In a post Pixar world where Disney's classical form of animation has been completely trounced with the lamp studio bringing their own ethos of classic themes and modern technology, The Princess And The Frog seems instantly classic. It is a throwback to how things were done way back when, and the true essence of a Disney animation experience is here.
It has beautiful visuals, strong thematic connections to the setting, and well thought out characters voiced with a lot of care and joy. It feels bizarre to see such a film in 2010 - Disney has not been in this game for a good 5 years, and even then they seemed like they had lost it. This film is a triumphant return to form and a great reminder of the magic that the elasticity of 2D visuals combined with good music hold.
The setting of the film is the greatest winner - set in New Orleans and the swampy bayou of Louisiana, it introduces us to a whole host of interesting characters dripping with, well... character. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a young girl who wants to realize her father's dream of owning a restaurant, and is a hard-working straight-shooting girl. Best friends with Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), a rich girl obsessed with getting married to a prince, Tiana works two jobs to keep her dream alive.
Enter visiting prince Naveen (Bruno Campos). Despite the Indian-sounding name, he has a thin South American accent and is from a European sounding country called Maldonia. He has been sent by his parents to try and be a better guy who knows worldly skills. As soon as he runs into Dr. Facilier or the Shadowman (Keith David), it is ON.
Keith David delivers some fantastic voice work, with smarmy salesman-like glee layered on barely contained megalomaniacal evil. The character work is on top form too - the Shadowman's voodoo priest imagery is coupled with Tarot symbols and a shadow with a mind of its own. It is spooky, lovely to look at, and delivers the one of the best villains in Disney history.
His plan to murder Charlotte's father and rule the city leads him to turn Prince Naveen into a frog and make his assistant look like Naveen. Naveen, now be-frogged, convinces Tiana (thinking she is a princess) to kiss him, which backfires and turns her into a frog (frogess?) as well. The adventure, as they say, begins. They pick up a trumpet-loving alligator called Louis and a Cajun lightning bug called Ray on their way to Mama Odie, a swamp queen and voodoo priestess who can ultimately turn this thing around.
As the names suggest, the jazz influences in the music are varied and thick. Not only is that great music, it is great music for the characters to do things possible only in 2D animation. The film displays a great combination of digital backgrounds and fine 2D character work and is stunning to behold, especially when the music reaches its crescendos and the screen explodes.
I found myself cheering for the hard-working Tiana more than all those people who ask her to stop and smell the roses, and the triumph of this film is that it makes her virtues of hard and honest work be the anchor point of the film, and not Naveen's frivolity. The New Orleans setting gives more than enough character to the rest of the cast, and makes her stand out as the one true hero to cheer for. Deceptively feminist and genuinely steeped in the New Orleans music and spirituality, the film takes relish in the characters it has created.
There is real care and attention paid to every aspect of film making, and though it looks like they were doing it as math, the end result is nothing short of magical. This is a film which is simply a classic animation film for all ages in the grand Disney tradition, and every frame reeks of magic recreated and reborn. What better way of doing so by making a film actually about magic and colours and music?