the story of E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess and the Grimm brothers’ The Frog Prince, but there’s nothing about this Disneyfied flick that captures the richness of the sources.
The movie is set in 1920s-era New Orleans. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is our protagonist and she’s a waitress with lofty aspirations of starting up her own restaurant. She’s a hard-worker and dedicates almost all of her time to saving up money to open up her place. Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) arrives in New Orleans after being cut off by his parents. With no more riches, Naveen is forced to marry a Southern belle (Jennifer Cody) for her money. Boo hoo.
It wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a villain, so in comes voodoo witchdoctor Dr. Facilier (Keith David). He’s fed up with the rich and powerful and, feeling neglected, wants to shift the balance – such is the price he’s saddled with in the Disney universe for not paying proper homage to the rich and famous, I guess. This causes him to con Naveen and Naveen’s butler. Facilier uses a powerful curse to transform Naveen and, before we can say “Mardi Gras,” Tiana finds herself involved as well.
With so many of the critics grabbing on to this one simply because it wasn’t a computer-generated feature, I found myself wondering what the fuss was about. The Princess and the Frog even landed an Oscar nomination for some reason, but there’s very little here to hold on to. For starters, a lot is regurgitated from a handful of different animated films and it’s very hard to shake the lack of originality. The trumpet-playing gator, for instance, seems little more than a rip-off of King Gator from Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven – right down to the New Orleans backdrop.
As for Tiana, she reaches Princess Aurora levels of blandness. We get a bit of a background story, sure, but her only quality appears to be her hard-working nature and that doesn’t give us much to care about. The chemistry between Tiana and Naveen comes out of nowhere, feeling like it’s a foregone conclusion more than a developing affection. The suddenness with which Naveen realizes that he wants to marry Tiana is, needless to say, hilarious.
I would rather not mindlessly credit the eternally bland just for not being a 3D picture, frankly, and nothing The Princess and the Frog did had me interested. Perhaps I’m too spoiled by Pixar and Ghibli to worship the mediocrity floating around in this one, but the characters and situations just didn’t resonate. And the songs? Barely there representations of music from a burned-out Randy Newman. The lack of musicality to The Princess and the Frog is made all the more shameful when you consider the possibilities thanks to setting it in Jazz Age New Orleans.
With catchphrase-spouting, annoying, one-dimensional characters and a poor excuse for a musical score, The Princess and the Frog is a blown opportunity for Disney. Instead of proving that there’s still some gas in the rotten tank, the company showcases yet another golden marketing prospect free of genuine feeling and heart. It’s a flat, deliberate entry delivered with focus group precision and that, as always, makes for an ultimately heartless tale.