Ranking Disney: #24 – The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Next to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, no film on this list had more upward mobility than The Princess and the Frog. I saw this movie in 2009 and thought — “Yeah, that was good, but it was pretty racist.” But, after a few years of maturation, and a greater respect for Disney, I grew to like this film — a lot.
Racism and stereotypes aside — this is a terrific film. Now — story alone — this would probably be hovering around — say — 30. And that’s where I originally ranked this on my first draft of the list. It was around #33, #34. But, after a rewatch — well, you see where it ended up.
The reason for that climb is twofold — well, three. First, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. Absolutely spectacular. Second — and this is a two-parter. The film is very enjoyable, doing some great things visually and in terms of the writing (again, racism aside), and (this is the second part of number two) it shows respect to Disney films of old. There are a lot of visual references to other Disney films (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Fantasia, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, The Rescuers and Tarzan, to name a few), and that goes a long way with me. And third — and this should always be the most important — I cannot stress how important it was that Disney have a black princess. Sure, they did it kicking and screaming, using as many stereotypes as they could to cushion the fall, but the fact that they did it is a huge step for them, and that automatically makes this one of the better Disney films they’ve made. (Plus the animation is really nice.)
The film begins with Eudora narrating “The Princess and the Frog” to Tiana and Charlotte. Eudora is a seamstress (“the best in New Orleans”) and she’s making a dress for Charlotte, the spoiled daughter of Eli “Big Daddy” LaBouff. (She’s not evil or anything, just a rich, spoiled child. You know… white people.) Tiana is adamant that she would never kiss a frog, while Charlotte says she’d kiss a hundred of them if it meant marrying a prince.
We then see Eudora and Tiana leave the rich neighborhood LaBouf lives in and return to their home in the poor section of town.
While there, she makes gumbo, and her father explains how good food brings people together, and how he’s going to open his own restaurant, saying people will come for miles just to get a taste of the food.
Tiana then wishes on the evening star (look at the picture up there… the reference is obvious), and her father gives her some good advice, too – that the star can only take you part of the way. The rest is hard work and determination. Which is actually a really terrific message for Disney to be adopting in the 21st century. (Also, isn’t it funny that the white princesses don’t need the hard work?)
He also makes her promise that she’ll never lose sight of what’s really important, and there, we find out exactly what the major complication is going to be for her to overcome in the third act.
We then flash forward to about fourteen years later, as Tiana is now working multiple jobs to save up for the restaurant her (now deceased) father wanted to open. She works the night shift at once place and leaves for the breakfast shift at another.
While working, Big Daddy comes in with Charlotte, announcing that Prince Naveen (of Maldonia, I believe. Don’t worry, it’s made up. You’re not ignorant) is visiting New Orleans and Big Daddy has arranged a party for the prince and gotten him to agree to stay at his house, in the hopes that he’ll marry Charlotte. Charlotte decides she must have Tiana bake beignets for the event, and give her a wad of money (which is enough for Tiana to put a down payment on her restaurant).
Tiana puts a down payment on a rundown building that will become her restaurant. Eudora comes to visit her, saying that she’s working too hard. Tiana says she’s trying to make her father’s hard work mean something, but Eudora says it means nothing if she has love. Tiana says she doesn’t have time for that stuff now, because she’s “Almost There.”
What follows is a pretty terrific musical number, that just makes me dream of those days of Disney animation.
More shots of this number down at the bottom, because it’s gorgeous.
We then shift over to Prince Naveen, who is being hounded by his valet, Lawrence. Naveen is enjoying himself in New Orleans, fitting in mostly as a commoner. We find out from Lawrence that he’s almost out of money, so either he’s going to have to marry a rich young woman or get a job.
They’re met by Dr. Facilier, a tarot card reader who is really a voodoo doctor, who wants to take the prince’s place and marry into money. He turns Naveen into a frog and turns Lawrence into Naveen.
Meanwhile, at the party, Tiana finds out she’s been outbid for the restaurant space, and unless she can bid higher within a few days, she’s gonna lose the property.
She then wishes on the evening star, and is met by Naveen (as a frog). He scares the shit out of her when he speaks to her, and convinces her to kiss him (you know, like the fairy tale).
Only, it doesn’t change him back into a prince, but rather changes her into a frog. They’re chased off the property by Big Daddy’s dog.
Dr. Facilier is pissed because Lawrence let Naveen go. Lawrence says he doesn’t want to be Naveen anymore, taking off the enchanted necklace that allows him to turn into Naveen. Facilier tells him he can’t use the necklace for himself and convinces him to continue being Naveen and marry Charlotte, whereupon they’ll split Big Daddy’s fortune for themselves.
Naveen and Tiana end up in the swamp together, mostly bickering. She says she should have known not to wish on stars, as the only way to get what you want in life is through hard work. And he, clearly not of that way of thinking, believes the reason the kiss didn’t work is because she isn’t a princess. But, they come to an understanding – once Naveen is married to Charlotte, he’ll help Tiana get her restaurant.
While trying to get back to safety, they meet Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator, because, you know, they have those. Apparently all the people of New Orleans are southern archetypes, and all the animals are black-coded, which means all they want is to have working-class jobs or play music. Hooray, diversity.
Louis agrees to take the two to Mama Odie, the voodoo priestess of the bayou in the hopes that she’ll turn him into a human so he can play trumpet in front of others without scaring them half to death.
Meanwhile, Lawrence, whose disguise as Naveen is wearing off (since it only works if he has blood from Naveen inside the necklace, and as the blood supply runs low, he starts turning back into himself), proposes to Charlotte. She accepts, only since they don’t have any more blood, Facilier is forced to ask his “Friends on the other side” for help. And he’s already apparently “deep in hock” to them for a lot. They send evil spirits out looking for Naveen.
Tiana and Naveen then run into Ray, a Cajun firefly (and also a horrible stereotype. Backwoods with no teeth). He and his family of fireflies lead them to Mama Odie’s house.
Only, they end up getting chased by some rednecks looking for frog’s legs. Naveen is caught but escapes, and Tiana is caught. Naveen helps her escape. I’m not really sure the point of this.
But the firefly scenes sure do look good.
And then they have that stupid “pretend” scene movies like to have, where they talk about what they’re gonna do when things return to normal and even act it out. Tiana cooks stuff for them, pretending it’s her restaurant.
Then, after a slow dance between the main characters (Disney movies are required to have the “Kiss the Girl” / “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” number now), the spirits come for Naveen. But Mama Odie (the most offensive stereotype in the film) saves them.
She’s pretty off-the-wall. Makes bathtub gumbo and has no teeth, is blind and is 147 years old. But other than that, she cool. She sings a song about how they need to “Dig a little deeper” to find out what it is they really want. (The answer is love. They must be really dense, because it’s about as subtle as a dick in the ass.)
She tells them all Naveen needs to do is kiss a princess and both he and Tiana will become human. She shows them (in a magical gumbo pot. Because, you know, they have those) that Charlotte is technically a princess, as Big Daddy is King of the Mardi Gras parade. Only they need to get with the tongue action before midnight, since he’s only king for a day.
Naveen, Tiana, Louis and Ray take a riverboat back to New Orleans. Louis gets to play with an actual band (who think he’s in costume) and Naveen plans to propose to Tiana, having fallen for her. Only just as he’s about to, the boat passes the building Tiana wants to turn into the restaurant. Only she mentions her father, still not seeing she’s in love, so he doesn’t.
Of course, Naveen gets caught by Facilier’s evil spirits right after this, because there’s no surprise in this plot at all. They return him to Facilier, who takes some of his blood so Lawrence can impersonate him long enough to marry Charlotte.
Tiana then finds out Naveen was going to propose, and goes to find him. She then spots the fake him and Charlotte about to get married on top of a Mardi Gras float. She thinks it’s actually Naveen, and is heartbroken. She goes off, sad.
Facilier, meanwhile, prepares to kill Big Daddy as soon as the marriage is finalized. But Naveen manages to be freed just before it’s finalized and knocks Lawrence (as him) off the float. There’s a struggle, and a chase, and Ray steals the necklace and brings it to Tiana, proving it wasn’t the real Naveen.
Facililer kills Ray after Ray hulks out on some spirits, and Tiana threatens to destroy the necklace. Only Facilier transforms her back into a human and puts her inside her restaurant, as a temptation. He tells her he can make it a reality if she gives him the necklace. She doesn’t give in, realizing love is all she needs.
She goes to destroy the necklace, but Facilier’s shadow (very Pan) steals it just in time. But she gets it back pretty quickly and destroys it anyway. Facilier’s “friends” then come and take him away, kind of like the end of Ghost.
Then Naveen tells Charlotte the situation, and she agrees to kiss him, as he’s agreed to marry her in exchange for her giving Tiana the money for her restaurant. Tiana tells him not to, as even though it would fulfill her dream, it wouldn’t be complete without him.
Only the kiss doesn’t turn him or Tiana human, like Mama Odie said it would.
The two then find out Ray is dead, and they take him into the bayou for a funeral. They then find out he’s become a star in the sky (right next to the evening star, which he named Evangeline, and said was his real one true love).
Then Tiana and Naveen get frog married, and when they kiss, they turn human, since, once they were married, Tiana became a princess.
Then they get married for real in a church and stuff and go off happily ever after and Tiana gets her restaurant and all that good stuff. You know how it goes.
This film is gorgeously animated. I’m serious. You won’t see many better animated Disney movies between 1959 and now. This is without a doubt, top five or six since then. And even overall — this is definitely top 20, maybe even top 15 (hell, maybe even top ten).
Downsides – the characters are two-dimensional. Which doesn’t help when they’re ethnic. They tend to end up as stereotypes. But it’s Disney. What would a Disney movie be without racism? (Answer: Not a Disney movie.)
Also, I’m not a fan of this modern Disney trope of characters being manic in their movements. What the fuck is that? I hate it. It leads to too many crazy and unrealistic situations.
The writing’s not particularly good, either. They don’t really set up jokes properly in this.
My problem with this film – aside from the obvious racial stereotypes that everyone attacks it for – it’s that the frog aspect is so much less interesting than the rest of the film. The entire first act of this movie is perfect. I’m completely invested in this character dynamic and in Tiana wanting to start the restaurant. What they really should have done is kept it low key, found some other way to tell the story that didn’t involve the frogs and the voodoo, and just did it traditionally. I know they need the “action” or whatever to appease modern audiences, but look at Sleeping Beauty. Nothing happens in that movie, and it’s perfect. Why not keep it low key like that? You can have some sort of impediment to the marriage, but the frog thing really just isn’t interesting.
That said — I really liked this film a lot the second time around. I may not care so much for the story, but I could honestly spend 90 minutes just looking at this movie and studying the images and that would be enough to make this better for me than most other Disney movies.
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Official Disney Number: #49
Run Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2009 (premiere)
December 11, 2009 (U.S.)
Budget: $105 million
Box Office: $104.4 million domestically, $267 million worldwide
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- “Down in New Orleans,” performed by Anika Noni Rose and Dr. John
- “Almost There,” performed by Anika Noni Rose
- “Friends on the Other Side,” performed by Keith David
- “When We’re Human,” performed by Michael-Leon Wooley, Bruno Campos, Anika Noni Rose and Terence Blanchard
- “Gonna Take You There,” performed by Jim Cummings and Terrance Simien
- “Ma Belle Evangeline,” performed by Jim Cummings
- “Dig a Little Deeper,” performed by Jennifer Lewis and the Pinnacle Gospel Choir
- “Never Knew I Needed,” performed by Ne-Yo (end credits song)
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- The film was nominated for Best Animated Film (It lost to Up), and Best Original Song, for “Almost There” and “Down in New Orleans” (which lost to “The Weary Kind,” from Crazy Heart).
- In 2004, Disney announced that Home on the Range would be their last hand-drawn animated film. After a bunch of huge failures, and hopefully because of John Lasseter when he took over the animation department after they merged with Pixar, they backtracked on that decision real fast. They returned to hand-drawn animation (beautifully, I might add) with this film. They seem to be on a path of (generally) one hand-drawn animated film alternating with a CG film every other year. (Though that seems to be incorrect, as 2012 has a CG film in Wreck-It Ralph and 2013 has a CG film in Frozen. So I guess the hand-drawn films will just be occasional. Which is a shame. This and Pooh are gorgeous.)
- The film was announced in 2006, and early concepts were shown in 2007. So if it really only took two years to animate, theoretically there could (and should. Come on, now, it’s one company. This is Disney. Stick with the hand-drawn stuff and let Pixar do computers) be more hand-drawn films coming out at a semi-rapid pace.
- This film is also a return to the musical for Disney, which had seemingly abandoned the format after Hercules.
- Apparently Tiana was named Maddy, which was shockingly racist, and thank god they were outraged out of that decision. And good thing they didn’t make her a maid like they were intending to do as well. They also were originally going to make the romance interracial, which would have been quite progressive of them, but people got pissed about that too. I’m actually excited for Disney’s first interracial romance, personally (though you know it’s gonna be white man/black woman. You know it will). Though shame about the other stuff they left in — you know — the fucking voodoo witch doctor and everything that is Mama Odie. It’s like when films put so much stuff in the print when they show the MPAA in order to let some stuff slip through and still achieve their desired rating.
- I love this piece of trivia: they hired Oprah as a “technical consultant” for the film. (For what, exactly? … “Oprah, what are black people like?”)
- A streetcar Tiana takes at the beginning has “A113” on it — a typical Pixar reference. I didn’t catch this while watching, hence why there’s no screenshot of it.
- They used Lady and the Tramp and Bambi as inspirations for the style of the film (for the city scenes and bayou scenes, respectively). Not bad choices as far as animation goes.
- This is Disney’s first 2-D film (IMDB specifies 2-D… I guess that means hand-drawn?) since Beauty and the Beast in which all of the voice actors do both the speaking and singing for their characters. (Which isn’t as bad as I originally thought it was. As long as the characters sing, I don’t give a fuck who does it.)
- The man who supervised the animation on the “Almost There” sequence also directed the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment in Fantasia 2000 (which is by far my favorite segment in that film).
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1. I love how they don’t begin with the storybook opening but show Eudora reading from the storybook. That’s great. It introduces reality into the situation. Plus, this being the first Disney movie about a black princess — you can’t exactly start that like a regular fairytale (they don’t have the nice history white people do). So I think it’s a brilliant way to open the film.
2. Recognize that carriage?
3. Well there’s an obvious reference:
4. Check out the carpet:
5. The obvious Streetcar Named Desire reference they put into the film. I just wanted to point it out. The film certainly did.
6. Pure Peter Pan references:
7. Negative coloring. Lots of it.
8. They do some nice visual gags with Facilier’s shadow. Also very Pan. How can you not assume that’s a reference?
9. You’ve seen this shot in so many Disney movies. You know you have. Just go through the articles, you’ll find a half-dozen. Lady and the Tramp, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Great Mouse Detective — they do it a lot.
10. Classic window shot — you’ve also seen this in a bunch of Disney movies.
11. Great image of how whites and blacks interact in Disney movies. It’s all there:
12. More shots of “Almost There.” Love this animation. Plus — I always say — they do something remotely Busby Berkeley (and this isn’t so much that as much as the images are ones he would have staged), I’ll put it in there.
13. You already stereotype blacks and people from New Orleans — but Asians too? Really?
14. Images of “Friends on the Other Side.” Also sort of Busby Berkeley.
15. Classic Disney shot of the prince’s arrrival.
16. I love this image. This is a perfect representation of white Disney characters and black Disney characters. And I bet they didn’t realize it.
17. The classic Disney waltz.
18. The waltz again. Very Beauty and the Beast.
19. This is something the recent Disney films have done that I like a lot — making moments funny because of the sound design. The sound of the dress rustling as Charlotte points at the fake Naveen actually made me laugh (also, let me say — the voice performance there — terrific). They do it in Tangled too. They put the right sounds over a moment and it actually makes it funny. Huge fan of that. So, props to the sound people at Disney. I appreciate you guys.
20. Disney princess dress. Have to put it in there.
21. Beautiful shot. Plus — princess — balcony — wishing unto the night sky — pick your reference.
22. I’m just a man who loves riverboats.
23. Obviously a Tinkerbell reference.
24. Characters reflected in the water.
25. Fantasia reference. Look at the flowers — it’s Fantasia.
26. Nice image — plus it’s very Tarzan.
27. Beauty and the Beast. Just look at it.
28. Look at the animation in this image. Appreciate it. This is why computer animation could never fully replace hand-drawn animation.
29. These floats look familiar?
30. I just wanted to point out that the fact that this takes place partially in a swamp lends itself to some obvious Rescuers connections. I figured the image of the floating leaf and Ray being dead (Ray being the Evinrude of this film, mixed with Luke the drunken hillbilly mouse) –it looks kind of like The Rescuers.
31. Very Hunchback of Notre Dame shot.
32. Gotta have a shot of the prince and princess being driven in a carriage. Classic Disney shot.
33. Oh, I love this image. This image is everything I love about Disney in one. Seriously, break this image down into every little part — I love all of it.
34. Oh, I love this guy. Have to end the article with this shot: