The Princess and the Frog is the greatest Disney film of the 21st Century.
I was tempted to leave it at that, to just let that comment linger and pass it off as my article for the studio’s 49th film. A controversial statement, perhaps, but what could possibly top it? Tangled fans are probably already in uproar by this point and a few people would probably make a solid case for Frozen or Lilo and Stitch. Apart from these, however, no other Disney film can stake a legitimate claim to that title. The 21st Century had undoubtedly been a dry spell for the studio up until this point but far from being the best of a bad bunch, Princess is a league above everything that had preceded it since the millennium, a creatively, artistically superior product on just about every level. Yes, it functions as a breath of fresh air for a moribund department, but even removed from its historical context (were that possible), Princess stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the A-list Disneys. Flawed, admittedly, but then so were some of the mid-90s films, or the works of Wolfgang Reitherman or even, whisper it, the Golden Age films.
However, bunch of grumpy cynics that that critics are, not many people seemed to get this when the film was released. Glasgow Evening Times critic Paul Greenwood was lukewarm, saying that “the story is one of the weakest elements here… the swampy ragtime vibe is atmospherically realised, but the film never quite develops its own personality,” and he wasn’t alone. Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian arbitrarily compared it to Toy Story, saying it wasn’t as good, representing an utterly pointless trend of comparing the film to Pixar. Because critics were getting used to the gimmicky archness of the studio behind Cars 2, anything that dared to be sincere was treated with suspicion, as if everyone reviewing the film forgot that in a time before Toy Story they, too, fell in love with the traditional Disneys of their generation. The Pixar comparisons further underserve the film as the two studios are trying totally different things, they just both happen to be animated. No critic would make such arbitrary comparisons in live action, suggesting that some writers forgot that animation is a medium, not a genre. Anyway, what this ranting boils down to is that critics accused The Princess and the Frog of being derivative, lacking in magic and invention and out of place in the world of modern animation. They were very, very wrong.
The old school, traditional form of storytelling is precisely the appeal, however, so to dismiss it on those grounds misses both the charm of something sincere in a cynical world, but also the way that it actually progresses the princess formula while sticking fairly rigidly to it. It’s a film that unashamedly has romance, magic and villainy coursing through the film, unafraid of sentimentality and a good old fashioned happy ending, but it does it all with a irresistible vibrancy that makes it a good deal more appealing than something like Cinderella. Yes, it follows trajectories that audiences are familiar with (although more on why that isn’t entirely true in a bit), but it excels in every area as opposed to just ticking boxes.
Take, for instance, the bad guy. Villains don’t come much darker than Dr. Facilier, a voodoo doctor who calls up demonic shadows from his ‘friends on the other side.’ He’s a fantastic, terrifying creation, with a song and grisly demise that ranks among the most memorable in the studio canon. The animators use the look and movement of Facilier to make him unforgettably sinister; with a waist as thin as his pencil moustache and a head of floppy, uncombed hair, he seems to defy physics in the way he slinks from scene to scene, followed by a shadow that moves to its own rhythm. He looks and acts fearsome, but it turns out his power is beholden to even darker forces. He frequently reveals that he is more in danger than anyone else in the film, something which is graphically made real as he is dragged off to hell by his so called ‘friends.’ Needless to say, children of a sensitive disposition may be better off with Winnie the Pooh.
The animation and the songs, too, show the artistry that belies the claims that this is a derivative film. Randy Newman is the man behind the lyrics, but by setting it in Jazz era New Orleans, the stage is set for Disney’s most energetic, lively soundtrack featuring the husky voice of Dr John. Leaving behind the broadway ballads of the 90s, The Princess and the Frog utilises its setting and voice cast to great effect, so even when there isn’t a song being sung it still moves along to a toe-tapping rhythm. Unlike Hercules, the music is entirely congruent with the setting, too: it actually makes sense, here, to have a gospel number. Then there is the animation, which really could have an entire article devoted to it but I’ve already rambled at length about my love of traditional techniques. Needless to say they are given a glorious final gleaming, here, the mansions and swamps of Louisiana rendered in a humid pallet of greens and browns, occasionally glimmering gold, as well, suggesting that magic hangs thickly in the air there. It’s a beautiful, old fashioned animation and a testament to the beauty of hand drawn techniques. It should never have left Disney.
So even if its traditional techniques were all done to the highest standard, even within this structure The Princess and the Frog progresses the old fashioned princess narrative in a way that few give it credit for. Take, for instance, the opening scene in which Tiana and her friend Charlotte discuss fairy tales. Charlotte, a comic highlight throughout the film, expresses her desire to marry a prince. With bright, blue eyes, blond hair, a wealthy background and a penchant for royalty, she fits the Disney princess mould perfectly. However it is Tiana, who couldn’t care less about Princes but wants to run a restaurant, that is the film’s main character, not Charlotte. The colour of her skin is irrelevant – Disney have had non-white princesses since the 90s – but her attitudes and motivations are the noticeably different aspects about this heroine. Throughout the film she is motivated by her desire to run a restaurant and bring people together with her food. As a result, Prince Naveen is the first one of the couple to fall in love, and Tiana has to catch up. He has to win her affections, as opposed to her giddily falling in love the moment she meets him, a la Snow White. It also undermines a second Disney trope, that of wishing on a star, by balancing it with the importance of hard work – magic must be combined with a realistic work ethic.
Yet Tiana still ends up married, wealthy and human again, which perhaps serves to undermine the formula-breaking feistiness she has previously displayed. If hard work is more important than wishing on stars and handsome princes, why is it so important for her to end up with her prince and dreams coming true? Well, it’s a bit much for us to expect the people that directed The Little Mermaid to turn into animated Ken Loaches. Instead, it combines the independence and strength of Tiana with a bit of good old fashioned magic to ensure that the ending is more or less what you are expecting. However, the restaurant building is still bought with Tiana’s savings and ultimately Tiana realises the importance of love in the midst of her business ventures. It takes a callous heart to deny her marriage just because it’s unfeminist. Anyway, in this case the emphasis is not on romantic love, but familial, as Tiana wants to emulate her father, who was a family man above all. So it manages to update many of the tropes of a princess film, but does so maintaining the heart and sincerity of even their most traditional films. The Princess and the Frog miraculously manages to shift the dynamics of a princess narrative to something more palatable to modern audiences, while still revelling in the magic that such stories offer. It has its cake, and eats it.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the film is, of course, flawed. Cajun firefly Ray smacks of sidekick overkill and vague racial stereotyping, while his song and the whole ‘Evangeline’ thread of the film feel tacked on and irrelevant. An encounter with some frog eating swamp-dwellers, while amusing, feels similarly out of place and suspiciously like plot padding. It also verges a little bit on the cruel in its treatment of them as two fingered, stupid inbred hicks, although it does mine laughs from these rather crass stereotypes. But this is the kind of nitpicking that misses the bigger picture, and it’s easy to forget that Snow White – which still ranks as a masterpiece for me – features a painfully dull lead character, while Fantasia has sequences that go on for far too long and the Reitherman films all repeat themselves (a complaint levelled against Princess but rarely an issue with the 70s films). Yes, it’s not perfect, but it is damn near close.
In fact, you could say that it is the greatest Disney film of the 21st Century.